Towering over the Senegalese capital of Dakar, the recently completed African Renaissance Monument casts a long shadow that stretches out across the surrounding suburb of Ouakom. Ahead of these three colossal bronze figures – a man, a woman and a child – is the Atlantic Ocean. Behind, an otherwise barren landscape is scattered with tell tale signs of development: here a cluster of cranes, there the foundations of a hotel rising up from the beach scrub. The skyline of Dakar is changing.
The brainchild of former Senegalese president Abodulaye Wade, the 49-metre high African Renaissance Monument (Le Monument de laRenaissance Africaine) was billed as an effort to challenge “centuries of ignorance, intolerance and racism” about Africa (Ba, 2009). To this end the monument represents a confluence of two distinct agendas. On the one hand, it embodies a moment of enormous optimism. As the name suggests, the statue signifies a rebirth of sorts; the right to a future just over the horizon signalled by the bronze child’s outstretched hand. In aiming to “match the Statue of Liberty or Paris’ Eiffel tower” (Ibid), however, the ARM also stakes out a claim in a global arena of national monumentalisation. This statue does not merely celebrate; it competes. The latter goal is complicated by a number of factors: a lack of transparency around the cost of the project, labour secured from a North Korean investment cartel, and an “un-Islamic”, even Stalinist aesthetic belie its scope and ambition. Collectively these concerns have engendered extensive debate in the global press. While Wade’s supporters argue that the statue brings life to Africa’s “common destiny” (Walker, 2010), celebrated Cameroonian curator Simon Njami has called the monument (in O’Toole, 2012) the “‘most outrageously stupid thing in the world”.
In terms of sheer schizophrenic impact, the ARM is perhaps an apt metaphor for another giant looming large in the Dakarois cultural imaginary. The Dakar Biennale or Dak’art, the oldest mega show of its kind on the African continent, is likewise the meeting place of two ideological commitments that can make for uneasy bedfellows. As the descendent of poet, politician and philosopher Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “First World Festival of Negro Arts”, the biennale is closely bound up in the rhetoric of a contemporized pan-Africanism. In its most recent incarnations the event has also strategically aspired to internationalism. To extend my metaphor, Dak’art turns its gaze to the West with its feet still anchored in African soil and as the African Renaissance Monument suggests, this can at times be an awkward, even inherently unstable, cultural and political location. In the text that follows I briefly chart some moments of friction that emerge as a consequence of these two ideological metanarratives overlapping in Dak’Art 2014, and evaluate to what extent the biennale has succeeded in reconciling a pan-African regionalism with its alignment to a global art world.
Rather than polarise these discourses and risk rendering them mutually exclusive, I hope to examine their points of intersection (and cross-pollination) in order to ask after Rasheed Araeen, “Can Africa assert its independence or develop its own direction and vision…without critically confronting the dominant structures of art around the world today?” (Araeen 2003: 100).
The theme of this year’s Dak’art, “Producing the Common”, makes for an interesting point of departure. In the show’s comprehensive accompanying catalogue, curators Elise Atangana, Abdelkader Damani and Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi establish their approach as “a conscious act of engaging what is collectively shared” that “take[s] into account what effects everyone, the Whole-World” (2014: 21). The phrase whole-world (Tout-Monde) is drawn from the writings of Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant to describe a field of social relations: a world configured as an archipelago of “islands, isthmuses, peninsulas, lands thrusting out, mixing and connecting…” (cited in Dash, 2011). It is a radically egalitarian sentiment that also leaves room for cultural specificity, sharing some significant ground with the work of another theorist invoked at length in Dak’art press materials, Michael Hardt. Hardt’s conception of the common, from which “Producing the Common” takes its cue, operates as a politically and socially charged territory:
[The common] is not the realm of sameness or indifference. It is the scene of encounter of social and political differences, at times characterized by agreement and at others antagonism, at times composing political bodies and at others decomposing them (2009).
As a guiding principal of the biennale, “Producing the Common” thus locates Dak’art 2014 not only at the tense intersection of politics and aesthetics, but also at a meeting point between the global black consciousness movement brought to bear by Glissant, and the Western political philosophy of thinkers like Hardt. In the space of Dak’art’s catalogue, such bodies of thought seemingly sit comfortably side by side.
Read in conjunction, however, the references to Hardt and Glissant that punctuate Dak’art’s press resources also couch the show in a resoundingly academic rhetoric. I cannot resist recalling the experience of sitting at a conference at the primary Dak’art venue of the Village de la Biennale, translation headset in hand, and listening to the women behind me parody the academic language of a catalogue essay. They threw words back and forth teasingly, taking turns to find a pleasing turn of phrase: “interdependence”, “arbitrating”, and “communitarian solidarity”.
In framing the exhibition in a particular lexicon – the language of the academic, the university, the elite – it is worth asking for whom the triumvirate of curators aim to produce this “common” The 62 odd artists on the main exhibition? The Senegalese public? An international art market? Glissant’s whole world? In an earlier essay, ‘Curating Africa, Curating the Contemporary’, Nzewi offers the model of the counter-public by way of explanation. His is a public called into being by a curatorial approach that establishes Dak’art unambiguously as a “counter-exhibition”. He advances that it is the “discourse [of Dak’art] which imagines and produces a pan-African ‘exhibitionary’ world” at odds with a dominant biennale typology (2012: 6-7).
“Counter-publics”, as the notion is expanded in the work of American social theorist Michael Warner, are a kind of bounded audience at odds with a prevailing social paradigm. It is worth noting Warner’s first criterion by which the parameters of a public are defined. “Publics,” he writes, “are a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” (2002: 49). They exist only as the end for which information is manufactured, or in the case of Dak’art, for whom exhibitions are organized. Such publics come into beingby virtue of being addressed (2002: 49-51). There is a degree, then, to which Dak’art forges its own countercultural arena of reception, generating a unique brand of pan-African internationalism that it simultaneously defines and delimits. Bearing that in mind, I am inclined to argue that there is, still, room to expend critical energy inventing (or perhaps reinventing) a register that reflects the needs of a contemporary African public. Following Nzewi, if Dak’art’s objective is to “imagine and produce” a pan-African exhibitionary model, particularly one that falls under the rubric of egalitarianism, surely inclusivity would be a worthy cause célèbre?
In a way I am doing an injustice to Dak’art 2014 by reading the exhibition through its theoretical framework. The active “producing” contained within “producing the common” was more evident in the main exhibition space of the Village de la Biennale. There, diaspora artists and African residents shared a level playing field unbounded by either theoretical partitions or artificial national borders. The tone was set by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda’s installation “As god wants and devil likes it” (O.R.G.A.S.M. Congress) (2011-2014) in the central courtyard, which modifies the European Union logo to include the African continent at its centre. Henda’s accompanying series of photographs, equal parts staged and manipulated documentary footage, featured prominent European leaders in Afros and cornrows. The resulting scenes were playful, but also represented a critique of Africa’s place in a global political arena. In re-signifying his subjects, Henda figures the possibility of re-scribing not just a bitter colonial past but also a political present and, indeed, a future. His codified politicians are both caricatures of Africanness and placeholders of a sort. And indeed, the vision of an Africa at the heart of a European emblem – an Africa that acts as a centrifugal force around which Europe must operate – is a potent symbol for the agenda that undercuts Dak’Art.
Although opening a day late (and who gets to say, really, that exhibitions should function according to a preordained schedule) Dak’art’s main venue was polished and sharply curated. Standing amongst the cosmopolitan crowd of collectors, curators and artists, I was reminded of the biennale’s many siblings the world over: perhaps Documenta, Manifesta or the Venice Biennale. Filipovic et al observe that the nomination ‘biennale’ frequently refers less to a specific periodicity – simply a bi-annual art event – and more to a model of exhibition practice that is “often grandiose in scale, sometimes dispersed across several locations in a city, [and] at times locally embedded through site-specific commissions while being global in ambition” (2010: 14). A biennale conceived as such is not a name only, but rather a series of aesthetic and critical standards capable of legitimating certain curatorial models, certain artists, and certain spaces.
Let me be clear. Conforming to the standards of an international biennale typology is not a fault, nor am I levelling a critique of that aspiration here. Calling for something as reductive as “local flavour” would be too much like demanding that selected work exhibit an “African essence”. Ironically, the biennale selection committee upheld that same principle of “essence” as a necessary precondition for entry until Dak’art’s 2004 iteration (Fillitz, 2011). It is through such ill-defined criteria, taken on board unequivocally, that the mechanisms of colonialism are institutionalized and sustained. And make no mistake, such mechanisms are still at work. As Araeen asks of the present generation of African artists, “If the social, economic and political conditions of Africa are still struggling against the global hegemony of the West, how can its art be free from this hegemony?” (2010: 100).
That said I would like to point out that Dak’art 2014’s detailed (if madcap) press page links to an article from Italy’s Domus magazine that opens with the line “For the first time in its history, Dak’art has begun to resemble a real biennale” (Pensa, 2014, my emphasis). Written by the director of Wikipedia’s collaborative WikiAfrica initiative, the review is exhaustive and full of flair and critical dexterity. The authoritative judgement implied in that first statement, however, is compounded by the addition of the line “From what they say [the curators] seem well aware that a biennial – even in Africa – can certainly not represent a continent” (Ibid, my emphasis). Needless to say the author is not alone in this sentiment (over the years, such conversations have plagued Dak’art) but she does explicitly foreground something important. Adhering to the standards of international biennales reifies those same standards and ascribes universality to them, allowing for a category like “real biennale” to operate with relative impunity. And who polices the boundaries of that definition, after all? Who decides what constitutes a sufficiently ‘real’ exhibition?
It is in Dak’Art’s fringe programme, known colloquially as the ‘Off’, that the “realness” of a biennale is further complicated. The ‘Off’ is not confined within an orderly exhibition model. Over the course of Dak’art’s month long run, more than 250 artists exhibit work in the city and surrounds. Artwork materialises in disused warehouses and car dealerships, along bridges and in courtyards. I would suggest that the ‘Off’ allows for Nzewi’s imagined counter-public to be more truly activated. The mode of address in the streets of Dakar is less clearly defined, the art-public relation more protean and nebulous. Thus, “the common” is untethered from the curatorial dialogues engineered between works and expanded to encompass a more complex social sphere of engagement. An artwork that appears in the street – that most public of public spaces, and ideally available to all – necessitates, even demands, a different tone and register of engagement.
This is not always without complication. In the case of “Precarious Imaging: Visibility and Media Surrounding African Queerness”, such engagements were far from polite. Curated by Koyo Kouoh and Ato Malinda at the Raw Material Company venue in suburban Dakar, the show sought to profile explorations of queer African experience. Among others, the show featured South African artist Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases portrait series of black lesbian women, and Kenyan artist Jim Chuchu’s Pagan, exploring contemporary African homophobia as a colonial hangover. Within a day of opening, religious fundamentalists had attacked the gallery space, broken windows and destroyed light fittings on its front facade. According to Senegalese newspaper Le Monde, Mamè Mactar Guèye, vice-president of Senegalese Islamic organization Jamra, spearheaded the attack. In a subsequent television interview, Guèye explained, “This event is supposed to promote our culture, but proves to be propaganda for unions which are against nature. Undeniably, this edition of Dak’Art has been detrimental to our morality and to our laws” (Forbes, 2014). The show closed early due to pressure from the Senegalese state.
To me, this incident represents a clash between the immediate conditions of locality and globality; between the enactment of a local political logic and an aspirational internationalist agenda. In a predominantly Islamic country where perceived acts of homosexuality remain illegal, an exhibition of queer visual culture imagines and produces publics outside the bounds of the immediate political present. That is not to say those publics do not already exist- the opening event was duly attended by a diverse group of local and international artists and activists, some of them very outspoken figures in the Dakar community. The press release by Secretary General of Dak’art Babacar Mbaye Diop’s, however, suggests that these counter-publics exist beyond the purview of Dak’art. He formally disassociated the biennale from the troubled (and troubling) ‘Off’ show, bluntly stating that Dak’art was “not responsible for collateral exhibitions” (Forbes, 2014). As a crucial insight into the biennale’s objectives, this event manifests the frictions that exist when local particularities encounter internationalism and both commitments are equally compromised.
Critic Clementine Deliss, describing the first iteration of Dak’Art in 1992, acknowledges what she deems a “misguided faith in the so-called international art circuit” that has “deterred the organizers from developing a pan-African approach” (1993: 136). Notably, her review is titled “When internationalism falls apart”. Deliss finds fault with both the biennale’s pan-Africanist and internationalist ambitions. For her, writing in the early 90’s, the event had a long way to go. As Fillitz (2011) has suggested, though, it is all too easy to force upon Dak’art the goal of dismantling the dominant aesthetic discourses of a Euro-American art world without taking into account its ambivalent cultural location or, indeed, the needs of exhibiting artists.
Much like the African Renaissance Monument, Dak’art is caught between looking outward and inland. Situated at the meeting point of distinct national and international cultural agendas, the event is necessarily conflicted at times. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the intersection of pan-Africanism and internationalism – that metaphorical crossroads – is also a vantage point. From that unique point of view, new worlds are visible.
- Taking George Shepperson at his word, I choose to differentiate between Pan-Africanism with a capital letter and the pan-African movement more broadly. The former designates a clearly recognizable movement specific to an historic moment, while the latter is more a cluster of ephemeral ideas predicated upon international kinship, and maintaining a predominantly cultural emphasis (1962). Having made that distinction, I use the term in this paper in accordance with Tim Murithi’s succinct working definition: pan-Africanism is “the perception by Africans in the diaspora and on the continent that they share common goals” (2007).
- Glissant’s name, like those of his immediate predecessor Aime Cesaire and contemporaries Franz Fanon and Senghor, is synonymous with progress in racial theory and the beginnings of postcolonial thought. Admittedly, Glissant’s lifework was devoted to characterizing a Caribbean negritude distinct from Pan-Africanism more broadly, but he remains an important figure in the global black consciousness movement.
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