The twelfth Biennial of contemporary African art from Senegal triumphantly exposes the fragility of the Biennial itself, of art of the past and that of the future.
It is all extremely precarious. In the southern-most part of the city of Dakar, the old law courts are located right on the cliff-edge overlooking the sea, a monumental and desolate structure the colour of sand and dust. Abandoned 20 years ago for the instability of its foundations, it quietly sits in its place, empty and frozen in time; an immense structure which serves as a background for the terminal stop of the city bus lines, protected from squatters by the nearby prison.
It is in this very location, patched up as well as possible with a couple of plaster-board walls, some paint, disinfectant and an exposed electrical system, that the twelfth edition of Dak’art, the Dakar biennial of contemporary African Art, took place. Other curators had already used this building in the past as an exhibition venue – including Bruno Corà and Hans Ulrich Obrist - but what this year’s curator Simon Njami did was unique and astounding: it was as though the biennial, after 20 years of history, was able to transform its ephemeral, precarious and fragile nature into charm. Crossing the large atrium and exploring the rooms, it was no longer the lifeless monitors or the crooked pictures which caught the eye, but rather the uneven intensity of everything there was to see. Time embraced every item and the title of the exhibition “La Cité dans le jour bleu” – the city in the blue daylight, taken from a quote by Léopold Sédar Senghor – blended the heady hope of the words “daylight” and “blue” with a burden of abandon and disenchantment.
R E V O L U T I O N - could be read on entering hall A, shown in capitals and spaced out like a great declaration to be read with authority. Bili Bidjocka’s work was a court-room painted with writing on the wall and earth on the floor. An artificial and constructed situation, which was at the same time disturbingly natural in this deteriorated building, once the home of justice. One walked with care in the room, trying carefully not to stumble on the stones, to not fall in this abandoned building site. It is this very sense of work in progress - or of work which at a certain point in time was in progress - that the violence of words and acts of revolution become inoffensive: distant cries transformed into something that has already been or which never managed to be.
The mandate of revolution is not so much to change the world, as to change time. Among the conferences organised for the biennial, Henriette Gunkel cited Giorgio Agamben, speaking of freedom, the future and aesthetic strategies which allow different temporalities and different ways of inhabiting space; in order to do so, she analysed the works Stories of Our Lives by Jim Churchi in 2014 and The Nest Collective, and indicated the opportunities for questioning a linear, continuous, unified idea of time, which saw change as something that moves forward. Manipulating time allows for the creation of a place of freedom from all the definitions of self (queer identity, authenticity, Africanness), and lends itself to creating confusion in order to clarify, something which the newspaper Chimurenga Chronicle has been doing for some time now in South Africa, a kind of back-dated newspaper, written to give us another chance and understand the sense of our past. In looking for methods of sabotage of the past, present and future, it was much more enjoyable to visit the Dakar Biennial and observe the series of princesses by Dalila Dalleas Bouzar, Aïda Muluneh’s windows, and the video Just imagine if the truth were a woman - and why not? by Euridice Getulio Kala. Much better the lifeless mausoleum-city by Youssef Limoud (winner of the Biennial’s first prize), and the sculpture Non-stop city by Maurice Pefura, in which wooden shapes fit together to create an abstract, suspended landscape; and it is always interesting to see people stop and look for themselves in the works which depict familiar places and moments, such as the images of the Ouakam quarter of Dakar by Sammy Balohi and the small canvases which made up Ndoye Douts’s encyclopaedia.
In the monumental and decadent majesty of the old law courts, the majority of the exhibited works seem in reality to walk on tip-toes and speak in whispers, just like the visitors who - not having seen the certificate of conformity – praised the beauty of the venue at the same time moving with prudence in a structure which has been condemned and abandoned for decades in a Sub-Saharan African nation. One felt fragile, immersed in a memento mori. And it is from here that we pass to the next theme of the Dakar Biennial: Tribute.
One of the extraordinary aspects of governmental events and biennials – their emission – is the great wealth with which tributes are paid: personal, retrospective, dedicated to a single artist, anniversaries, celebrations of births and deaths, crystallising places, dates and people, and constructing around these points a strategy of the glory that contributes to creating founding legends and myths. Beyond the inevitable references to the lamented first President of Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), an iconic supporter of the arts (obviously with significant and necessary criticism and objection), over the years the Dakar Biennial has paid tribute to and interwoven the splendour and the glorious lives and deaths of the great men and women of African culture. Glory to the pantheon which, among others, also celebrates the painter Amandou Sow (1951-2016), the great intellectual and council member for culture of the city of Dakar (which we should never forget is carelessly twinned with the city of Milan), Oumar Ndao (1958-2014), the artistic director of the doual’art art centre Dider Schaub (1952-2014), the artist Goddy Leye, creator of the Art Bakery in Cameroon and the Exit Tour (1965-2011), the photographer Leila Alaoui (1982-2016), and masters such as Amal Kenawy (1974-2012) and Moustapha Dimé (1952-1998).
Faced with the funereal realisation that many greats of history do not receive sufficient honours in their lifetimes, I have decided not to linger, and instead to immediately celebrate a selection of my favourites. “In that case, I’d advise you to hurry up” - answered, as always rather caustically, Jean-Loup Pivin, a great architect and founding father of Revue Noire. As an architect, Pivin has a notable production in Africa, not only of the construction and restoration of buildings, particularly in his homeland (the National Museum of Mali is his), but also in the creation of cultural strategies for the preservation and exploitation of heritage. But it is with Revue Noire that he has truly managed to influence a generation. This year at the Dakar Biennial, the artist Joël Andrianomearisoa dedicated a special project to this very publication which, between 1991 and 2001 has produced 34 issues which have the power to change the way in which a number of key figures in Africa, or tied to Africa, look at their continent of origin and themselves. It was perfectly explained by Joël Andrianomearisoa, who has made this magazine a home, a welcoming place, both public and private, in which the large and elegant pages blend music, conviviality and a personal world of intimate memories which link to stories from around the globe.
The power of Revue Noire is this very capacity to unite with a precise intellectual project in which a voice is given to form. The magazines are, effectively, the closest thing to schools of thought which – in their best forms – are able to create their own space and time and bring together and orientate contributors and readers. In Dakar, during the biennial and thanks to the African Art Book Fair initiative organised in the Aux 4 Vents bookshop, publications were the protagonists, creating encounters and nurturing conciousness, just as they have always done throughout history. But the question of the School of thought remains open. To my long list of great men and women, players in African culture, I wish to offer honour and celebration, but also a plea: create schools of thought! As is the case, each in their own way, for the magazines Afrikadaa, IAM, Kwani?, the maestros Rasheed Araeen with the utopian magazine Third Text and El Anatsui who has not created a magazine but who – with his incredible consistency and elegance, not only as an artist, but also as a man –, supports artistic production in Nigeria. It is not just a case of creating schools but of having a precise intellectual project in mind. Because if revolution is about changing time, perhaps it is a good idea to make sure that what one is doing does not end here. That is, if one really wants to change the world.