Dak’art on the threshold of maturity

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Dak’Art 2002, which celebrated the tenth anniversary of an event that has managed to make its mark on the international arts agenda, was much awaited by the art world. It bore the responsibility, at the start this new century, of bearing or announcing the markers of the black continent’s new artistic identity.

The programme of activities reflected the progress that has been made. Both in terms its official participants (the main show) and Dak’art 2002’s influence on the parallel events (the Fringe), this edition marked a step forward compared to preceding editions. The international exhibition presented a range of disciplines – painting, sculpture, design, photography, and diverse installations. Even the diversity of the Fringe, with 100 exhibitions compared to only 50 in 2002, which caused some observers to say that the Fringe was even more important than the main show, reflected the growing influence of the Dak’art on its tenth anniversary. A number of the Senegalese capital’s sites were transformed into exhibition spaces – hotel lobbies, restaurants, theatres, the Cathedral, corners of public service buildings, the university, schools, markets, streets, petrol pumps, galleries, arts villages, etc. The rest of the country was also highly involved thanks to exhibitions in Mbour, Rufisque, Bargny, Gorée, Thiès, and Ziguinchor.
Concerts were held on the esplanade of the Centre International d’Echanges where the majority of the official events were held in an effort to attract a wider audience. The only regret was that the event has yet to find a real echo amongst local populations despite these efforts. It was really a shame, for instance, to cite just the example of the Centre International d’Echanges, that the Biennale organisers didn’t think it crucial to provide a regular transport service to compensate for this site’s remoteness. Ultimately, therefore, the number of local visitors present scarcely increased from the very timid numbers recorded at previous editions.
Of course, not all the main and fringe events met with the same success. Whilst the main international exhibition provoked divided reactions, for example, ranging from an irritated smile to the sculptor Ousmane Sow’s joking remark, « a sugar lump on a plate is not art », the show Bruno Cora put on in the Law Courts’ « Salle des pas perdus » justified some people’s rejection of all that is art. « What a nerve! », « It’s just plain lazy », commented several visitors.
Curator Cora exhibited a Jannis Kounellis piece entitled Sans-titre, (« Untitled ») comprising of sacks of cereal. Cora’s mistake was to believe that Kounellis’ choices, which provoked such a popular scandal over 30 years ago, could still produce the same effect. If this didn’t demonstrate an easy option and a lack of rigour on Cora’s part, I don’t know what does considering that art requires a much greater renewal and creativity on both the part of the artist and the critic.
Even though it was a worthwhile initiative, not many people visited the Digital Arts Forum either, which was meant to provide the opportunity to draw artists and audiences’ attention to the new tools and mediums of contemporary creation. The main regret was that it was not sufficiently thought out and was more often than not limited to information on the Web and to presenting websites.
The Design Fair was a far cry from the explosion of creativity that could have quite legitimately been expected. The evidence seemed to suggest that most designers at Dak’art 2002 consider the chair, table, and lampshade the only possible forms. At times, even, they seemed to forget the functional aspect, a fundamental mark of design aesthetic.
Several things make it possible to see the Dak’art 2002 as an indicator for the tone of African artistic identity in the years to come. The « Rencontres et Echanges » posed the problematic of « contemporary creation and new identities », a debate that demonstrated that whilst some continue to wallow in sempiternal clichés in the order of « African art does not exist », others declared « I a man of the world, not an African », and « identity is a trap because there is no such thing », whilst others still stood by the principal that there is no art without identity, that there is no creativity without self-awareness.
The aim was not to conclude such a debate, of course, but to confront certitudes and above all to encourage a serious review of contemporary African production. That is why, considering the ideas expressed and the styles and content of the works shown, it seems to me possible to define three directions in which contemporary African creation can be seen to be going:
– one direction that shows a faithfulness to classical aesthetic canons, giving rise to canvas paintings, sculpture, and photography. The homage to Gora Mbengue admirably hung by Serigne Ndiaye is an eloquent example of current tastes in painting on glass.
– another that resolutely sides with Western postmodernism and its provocations and denial of art. But here, alongside the real creative audacities, hides laziness and fraud. Faissal Ben Kiran’s Sans titre (« Untitled »), an installation made out of bits of grill, and Félicité Codjo’s La longue marche (« The long walk ») presenting a character with its clothes in a no man’s land are not, for example, models of creativity to say the very least. The problem here is not so much that the artist takes the easy way out, however, but that the jury is complicit with such easy options. But a lot remains to be said and corrected on this front to stop selection methods being undermined by trying to find a consensus at all costs!
– and finally a third direction that is finding its own path by appropriating contemporary techniques and technology whilst also asserting the personality of Africa’s cultures. This is the case with this year’s winner by Ndary Lo, La longue marche du changement (« The long walk of change »).
These three directions provide just an indication, as it is possible that others already exist or that others still are emerging and will impose themselves over the years as the African artists, public and critics’ identity markers evolve.
The critics above all, because the « Rencontres et Echanges » debate proved that their place and role has yet to become apparent. Indeed, some participants still wondered about the existence of African art critics and the lack of texts on art in Africa. They thus proved that the rare existing discourses are not well broadcast and are often, when not actually completely, unheard of.
In any case, vast avenues are open for an always-palpitating arts world and its artists and critics in Africa and for their consolidated authority. If that is the only conclusion that we can draw at the end of Dak’art 2002, we have to applaud the fact that this Biennale enabled it to be drawn at all and that it placed its organisers and different participants on the threshold of maturity. May Dak’art 2004 correct the shortcomings noted here and strengthen the clear organisational achievements for a contemporary African art Biennale that is a hotbed of creative maturity and exchange!

Iba Ndiaye Diadji is art critic ([email protected])///Article N° : 5620


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