Dak’Art 2014 Makes Contemporary African Art Visible

The much anticipated 11th edition of Africa’s longest running contemporary art biennial, Dak’Art opened earlier this month on May 9th. The seminal platform established by the Senegalese government in 1989, aims to be an international locus for the promotion of contemporary pan-African art and platform of visibility for African and African diaspora art and artists.

Kiluanji Kia Henda, ‘O.R.G.A.S.M. (As god wants and devil likes it)’: photograph and object installation, 2011. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Kiluanji Kia Henda, ‘O.R.G.A.S.M. (As god wants and devil likes it)’: photograph and object installation, 2011. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

As in past years, this edition presented the international exhibition, the main spectacle of the biennial, in addition to tribute exhibitions featuring the works of Mbaye Diop, Mamadou Diakhaté and Moustapha Dimé as well the invited artist exhibition. A new addition was the presentation at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar. All these events were part of the Dak’Art  ‘IN’ sites which ran concurrently with 270 some ‘OFF’ site exhibitions, the later spanning between Dakar and Saint Louis.

The sheer scale of the month long biennial, with openings packed into the first week, makes it an ambitious project and invariably means that seeing everything is impossible and some things are less worth the effort of trekking across town.  With this in mind, the following is a review on some of the best that Dak’Art 2014 has to offer with insights from curators and artists during the opening week.

Producing The Common

Aimé Césaire once said that “at the end of difference there is the community of all”. I heard these words shared by Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne during the insightful Global Black Consciousness conference, a concurrent OFF site event. It was timely as it echoed with eloquence the thematic underpinning and guiding sentiment for artworks presented at the international exhibition curated by Elise Atangana, Abdelkader Damani, and Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi.

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Kader Attia, Indépendance Tchao : Installation, sculpture, mixed media, 2014.. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

During an interview with Nzewi, he reiterated that this edition drew from the legacy and sacrifice of the fathers of pan-Africanism. He went on to elucidate that their role to valorise and establish the humanity of the black person between the 1900s ~ 1940s was not only critical, it also makes it easier today for cultural actors and platforms such as Dak’Art, intent on bringing visibility for artists and cultural practitioners connected to Africa.

Thus the artistic net was cast geographically wide, and notably only included artists who have not been shown at previous iterations of Dak’Art’s international exhibition. Nzewi mentioned that he was delighted that artists from Somalia and Malawi for instance , were shown for the first time.

The exhibition presenting contemporary artworks by 61 artists was dynamic and offered ample food for thought, so much so that one viewing did not feel enough to take it all in. Works with strong visual immediacy as well as conceptual artworks that require deeper reflection gave this centre piece exhibition many layers for engagement.

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Untitled, Unsigned. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Condensed into the large site, a transformed industrial warehouse complex, compelling pieces engaged concerns facing the world at large but also spoke to specific realities including thematic engagement with issues such as consumerism, historicity, climate change, capitalism, inequality, feminism, LGBT rights and much more.

Through these multiple entry points the exhibition underscored art’s capacity and role to sensitise us towards reflection and dialogue on the role of the individual within society, and societies impact on the individual – The Common.

The video installations were particularly captivating featuring the work of numerous emerging artists such as Ezra Wube‘s stop-animation films that playfully digitise and expand upon Ethiopian oral folkloric tales.  ‘Wenzu’ [meaning river] explores the paradoxes of human existence, the struggle to survive, and the tensions between nature and culture through the paradigm of a donkey and its predator, a hyena. His modern media pairing with traditional vernacular, and commonly found indigenous grains and foods in Ethiopia is pure magic.

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Massinissa Selmani, Souvenir du vide (Remembrance of Emptiness): animations screened on paper cubes, 2014. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Massinissa Selmani’s delicate installation of animated illustrations on paper cubes titled ‘Souvenir du vide’ offers a poetic meditation on living in a world saturated by images and events. Works such as these sat comfortably alongside those of established artists such as Candice Breitz and Wangechi Mutu. The piece entitled ‘The End of eating Everything‘ by Mutu is an apocalyptic cautionary tale on rampant consumption and capitalism. A towering medusa like creature despite its size and engorged figure consumes small birds, the evidence of its gluttony amplified by the protrusions out of the grotesque creature’s body – flaying human arms.

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Wangechi Mutu, The End of eating Everything : animated video, 2013. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Walking between the works, the curatorial coherence between the subject matter engaged was made more palpable through the exhibition’s scenography, a marked difference from the 10th edition held in 2012 which I attended. Exhibition designer Khalifa Dieng, whom Nzewi referred to as the “unsung hero”, worked with the curatorial team who had also decided to work collectively, thereby blurring the boundaries of their individual appointments to make the exhibition in and of itself read like an artwork.

From details such as hanging works on black painted walls, to outdoor installations that undulated with the breeze as in Joël Andrianomerisoa’s piece, ‘Jardin Sentimental’, elements such as this brought synergy and layers to the works, yet also traced a visual path between spaces much like the Sufi music wafting in the courtyard that related to the artwork by Wael Shawky displayed in one of the adjacent studios.

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Joël Andrianomerisoa, Jardin Sentimental (Sentimental Garden): textile installation (cotton, plastic), 2013, Photo © Aida Muluneh.

The visually impacting installation ‘O.R.G.A.S.M. (As god wants and devil likes it)‘ by Kiluanji Kia Henda was a crowd favourite, with many visitors standing before it to take snapshots and selfies. On closer engagement the satirical piece photographically illustrates a fictional African NGO providing aid to the West. It is an incisive look at the industry, politics and propaganda behind the business of aid which echoes similar notions raised in Sam Hopkins work, ‘Logos of Non Profit Organisations working in Kenya’, a typological study of real and fictional NGO Logos.

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Kiluanji Kia Henda, ‘O.R.G.A.S.M. (As god wants and devil likes it)’: photograph and object installation, 2011. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Whilst artworks presented negotiate political subject matter, they did so without losing “the transcendent quality of aesthetics which is crucial to the art object” as Nzewi pointed out. The calibre and  mutuality between the political discourse raised and aesthetic language used by the artists throughout the exhibition championed the contemporaneity and vitality of pan-African artistic discourse.

Repositioning The Biennial

From the onset of their commission, the international exhibition’s curators goal was to reposition Dak’Art.  This ambition was reflected in the move to a new venue, no doubt affording a fresh canvas and new possibilities.

Given the the quality of work shown,  the mix of established and up-and-coming artists, one was bound to be inspired and discover something new. It would be remiss to not say that the scenography strengthened the engagement with individual works yet also thoughtfully allowed different artworks to coalesce between similar thematic lines of interrogation. This years presentation can be called more than a success, despite having to overcome hurdles.

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Justine Gaga, Indignation : installation, 2012. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Attracting more international financing over and above the Senegalese state’s investment and commitments has been an ongoing issue for the biennial and this year’s event made some positive headway.

For the first time since its inception, it had an airline sponsor: Royal Air Maroc transported more than 90% of the international guests according to Nzewi. Other institutional partners such art Art Twenty One (Lagos), The African Art Trust (London), Fondation JP Blachère (Bourguignon), Goethe Institut, Lagos,  made invaluable contributions in the form of financing, transporting and presenting numerous artworks. Others such as the American Embassy (Dakar) provided accommodations for US based artists. Sponsorships such as these, undeniably worked together to raise the event to an international level.

Given the number and diversity of curators, intellectuals, gallerists and art dealers in attendance from Africa, Europe, North America and the Middle East during the opening days, the general buzz and response was indeed positive. This suggests the growing international interest in pan-African arts and artists but can not belie the reality that their acceptance at global events remains an issue. With regard to local Dakarois’ interest in the biennial, the response on the street  from what I gathered seemed mixed. However it was wonderful to see high school students taking over the space with their docent, perhaps their teacher.

At a roundtable session to a packed room, internationally renown artist Julie Mehretu expressed her thanks and extreme excitement to participate; she was genuinely upbeat despite her artwork not arriving. Simone Leigh also shared similar sentiments, saying that she was impressed and overwhelmed with the ambition of the project as did so many other artists that I spoke with.

During a conversation with up and coming artist Milumbe Haimbe, who presented her graphic novel ‘Ananiya the Revolutionist’  – a story that challenges female and hero archetypes with her protagonist, a young black lesbian superhero who saves the world, she told me how all her grassroots efforts are perhaps now beginning to pay dividends. The Blachère Foundation Prize that she received during the opening ceremony indicates this.

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Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

If there were any detractors, they would be due to ongoing bureaucracy which is nothing new for the biennial. Structural issues like power failures  meant that you were unlucky if you visited the site when the studio dedicated to video work was without power. Artworks not arriving despite the curators making all attempts, was a disappointment shared by all.

Yet despite these issues, visitors were keen to take in as much art as possible as was evident during the packed opening night. The celebratory gathering was enlivened with performance, such as the one made by Ato Malinda.  When the Moroccan artist(s) were set to perform but had to acquiesce due to a scheduling conflict with the evening’s entertainment, the eager audience left to attend other openings.

A similar sentiment prevailed during the roundtable talks. So whilst audiences were keen to hear exchanges with the artists much like the panels where Julie Mehretu and Aida Muluneh spoke, the omission of artists in large part from the panels was invariably met by empty chairs in the auditorium.

Issues like these have hampered the biennial in the past; however with the strides made this year, there is optimism yet that the next biennial scheduled for 2016 will use this year as a template to keep moving forward – at least one hopes. And If the 12th edition is similar in ambition and commitment to this year’s international exhibition, it will not be a question of whether to attend, but more about what and how to take in as much as possible.

OTHER Dak’art IN & OFF Must See’s

Moustapha Dimé’s (1952 – 1998) solo show at Galerie National by Fondation Blachère, is one of the three tribute exhibitions presented within the IN program. The show is a beautifully installed homage showcasing the mastery of this Senegalese artist. Dimé sculptures crafted from wood and other organic found materials are rhythmic, stunning pieces. His work is powerful, majestic and reclaims the space of traditional African wooden sculpture to give it renewed relevance and presence far from the poor imitations that populate Dakar’s tourist curio shops . The sculptures with titles such as Femme calebasse (1992) Hermaphrodite (1997), Les amoureux (1991), Femme nue (1991) proffer reflections not only on the quotidian but on society, and community.

Given the number of fringe events coordinated under the OFF program, undoubtedly one finds both the best and the worst. The following are a few recommendations of exhibitions that make a strong case for a visit:

Precarious Imaging: Visibility Surrounding African Queerness at Raw Material Company curated by Koyo Kouoh and Ato Malinda with works by Kader Attia, Jim Chuchu, Andrew Esiebo, Amanda Kerdahi M. and  Zanele Muholi. A poignant and reflective exhibition given that homosexuality is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries.

Fondation Total presents a group show by Abidjan based Galerie Cécile Fakhoury with works shown by Aboudia, Nestor Da, François-Xavier Gbré, Vincent Michéa, Cheikh Ndiaye and Virginia Ryan. The installation by Ndiaye is worth the visit alone to this venue located near the airport in Ngor. The venue is shared with several separate exhibitions including photography by Fabrice Monteiro, Paul Sika as well as the homage and retrospective of the seminal Negritude journal, ‘Présence Africaine‘.

‘Le Pouvoir Du Textile’, a solo show by Malian textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté at Galerie Le Manège in Plateau.

Mame-Diarra Niang’s installation Éthére a meditation on absence and presence at Maison Aïssa Dione just north of Place du Souvenir. The work departs from a violent incident in Dakar during 2009, where a young man’s body was exhumed through mob justice for being labelled a homosexual.

The 2014 Dak’Art  biennial continues until June 8.

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All images courtesy of  © Aida Muluneh. All rights reserved

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