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The 11th Dak'Art Biennale opened its doors on 9 May 2014, to a vast international crowd of art professionals coming from all over the world to celebrate the new edition of a pan-African event, one the most influential in the continent.
The opening week of Dak'Art was eagerly awaited. Almost 25 years of history, from its first inception as literature festival in 1990 after its gestation in 1989. A new general director, Babacar Mbaye Diop, replacing the iconic Osseynou Wade. A trio of young, well educated, cosmopolitan and proactive contemporary African art professionals selected as curators. A plethora of collateral events, distributed around the city of Dakar and its surroundings. A determined curatorial assertion to reshape and effectively empower Dak'Art. What would be the result of the combination and working together of all these elements?
From my own perspective, this biennale was a "not-to-be missed" event: a turning point, after the decline of recent years and without a doubt a gathering of active players within the continent (artists, curators, activists, writers) who barely have the chance to meet during the rest of the year due to their usual travel agendas.
According to the curators of the International Art Exhibition Elise Atangana, Abdelkader Damani and Smooth Ugochukwu Nzewi, this edition aimed to reposition and strengthen the Biennale on the global stage. For years, the Biennale has been relevant for the African continent, the African diaspora (especially the French and English speaking) and international professionals engaged with the notion of Contemporary Africa. The goal is now to renew it as a contemporary art exhibition with a wide, international reach. With its cutting-edge concept, Produire le commun – Producing the common, and a strong selection of artists (a total of 61, some of whom are well-known, while others are very new entries from the continent as well as the diaspora, selected from over 700 applications), Dak'Art 2014 seems to have immediately realized its ambitions. Furthermore this year, many newcomers (art professionals interested in visiting a major international Biennale) have joined the adepts of contemporary African art, who make the pilgrimage to the main pan-African event in the continent every two years. All symptoms that something has actually changed.
The program of Dak'Art 2014 included various official venues within Dakar: a series of events in Saint Louis, the round tables under the theme "Art Profession" with the participation of many international personalities, more than 200 shows and 500 artists listed for Dak'Art OFF (which included both local and international events). A complex and convoluted calendar that a visitor could barely grasp. The impression was that this time Dak'Art existed in itself as an ideal (for the visitors as well as for organizers). We all attempted to catch the meaning of a floating entity which filled the city as well as the cabs, restaurants and hotels. We all felt the thrill of running after the events, all happening at the same time somewhere, somehow, in a city which got more extended but is nevertheless perceived as smaller and more "modern" (according to the Western capitalist perspective: with highways, asphalt, buildings, conveniences). The first time I visited the Biennale, 12 years ago, the university area and Amitié 2 (where Kër Thiossane and Raw Material Company are situated) were residential neighborhoods barely known by international visitors; nowadays they are perceived as almost walking-distance from downtown. If Dakar is expanding, Dak'Art expanded well. And this transformation is accompanied by a generational turn, in terms of curators, artists and visitors, and new esthetic expectations in terms of facilities, visibility, and conceptualization.
The international exhibition of African and diaspora artists, Produire le commun – Producing the common, together with the round tables, took place at the Village de la Biennale, former headquarters of 2STV television network, which was selected by the curators as the main venue. A huge space, consisting of four different pavilions and an outdoor area, where the curators installed the works of the 61 selected artists. Even with some logistical difficulties and limitations, compared with past editions, this 11th Biennale marked a clear step forward in terms of contemporary art system standards. Some very strong works; a very interesting overview on a new generation of artists who are at the same time firmly rooted in their context and aware of their cosmopolitan culture; a wide open perspective on issues related to history, identity, self-representation, narration, and local transformations in a global perspective.
This quasi normalization is undoubtedly the result of the careful curatorial work, which involved associated networks (and managed to get more external funding) and the direct arrangements with artists and galleries, bypassing, as much as possible, the unperturbed inefficiency of the Biennale office. Even with all these efforts, organizers, artists and visitors had to cope with the traditional Dak'Art idiosyncrasies: delays during the official opening; catalogues released a few days after the opening (too late for most of the visitors); reiteration of the debates about the possibility of the autonomy of the Biennale from the Senegalese government (questions cyclically discussed and never pragmatically resolved); "official" events popping up as arbitrary institutional whims and in no way connected with any curatorial decision.
As annoying as it may have seemed, the usual (un)organizational aspects – rooted in the total lack of professional approach of the institutional organization in Dakar, didn't compromise the curatorial desire to take the Biennale to a mainstream level. The selection (and direct invitation) of well established artists such as Kader Attia, John Akomfrah, Candice Breitz, Julie Mehretu, Marcia Kure, Wael Shawky (to name just a few of the big names), together with successful artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Emeka Ogboh, Jimmy Roberts and younger and emerging figures (who have nevertheless a strong connection with their scene) marks a clear step forward in this new cosmopolitan globalism, as well as the esthetics of the installations, very objectual, and in most cases oriented towards a scenographic monumentality presented in a mostly clean and professional way (with a few exceptions). Undoubtedly, the curatorial statement is a strong message for the Biennale’s official organization in Dakar, still mostly rooted in an anti-dynamic, proudly local way of managing the event.
But the successful dynamics of this edition of Dak'Art put into question the configuration of the Biennale itself, especially if interrogated from the perspective of its concept, Producing the common. Although willing to connect with the city, the project to transform Dak'Art into a standard, international art event didn't coincide with the praxis of building participation, which the idea of "common" extended to space may imply. Besides the obvious visibility of the event in the city through the crowds of international visitors, the Biennale corresponded, as usual for Dak'Art, to empty pavilions and the lack of involvement of the dynamic local scene of students and youngsters.
A visit to Afropixel Festival at Kër Thiossane, which inaugurated as an OFF event of Dak'Art and proposes activities and exhibitions for a month in its headquarters and its neighborhood, would give maybe a more up-to-date vision of what an art event should be for its city. The workshops, the renewal of surrounding urban areas, the involvement of its inhabitants are all part of the daily practice of this independent space, and the festival, with its activities for the whole month, gives a stronger meaning to the notion of "the common" as a pragmatic, empathetic practice.
Art critic and curator. Works especially with media and conceptual artists, and process-oriented practices in the public space.
11th Biennale of Contemporary African Art
Produire le commun – Producing the common
9 May - 8 June 2014
Curators International Exhibition:
Smooth Ugochukwu Nzewi