Rethinking a key festival of African art

The Dakar biennale, Dak’art, has long been the meeting place for contemporary African art. It concluded its 13th edition on June 2.

Dak’art follows in the footsteps of the 1966 World Festival on Negro Arts in Dakar, initiated by Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal. Backed by the Senegalese state, the festival was inspired by the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris (1956) and Rome (1959).

Since Dak’art’s inception in 2000, ministry of culture committees have selected a new team of three mainly African curators for each edition, to act as the jury for an international call for work. They are flown in for a few days in February each year to make their selection, then return for the opening week of the biennale in May of that year, with the biennale committee taking care of the rest.

So, for all intents and purposes — and apart from the selection of the work — everything was in the hands of the biennale committee. The challenges of being a curator, or an artist for that matter, at the Dakar biennale is no secret.

Enter Simon Njami, artistic director of Dak’art in 2016 and again in 2018. There are signs he will continue in 2020 to complete a triptych of biennales in Dakar.

Njami is no ordinary curator. Since 2016, he has convinced the Senegalese authorities to shift the biennale to a new venue: the majestic and abandoned Ancien Palais du Justice (former court). That was a major coup in itself.

The Paris-based curator, of Cameroonian parents, has curated other notable exhibitions on contemporary African art, namely The Divine Comedy (2014) and Africa Remix (2008), which toured internationally. He was artistic director of the Bamako Encounters biennale of African photography (2001-2007) and is author of biographies on the “poet president” Senghor and the African-American writer, intellectual and civil rights activist James Baldwin.

[No ordinary curator: Simon Njami took some unconventional decisions for his curation of the 13th Dakar biennale. (Photo: Nicolo Lo Calzo)]

This year’s biennale, titled The Red Hour, was inspired by the work of Aimé Césaire, the Martiniquais poet-politician associated with the négritude movement, as was Senghor.

Could you describe the process of selection for this year’s Dak’art biennale?

When I work on something I like to make it entirely mine. I found this call for submissions a bit weird. I guess they were doing that because they did not have a curator per se but as a curator I could not build an exhibition on things I did not know. So I decided to maintain the call but to also invite artists directly. I like the spontaneity of an application, whether it is good or not. There are a lot of kids coming from there that I haven’t met or are just starting, so it’s always an interesting thing to go through there.

With half of the artists already secured, I would enhance the number according to the harvest. Just to create a balance, to make sure that my show is what I want it to be. If it [the exhibition] has grown the way it has grown, as I’m told, it is because a lot of very good artists would never apply, for example Pascale Marthine Tayou, Kara Walker, Mary Sibande, et cetera, et cetera, to name a few. I’m not sure they would trust a lot of people to bring them [their artworks] to Dakar safely so this is one of my advantages. I have a phone book and experience and I can call El Anatsui and say ‘El, I’m in Dakar, I’m doing it’ [and he says] ‘Okay, okay’.” I invited about 50% of the artists for this biennale.

[Local flavour: Njami convinced celebrated South African artist Mary Sibande to exhibit her work at Dak’art]

How did the theme The Red Hour affect the selection of the artistic work? For example, if there was a work of merit that did not fall into this theme, was it selected for its artistic appreciation?

As you know, we curators are like gods. We can apply the theme that we’ve decided in many, many ways. If I’d seen a stunning work I would have found a justification for it. The theme is always a concept, something broad. I’m dealing with an exhibition, not with a solo artist. It’s the whole of it. It’s not that each and every artist needs to be on the theme. When the visitor exits the show [they may say] “Okay, I understand”. I have seen some great stuff this year, by the way.

There has been a big improvement in the biennale since 2016 with the main exhibition being held at the Ancien Palais du Justice. Was this your idea? What was the thinking behind this?

Well, of course, it was my idea. The thinking behind it was, if you want to do a biennale of a certain scale, you cannot crush 60 or 70 artists in the museum of l’Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (l’Ifan) building. You need something contemporary; you need an architecture, a building that is strong.

The first fight was to reopen the Palais; only then we can talk about curating. Previously at l’Ifan people were just putting things on the wall. It was just a small exhibition, where things were crammed. l’Ifan is now for five guest curators, who each invite five artists, and they have more space than the whole biennale had before. That was the first step. I wanted to send a message to people. “We are entering a new era. We are moving forward.” So, the venue was critical for me.

Can you share the improvements that were made from 2016 in terms of processes of selection, installation, logistics, maintenance, et cetera?

I did the 2016 biennale in four months. The selection was completed in January and the show opened in May. I had to do the catalogue, shipment, refurbishment. I mean, the Ancien Palais was a disaster. It had not been opened for 30 years. We had to bring water, we had to bring electricity. It was massive work. I had to do two catalogues, et cetera, et cetera, all in four months. I had to do something that would stand. I knew it was just one step for the transformation of the biennale, because I knew that I did not have enough time to do everything I had in mind.

Of course, I knew when I accepted to do the first that I would do a second one. While working on the first, I was dictating the conditions for the second one. For instance, for 2018, the selection was completed in August, six months before 2016, which allowed me to think of the space in different terms. It gave me more time to think how things could be displayed, the shipment of the works, to work on the catalogue, to have the images, et cetera. The first time the space was hosting me. This time we danced together.”

What are the challenges of the Dakar biennale and what needs to be done to improve the situation?

The challenges are tremendous. First of all, the authorities, the management, they started to understand what a biennale was in 2016. They just thought it was something of a routine, according to their rules. I had to change a few things.

When I curate in Africa I don’t just curate. I go to see the minister [of culture], I go to see the president [of the country], when needed. I shout, I look at the budget and I totally reconfigure it. When I do a show in Rome, I’m doing it by telephone. Every now and then I go to Rome for one day. Everything is ready. So it’s another process in Senegal.

We’re in a country where, contrary to what people might think, not much happens. The biennale happens every two years. There is no contemporary art museum, there are barely galleries, there are no contemporary art activities in between the two biennales, which means that the competencies are not there. People I trained in 2016 forgot what we did, so I had to refresh their memories because they had no opportunities to work.

The rules, that’s another thing. The biennale is organised by the minister of culture, who thinks, wrongly of course, that it should be run by the employees of the minister, no matter their skills, which creates some friction sometimes between them and me. I think to move forward and to have a curator who could only be a curator, the rules must change. When you need to sign something, some customs for work to arrive, you don’t have the time to have four signatures, you don’t have the time for it to go to all sorts of circuits because then the work is stuck. So basically to comprehend all of the main challenges is that the management is not the right management.

Many of the artists represented in the biennale live outside of Africa. What would the biennale be if it only included artists who lived on the continent?

These artists living outside need the biennale and the biennale might need them. But there is a decision that I have to make. I decided to offer visas to a bunch of people and to make them African. The North Americans, South Americans and those from the Caribbean, I included them just as if they were Africans. It is for me a political statement. You have Cubans, Americans and artists from Martinique. To say that Africa is larger than what people want to tell us. For them it was a great moment. They realise things that they did not realise where they were living.

I need this for the cross-fertilisation to work. I need people to think that there are other centres than those that we were told [about]. That the periphery is not necessarily what they thought or what they were told it is. Artists come here and they discover that their family is much larger.

So for me it is not necessarily to enrich the biennale, for me I need it. I cannot conceive the biennale as a small tiny little Africa. The biennale is something political and I want people from Cuba, Brazil, America to know that there is a place in Africa where they can come anytime; that is, every two years.

I need the Africans to see that people are happy to come here, that they do not need to go there. That they have something they can be proud of. People living abroad are by definition “strangers”. One of the rules of the biennale was that you needed to have an African passport to participate. That rule I changed.

What do you mean by this statement in your catalogue text: “Africa still has a choice: either it enters the red hour fully, or it will end up in the rubble of history”?

Look at what happened in your country [South Africa]. We were free; because your country is my country. We put people there, we had hopes. Look at the catastrophe it became, corruption, et cetera, et cetera. As if we did not suffer enough. What are the improvements? Nothing changed. If not for the worse. Look at what’s happening in DRC [the Democratic Republic of Congo], Libya, et cetera, et cetera.

We have been free, globally, for about 60 years now. Angola, South Africa, Mozambique, less. What have we done? We are in a country [Senegal] that is pretending to be at the forefront of contemporary art but there is no museum. The schools are poor and the teachers are poor. If we decide to do it, to make our own destiny, we need a project for that or we’re finished. We won’t stand the global storm. This is what it meant. Of course, I’m always using art as a metaphor but it’s a metaphor for everything, and beyond Africa. It’s a metaphor for the world.

For the 2018 biennale your catalogue text refers to Carl Jung, Van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Bloch, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugène Delacroix, Gilles Deleuze, et cetera. Is this a result of your European university education?

I am a guy from Sorbonne [university]. One of my main things is that everything belongs to me and that whatever I need I take. This is what I want Africa to understand. Things are there to be used. I think if you need to prove something, you have a problem. I used Dante, I was not there. So, people say Divine Comedy is universal but where are we? No Indian, no Chinese, no Japanese, no African.

So I say I am going to correct this. Three Arabs were there, two of whom were turned into Europeans. So I decided to do Dante a favour and to really make his book universal. These are things contemporary art is dealing with. We are dealing with ourselves and the world around us.

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