Dak’art 2002’s new identities

By Maureen Murphy

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At the Dak’art 2002 inauguration, chief representative Marie-José Crespin described the Biennale’s mission as being « to promote the creativity of an entire continent, freed of all the folklore that runs counter to its demands ». She called for a real policy in favour of the arts that would start by making art works exempt from taxation, by attributing the obligatory 1% in public constructions, and by creating a modern art museum to replace the old dream of re-opening the « dynamic museum » that was closed down in 1981… The artist, that lone figure « who reflection and observation have turned into a visionary », must maintain an independent spirit whilst remaining part of the group. She paid homage to the Minister of Culture, Ahmadou Tidiane Wone, but, referring to the major problems encountered, including the last-minute payment of subsidies and other obstacles of all kinds, specified that the Ministry’s role as overseer should not compromise the Biennale’s autonomy. Whereas the head of the European Union Delegation hoped for a better representation of the entire African continent in selections, the Minister called on the Biennale to « demonstrate its vitality by surviving without State backing », insisting that, in principal, he saw no reason why the Biennale shouldn’t stand on its own two feet « as long as it benefits all artists and not just a chosen few ». He then declared himself ready « to dream of an Arts Centre ». Evry Camara, one of the curators, answered that he would prefer a contemporary African art documentation centre to a museum. A somewhat seminar-like inauguration, in other words, in keeping with a rather atypical Biennale. O.B.

In 1966, Léopold Sédar Senghor set up the « Festival des Arts Nègres ». A descendant of this event, the Dakar Biennale celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Nearly forty years separate the two events, not to mention the long and as yet still incomplete process of decolonisation, the turmoil of the cold war, and the so-called post-colonial era that continues to drag on without actually breaking off with its past. Yet, one same question nonetheless remains central: is there such a thing as an African artistic specificity? In the independence era, the Negritude movement’s affirmations of identity advocated this specificity and promoted art as a vehicle for the necessary restoration of African pride. Nowadays the problematic seems dated, even if it does still provoke some very heated debates.
In answer to the theme « Contemporary African art and new identities », the Senegalese curator Ngone Falle invited three artists: Berry Bickle, a white Zimbabwean artist, Amahiguere Dolo, who is described as a Dogon artist, and Aimé Ntiakiyica, who was born in Burundi but who has been living in Belgium for 39 years. Do these three artists have anything in common and in what way are they African? Is it a question of skin-colour? The place they live? Where they were born? « We can no longer identify an African artist because there is no such thing anymore » (1), wrote the curator. Not everyone unanimously agreed with Ngone Fall’s position at the seminar organised on the question and yet… The days of essentialist affirmations of identity are over and should indeed be contested. There is no such thing as African essence or a cultural race. « Africa is not a country » (2), and according to Ery Camara, the Senegalese independent curator who lives in Mexico, « we must not limit ourselves to geographic or geopolitical borders. The only border is my imagination » (3).
In terms of the materials used, the devices adopted, and the themes explored, the artists have a freedom of choice beyond this being reduced to an identity. Moataz Nasr chooses to work with video. Remaining faithful to his choice to invite both the public who sees the work to participate as well as those around him when he is making a piece, he travelled backwards and forwards across Egypt to complete his project. Feet in the water, the visitor observes the reflection of a face in the water in the semi-darkness. Deformed, sometimes misshapen, the face stares at us then disappears beneath a foot, the foot of a passer-by. Another face leans forwards, observes us, transforms, and once again comes that foot that erases everything. Is it a metaphor for the overpopulation of Cairo? An evocation of international and individual power relations? The work poetically and subtly evokes the violence of human relations.
Fatma Chaarfi, who won first prize at the last biennale, this year chose to interact with the public on the opening day. Conceiving of the exhibition as a unique site of exchange, she wanted to suspend time during the official ceremony by offering small transparent medals containing a piece of cotton through which a red stain was visible. Intriguing and difficult to open, the medal echoed the ceremonial whilst at the same time diverting it by imposing this distraction. When you opened the medal and unwrapped the piece of cotton, a little concerned about what it might contain, the red stain turned out only to be a little ball of paper which, when unrolled, was heart-shaped. This now covered the work in itself. It was in fact a series of photographs of a little black tissue paper character, « a creature of universal character that is both archaic and modern » (4). Abstract or identifiable, the figure filled and saturated the space. The forms teemed, danced, provoking a sensation of anguish and fascination whilst at the same time contrasting with the violence of the blood red stains.
These two artists’ works were exhibited at the CICES, the official exhibition site. Ndary Lo was also present, who won first prize this year for « La longue marche du changement » (« The long walk of change »). Playing with the space allocated to him, the artist bored holes in a wall behind which he placed his « walking » characters, the faceless skinny metal figures who advance along a blue neon wire towards the doorway to hope, to change? At their feet was a jumbled heap of flip-flops, the corpses of a society that brings to mind the decapitated heads of another of his pieces seen at the Dapper Museum in Paris and at the Biennale’s fringe show in the Studio Eberis. Kneeling, doubled over by the weight of her belly, an acephalous woman carries a multitude of pink, grimacing, dirty dolls’ heads. It is impossible not to find the contrast between the beauty of the hope contained in the vision of this pregnant woman and the multitude of refuse that she carries in her womb disturbing. Despite the range of diverse materials that included video, photography and metal sculptures, and the diverse themes explored, all the artist appeared to have one thing in common, namely this ability to take inspiration from and materialise a vision of a given context. According to Ery Camara, artists, whatever their origin, are the ethnologists of their societies.
Safaa Erruas from Morocco works with her mother’s sewing workshop’s familiar fare, namely beads, threads, gauzes, and needles… On the canvas, these elements that lulled her childhood attain an expressiveness that is both precious and violent. The meticulousness with which each element is placed on the canvas becomes cruel when you notice that the ensemble takes the form of a scar, a wound. A fragile pain.
Kan Si also works on canvas. His apparently praying characters divide and multiply, sometimes white, sometimes black, whilst those exhibited in the cathedral crypt were coloured. It is indeed a real marathon trying to get to see all the works exhibited at the Biennale, whether in the official or the fringe shows. There were pieces tucked in every corner – on walls, off walls, in galleries and out in the streets. Dominique Zinkpè exhibited at the CICES, for example, but also organised a performance in the town, his « Wallaï! » taxi ball, a kind of satirical representation of different African types in a Senegalese taxi, a Mauritanian taxi, etc. Breaking out of the institutional framework of the traditional exhibition, the artist thereby successfully managed to reach, stun and amuse passer-bys who do not necessarily normally go to visit the official art spaces (cf. the exhibition pages on www.africultures.com).
Indeed, due to the lack of infrastructures and art-awareness campaigns, very few people in Dakar take much interest in art. Each Biennale provides the opportunity to reiterate calls for the government to invest in this domain in order to stop the event being an isolated moment in the town’s history. A whole range of demands are always formulated during the Dak’art, whether it be to develop art schools, set up a contemporary art museum, or to create a cultural magazine, but are they ever heard? Diadji Diop exhibited both at Aïssa Djonne’s Atiss gallery and in the « L’art c’est secondaire » (« Art is secondary ») exhibition in Paris. Whilst the title of the latter may well bring a smile to our lips in France, it takes on a whole new meaning in Africa. In Aïssa Djonne’s gallery, the artist exhibited a sculpture of a woman hanging by her arms. This was a play on the traditional criteria of a sculpture’s visibility, demonstrating a grace of pose and a beauty of rendering. The piece invited the public to walk around it, to look up and to break away from the contemplative passivity often adopted when apprehending art works. Further to the south near the jetty was the African design fair. Cheick Diallo (Mali) designed a whole cutlery set that played on fullness and voids, curves and points, thereby animating the utensils of a not so day-to-day life. The shape of the dish recalled that of an insect and demonstrated a first-class, refined design. Of note too was Kossi Assou’s series of low chairs. Taking inspiration from the shape of the calabash, the artist created a surprising system of small stacking chairs for eating on the floor.
With over a hundred fringe exhibitions, four official exhibition spaces, and seminars held by the event and the university, Dak’art is Africa’s foremost fine arts rendezvous. Even though some people would like to see non-African artists invited, it remains a prime meeting place for professionals, artists and art-lovers, and a precious forum for inter-African and international dialogue.

1. Extract from the catalogue.
2. Ngone Fall, extract from the catalogue.
3. See interview with Ery Camara in this issue.
4. Extract from Suisse du Sud, Fatma Charfi, undated.
///Article N° : 5617

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