Dak’Art Biennial | A good kind of chaos
Dak’Art got off to a bit of a false start. The logistical shortcomings of the Senegalese Biennale were made clear on the opening night, hosted by President Macky Sall.
After having detailed — at great length — a series of measures implemented to support both the local and the national cultural industry, 75% of the Biennial’s budget is state funded, Sall went on to award the festival’s principal prizes. The only problem: just one of the four deservedly awarded artists, Arebenor Bassène, Sammy Baloji, Modupeola Fadugba and Youssef Limoud, was in attendance — the others had not been invited in time for the ceremony.
To borrow a Senegalese saying, “you have your clocks, we have time,” truer words were never spoken.
It is never particularly simple, but year after year, Dak’Art pulls through despite the odds. For Simon Njami, obtaining permission to exhibit at Dakar’s ancient courthouse was a condition sine qua non. It may not be the most suitable exhibition area, but the impressive building in Cap Manuel is a truly outstanding space. Njami is also responsible for securing the presence of a number of top representatives from various American museums, therefore creating an invaluable opportunity for the participating artists.
Among these, the undoubtable star of the show is Kader Attia. The artist is presenting his work Rhizomes infinis de la révolution, a deeply optimistic artwork representing the green shoots of a better future. It is a good work, a classic Kader Attia.
Themes of optimism, a refusal to submit to self-pity and a desire for renewed confidence have been chosen by Simon Njami for this year’s Biennale. Next to Attia’s hopeful buds, 66 artists — 25% of whom are Nigerian — are brought together for an exhibition titled “Re-enchantment”.
The various proposals are slightly scattered, but the vast exhibition space is full of positive surprises. In the entrance hall Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba invites the audience to play — or so it may seem. Her artwork is composed of a game of giant dice evoking the delicate subject of education in Africa, as well as the 2014 Chibok kidnapping, when 219 schoolgirls were abducted from the Government Secondary School by Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram.
Mboya’s American Dispositif and other films, an installation by Malawian artist Samson Kambalu, fills an entire room with films and photographs, an ensemble of short sketches and absurd video-poetic performances surrounded by portraits of US president Barack Obama.
On a different note, photographs by self-taught Moroccan artist Safaa Mazirah feature pictures of blurred bodies dissolving in movement, in images that are both violent and mysterious. Egyptian artist Youssef Limoud — recipient of the €15.000 prize Léopold Sédar Sengor — uses soil, wood and recycled materials for his work Maqam, the arab word for the Mausoleum of a saint. Whilst Victor Ehikhamenor garners the attention of both visitors and a social media audience with a psychedelic work entitled Prayer Room (2014).
In addition to the impressive main exhibition, performances and parties have been taking place in what was the city’s old train station, a gathering place for both journalists and expats. Interestingly enough whilst the biennial is well advertised in Dakar, the majority of the population is unaware of the event.
Elsewhere in Dakar, The French Institute of Senegal welcomes a tribute to Revue Noire by Joel Andrianomearisoa. With his Maison Sentimentale the Madagascan artist creates a timeline delineating the history of the publication, which he has collaborated with since he was 19. Published between 1991 and 2001, the journal was co-founded by Simon Njami and Jean-Loup Pivin. After Pascale Marthine Tayou’s homage in 2014, Joel Andrianomearisoa pays tribute to the magazine by choosing a series of iconic covers and adding his own personal touch. White sails made of soy represent the journal's remaining pages, yet to be written.
At the end of the opening week in Dakar there is a sense of hope and optimism; Simon Njami’s gamble has paid off. The curator’s determination is the result of his talent and pragmatism, “I do not want the Biennale to become popular, I want it to be accessible,” he says. “I cannot tell what people want, but I want to give them the chance to appreciate what we do”. The event, unique in Africa, may be still dealing with some teething problems, but it is certainly on the right track.