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Universalism at stake? Dialogues with Senghor. International workshop and exhibition in Senegal.By Maria Thereza Alves | Feb 2004
"O Tapaaxamo" means to make a detour because it would be detrimental to one's survival to share food at this time. It also means the month of September in the language of the Serere, a matriarchal people of the island of Fadiouth, in the south of Senegal. It is the most desperate month for a farmer. August, "O Ndangan", is not much better: it means the granary is empty and there is nothing to eat. We, a group of artists, arrived in December ("Baneex": after the crops have been harvested and a time "to be proud") for the residency "Universalism at stake? Dialogues with Senghor."
Leopold Sédar Senghor was the first democratically elected President of Senegal and oversaw the transition of Senegal from a French colony to independence. Senghor was also a poet and a member of the French Academy of Letters. In the thirties, Senghor combated the mind-numbing economic, political, and social legacy of colonization in Africa, proposing that all participants of a universal dialogue have equal contributions to offer.
Joal-Fadiouth, two islands connected by a bridge, is Senghor’s birthplace and the location of our residency. Muslims, Christians, and people of native religions have co-existed peacefully in this area for generations. Local people were self-sufficient farmers, but this has changed in the last decade as droughts have become more common; now many have turned to fishing as their main livelihood. Senegal's main exports are peanuts and fish.
Is a dialogue between a group of international artists and a community possible in one of the most economically disadvantaged countries in the world? A few years ago, I received an email call to boycott the Johannesburg Biennial that was perceived as being exclusive (and perhaps a luxury) of the needs of South African society. At the time, I felt that a boycott of the Sao Paulo Biennial would have been more appropriate. Indeed, it is a post-colonial society, which has decided to make the Biennial in Johannesburg, whereas Brazil (the country with the second largest black population in the world), is a hyper-colonial society of economically and politically powerful European descendants that excludes the largely non-white and non-European inhabitants from the cultural, economic, political, and societal discourse.
It was through discussions with the artists participating in the project – particularly Muhsana Ali, Ludovic Linard, Myriam Mihindou, Anri Sala, and Kan-Si – and thanks to day-to-day living with the supporting staff such as Adj Amy Sene and Ibrahim Ba that the initial stages of a dialogue began to emerge – tentatively, with all our cultural specificities and baggage to negotiate: colonialism, racism, exoticism, anthropology, ethnology, appropriation, and the great economic divide. Anri Sala, from Albania, felt that a dialogue was possible since we had been invited in part by "Huit Facettes", a collective of Senegalese artists.
Once, Luiz Antonio Medeiros, a union leader in Brazil and organizer of the first conference on workers and the environment in 1991, in Manaus City in the Amazon, was criticized by workers for involving their union in what was perceived to be non-workers' issues. Medeiros responded: "Do we want to remain on the level of the bosses' definition of a worker? Or do we want to be citizens, fully participating in all aspects of our society?"
The decision by Joal-Fadiouth (an economically impoverished community with basic problems of infrastructure) to invite a group of artists to participate in a dialogue enabled us all to be involved on an equal and universal level. In an official ceremony at the foot of a sacred baobab tree – traditionally a place for community decisions – the artists were made "Citoyens d'Honneur” (Honorary Citizens) of Joal-Fadiouth.
See the project "Le Pont des Regards" (The Bridge to Look at Each Other) by the Senegalese artist Kan-Si >>
Maria Thereza Alves
* Brazil. Artist and author, co-founder of the Partido Verde (green party) in São Paulo and former representative of the Partido dos Trabalhdores (workers' party).
Universalism at stake?
Dialogues with Senghor
International workshop and exhibition at public spaces in Joal-Fadiouth, Senegal
December 2003 -
Face a Face
Group 30 Afrique
Huit Facettes Interaction
University of the Littoral
Curator: Marie Therese Champesme
Maria Thereza Alves