Dak'art 2018 - The Biennial of Dakar in the Red Hour

May 14, 2018

Until 2 June, the 13th edition of the Biennial of Dakar - Dak’art - is being held in Senegal. Over one month, dozens of artists and curators are getting the African capital to swing to the rhythm of contemporary art. An international-scale event reflecting a growing interest in contemporary art on the African continent.

Two years ago, the Biennial of Dakar paid homage to Léopold Sédar Senghor by choosing the theme The City in the Blue Day. In 2018, a new look at "négritude" is on the program, with a change in color to boot...

This year, Dak’art is paying homage to Aimé Césaire and shifting to “the Red Hour”. The formula is poetic and socially aware: it is an invitation to evasion and anger. But could things be otherwise with Césaire? “The red hour” is an expression drawn from the play Et les chiens se taisaient, written in 1946. A text that broaches themes dear to the African author, such as emancipation, freedom and responsibility.

A key event in African cultural life, Dak’art 2018 is placed under the dual banner of cultural and political affirmation. The event is being organized under the high patronage of the president of the Republic of Senegal, Macky Sall. In addition, the Biennale is being supported, at a rate of 75 %, by the country’s Ministry of Culture, headed up by Abdou Latif Coulibaly.

A rate of State commitment that may well leave some in Europe or America wistful. Senegalese authorities have understood the importance of the cultural field in handling the issue of identity. Not so long ago, the Minister of Culture commented that the 2018 edition of Dak’art would be placed “under the double banner of consolidating achievements and innovation”. Its promotion of African creativity on an international scale thus allows the Biennial of Dakar to be a showcase, every two years, of the African continent’s dynamism.

This 13th edition presents a selection of the continent’s top artists, gathered by the event’s artistic director, Cameroonian writer and art critic Simon Njami. The latter is assisted by a steering committee composed of sixteen representatives of Dakar’s political and cultural life, chaired by Baïdy Agne (chairman of the Conseil National du Patronat or national council of employers).

The committee has three main missions: defining the theme of the Biennial; assisting the general secretary in artistic programing; and finally validating the event’s compliance with its aims, in conjunction with the technical committee.

Among the committee’s public members, we can note the presence of Lamine Sarr (director of the Minister of Culture’s cabinet), Khalifa Ababacar Dia (director of the Minister of Tourism’s cabinet), Moussa Ndiaye (representing the Mayor of Dakar) and Marième Bâ Diop (the Biennial’s general secretary). Meanwhile, its artistic figures include artists Adama Boye and El Hadj Sy, gallerist Aissa Dionne, curator El Hadj Malick Ndiaye (curator at the Musée Théodore Monod) and art critic Massamba Mbaye.

At the Crossroads of African Art

A total of 75 artists from 33 countries have been selected to take part in this edition, with the program dominated by African artists. Out of the 33 countries represented, 24 belong to the continent: Angola, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia or Zimbabwe. Out of the 75 artists selected, thirteen come from ten countries outside Africa: Brazil, Belgium, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, France, Iran, Jamaica, Haiti, Martinique and the United States. Finally, Senegal is well-placed this year, with five artists representing the country: Amadou Kane Sy, Alioune Badara Sarr, Cheikh Ndiaye, Ibrahima Kébé and Félicité Codjo Ségnan.

Over a period of one month, numerous events are scheduled (exhibitions, concerts, meetings, conversations...). The events will be held in seven key spots in Dakar’s cultural life, namely the former Palace of Justice, the Musée des Civilisations Noires, the Musée Théodore Monod d’Art Africain, the Musée Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Place du Souvenir Africain, the Galerie Nationale d’Art and the Musée des Anciens Combattants. Places where homage will be duly paid to the poetic spirit of Aimé Césaire, hovering over the event.

According to the general secretary Marième Bâ Diop, the “red hour” is synonymous with “the transformative energy” of humans and the arts. According to artistic director Simon Njami, it is more a matter of pointing out “the crossroads between the past and the future which we name the present”. Generally speaking, we can see this color as symbolic of action as engendered at the heart of the process of artistic creation. But let’s bear in mind Aimé Césaire’s words in their original context: “I am the red hour, the unwound red hour”.

Stepping back into a wider context, this new edition of Dak’art shows the African continent’s growing interest in contemporary art. In recent years, we’ve lost count of the number of structures that have been set up in various African countries, whether we’re talking about museums, cultural centres or artistic hubs. In this way, we can cite the success of the 1:54 fair, created in 2013, the opening of the Fondation Zinsou in Benin in 2013, the inauguration of the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town in 2017, under the aegis of collector Jochen Zeitz, the opening of the Fondation Donwahi in Abidjan in 2008, the upcoming creation of a Sculpture Biennial in Ouagadougou... Or else the soon-to-be-launched Musée des Civilisations Noires in Dakar, scheduled to open its doors 2018. Without mentioning initiatives surrounding key artists.

In this way, the biennial kicked off with the inauguration, on 5 May, of the Ousmane Sow House-Museum. Works by the artist are now shown in this edifice designed by the sculptor himself, who considered his residence as a creation in its own right. A symbolic initiative among others, proving the new upsurge of the contemporary African scene.

Five Guest Curators

This year, Dak’art’s organizers have invited five curators to share their viewpoints with the public. The chosen angle is to present a vision of the contemporary world, as seen from Dakar - a theme that includes discovery of today’s creation on an international scale. By inviting each curator to organise a group show, the organizers are opening the Biennial up to a myriad of possibilities, breaking with the classic vision of the perpetual North-South divide.

Curator Cosmin Costinas, from Asia, is also executive director of Para Site in Hong Kong, one of the most avant-garde cultural hubs in the Chinese city. This year, he is presenting the exhibition The Dakar Confucius, co-conceived with Sumesh Sharma. “This exhibition,” declares Cosmin Costinas “intends to examine the connections between China, India and Africa in the era of colonial power, and see how the vestiges of non-aligned solidarity are caught in the grip of the ambivalence of such developments.” Referring to Aimé Césaire’s refusal, in 2005, of the utmost French State honor of being buried in the Panthéon, Cosmin Costinas explores the power contained in the right to say “no”. Let’s bear in mind that Africa, China and India are regions still marked by the weight of colonialism. Here, emancipation was achieved thanks to the emergence of figures supporting new values. Ten artists show works inspired by this subject: Belkis Ayón, Uchay Joel Chima, Iswanto Hartono, Nicholás Guillén Landrián, Sanggar Seka Dendang, Jihan El Tahri, Hamedine Kane, Saleh Lo, Ayesha Hameed and Tejswini Sonawane.

Meanwhile, curator Bonaventure Ndikung (Cameroon), director of the Berlin art centre SAVVY, is presenting The Sonic Cosmologies of Halim El-Dabh. The exhibition is designed as a retrospective around the work of the famous Egyptian composer. A musician and convinced pan-Africanist, Halim El-Dabh was one of the pioneers of electronic music in the first half of the 20th century, along with John Cage, Johanna Beyer and Lev Termen. The exhibition presents work by Halim El-Dabh, Younes Baba Ali, Leo Asemota, Satch Hoyt, Tegene Kunbi, Memory Biwa, Robert Machiri, Ibrahim Mahama, Nyakallo Maleke, Elsa Mbala, Yara Mekawei, Emeka Ogboh, Sunette Viljoen, Ima-Abasi Okon and Junior Boakye-Yiadom.

And then there’s ZAM-ZAM, presented by curator Marisol Rodriguez (Mexico): an exhibition backed up with collaborative encounters in a series of screenings and conferences, held at the Institut Français de Dakar. The general theme is understanding the history of Senegal and the weight of colonialism on contemporary society. Guest artists include Moisés Martínez, Vania Sosa, Omar Said, Fabián Arriola, Pedro Castro, Alex Castilla, Miguel Pérez, Caryana Castillo, Lizzet Ortiz, Sara Martínez, Ingrith León and Joan Duran.

Then, the Invisible show, proposed by Moroccan curator Alya Sebti (Ifa Gallery, Berlin) raises the issue of the cohabitation of different religions in Senegal where Christian, Muslim, Sufi and animist communities live side by side... How does this multi-faith society face the daily exigencies of capitalist lifestyles? The exhibition presents works by Hicham Berrada, Younes Baba Ali, Anna Raimondo, Leila Sadel, Zainab Andalibe, Mohammed Laouli, Abdessamad El Montassir, Anike Joyce Sadiq and Kenza Benamour.

And finally, Sweden’s Marianne Hultman (Oslo Kunstforening) is proposing L’heure bleue (The Blue Hour), bouncing off the fair’s general theme to offer a poetic description of the time of day between twilight and nightfall. The melancholic atmosphere opens up, like a door, towards the transformation from one level of consciousness to another. The curator has invited artists Martin Gustavsson, Gavin Jantjes, Toril Johannessen, Tori Wrånes, Ayodeji Adewale Oluwatunmise et Sanusi Taofik Ayomide to take part in this event.

The International Exhibition

Along with the exhibitions staged by the five guest curators, the Biennale’s other big event is, naturally, the International Exhibition. Held in the former Palace of Justice, the event gathers the 75 artists selected by the Coimmittee. Its title, A New Humanity, refers to a text authored by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon from Martinique. In this text, this authority on Third World issues presents the decolonized person as a “new man”. At the International Exhibition, the presence of many artists from all over the continent offers another chance to appreciate the growing effervescence surrounding contemporary art.

Presenting nine creators, Morocco is one of the nations that enjoys prime visibility at the event. The 2018 selection allows the public to get acquainted with the memorial art of Mounir Fatmi, luminescent paintings by Yassine Balbzioui, Mohssin Harraki’s multimedia meditations on current social and political issues, or else Yasmina Alaoui’s visual universe at the junction of all extremes.

South Africa is also well represented by eight artists: an opportunity to discover the outrageous pop universe of Frances Goodman, Amita Makan’s delicate embroideries or Moshekwa Langa’s reflections on the evolution of identities and societies in contemporary Africa.

Meanwhile, Egypt is presenting six artists: Ibrahim Ahmed, delivering aesthetic ponderings on the issue of national identity, Rana Ashraf, showing emotionally-charged works...

Ethiopia can also boast of a remarkable selection with five artists. We particularly like Kara Walker’s silhouette cave art, Loulou Cherinet’s short films, and Ermias Kifleyesus’ fragmented colour tints.

From Senegal, finally, it’s worth looking out for Ibrahima Kébé’s naïve art, Cheikh Ndiaye’s singular perspective, or creations by Alioune Badara Sarr, Félicité Codjo and Amadou Kane Sy. And don’t forget the Senegal Pavilion, open for visits in parallel to the International Exhibition – a pavilion that helps to inscribe national artistic creativity into the heart of the event. Works here are presented by curator Viyé Diba, an artist and winner of the Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor.

In order to distinguish the artists’ works, four awards will be handed out throughout the Biennial’s duration. The just-mentioned Grand Prix, awarded by the president of the Republic and considered a major distinction in the country’s visual arts, offers an endowment of 10 million CFA francs (around 15,000 euros). The following prizes will also be awarded: the Prix de l’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (10 million CFA francs), the Prix du Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication (5 million CFA francs) and the Prix de l’Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (5 million CFA francs).

Two African Nations in the Spotlight

In 2018, the Dakar Biennial’s organizers have decided to honor two guest countries: Tunisia and Rwanda. A decision that is both timely and coherent, given the situations in which the two nations find themselves.

The Tunisian delegation is presenting an exhibition titled Keeping the Road. Fifteen male and female artists are taking part in the event, whose very title resounds like a demand. How to stay on the track of freedom of creation and expression in a country where democracy is in the midst of mutation, and where much is yet to be accomplished?

This is a theme that applies to a number of other African countries aside from Tunisia or Rwanda. Art is a way to gain consciousness, a civic act, and the exhibition presents socially-aware, lucidly critical or militant works.

The show at the Dakar Biennial is very important, comments the exhibition’s Rachida Triki. The Biennial is a space for encounters and visibility. But it also shows how artists can contribute to this movement towards autonomy and maturity.

Keeping the Road thus sets out to be an initiative in favor of mutation, enabling artists to become social, economic and political players. Note that the invitation of Tunisia coincides with the opening of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Tunis on 7 June.

Off Events and Multiculturalism

As is the case at every edition, the Biennial is filled out by a significant offer of off events.

Thanks to its Urbi programme, driven by a genuine desire to reach out to the Senegalese population, art is invading the city through a number of cultural initiatives. The chosen theme is multiculturalism, seen through the concept of the city. Paris, Dakar, Tokyo and New York have become true free zones, "xenopoleis".

However, these capitals also remain reference sites in terms of national identity. The city is therefore a symbol that is neutral while also standing for something. We are reminded of the principle of the city-discourse dear to Roland Barthes: according to the French philosopher, the city is a language whose polysemous meaning reveals its conceptual evolution.

How does this language develop over the centuries? What are the codes of the modern city? Between preconceived visions and cultural realities, the theme brings out a few hidden aspects of the city of Dakar, far beyond stereotypes. With the idea of appropriating this language-city, the organizers have overseen the setting up of baraks all over Dakar - stands allowing the public to exhibit what it considers as art.

Alongside the Urbi programme, let’s note that this year, Dak’art is also paying homage to two Senegalese artists who recently passed away: Ndary Lo and Ousmane Sow. A Ndary Lo retrospective is being presented by curator Sylvain Sankalé while the Ousmane Sow House-Museum will receive its first visitors.

And those who haven’t yet had their fill can find more still at hundreds of exhibitions and events that are also being organized throughout Senegal to mark the Biennial. All opportunities for the country’s citizens to demonstrate their legendary tradition of hospitality, Senegalese téranga...

Encounters and Exchanges

As a supplement to the artistic program, the Biennial of Dakar is organizing numerous roundtables and presentations this year, taking the form of debates between professionals. The general theme is contemporary African art and transformations in intellectual and normative frameworks.

Conversations will namely deal with literary and artistic copyright attached to works and their exploitation. In addition, the acts of the Encounters and Exchanges will be published in the magazine Afrik’arts, soon to be launched.

Dak’art, Biennial of Dakar, until 2 June. International exhibition in the former Palace of Justice.
Partner venues: Musée des Civilisations Noires, Musée Théodore Monod d’Art Africain, Musée Léopold Sédar Senghor, Place du Souvenir Africain, Galerie Nationale d’Art, Musée des Anciens Combattants. Dakar, Senegal.

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Featured image: Biennale du Dakar 2013, artwork by Teemu Maki, via omenkaonline.com.