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THE DAKAR BIENNALE (article first published : 2006-05-16)

Report by Carol Brown, director of the Durban Art Gallery):

I have just returned from serving as a member of the jury at the Dakar Biennale which opened on May 5. This large art event commenced in 1992, skipped 1994 and has taken place every two years since then, making it Africa’s most sustainable Biennale. Johannesburg only managed two such events and, despite the magnitude of organising such an event, this has become one of the most important on the international calendar. Some of the world’s most influential dealers, collectors, art critics, journalists, curators and artists met in Dakar to view the 87 works on display on the main show and over 120 fringe events in and around the city.

The five jury members from Senegal, England, America and India and myself from South Africa arrived on May 1 and we found ourselves in the midst of the Workers’ Day Parade through the city. What a spectacle! Various groups had got together and co-ordinated their outfits and Senegalese people must be among the most beautiful in the world. Everyone looks like a supermodel and seems to be at least 6ft tall with an innate sense of grace and style. The march-past started off in a sea of white outfits, followed by bright pink, pale blue, green and yellow floor length outfits with matching soaring turbans providing a rainbow spectacle of peace and pageantry perfectly fitting for a country with socialist ideals.

Dakar is a city with a fascinating mix of French and African and the roadside kiosks and stalls reflected this, showing brightly coloured swathes of imaginatively patterned fabric, little Nescafe trolleys on bikes with gas boilers where coffee could be purchased on the spot, someone quietly pulling out a prayer mat and facing East at prayer time, a peek into a patisserie equal to anything on a Parisian street and, like most African cities, lots of “guides” ready to take you to the nearest bargain and earn a few quick bucks.

The walk through the city led us to the National Museum which is housed in an Art Deco building set in park-like gardens. Like most of the elegant buildings in the city, it was built during the French colonial days and is suffering from wear and tear. However paintbrushes, ladders, hammers indicated the work being done in readiness for the exhibition which was opening later that week. This had all started somewhat late as funding had been delayed leading to all sorts of problems with participants’ airtickets, arrival of artworks and general maintenance. But large scale exhibitions always seem to suffer from these problems and the fact that that later in the week on Thursday night many artworks had just arrived at about 20h00 was a cause for concern.

The President was opening the show at 09h30 on Friday morning and prizes had to be announced then. This led to the judging process happening from about midnight on Thursday til the early hours of Friday morning when we handed in the final list to the organisers on the heels of the President’s arrival. No-one in the audience of several thousand suspected the hidden dramas and all went on with great ceremonial pomp. However many works were not installed in time to be considered for judging and unfortunately a few South African entries suffered from this and many works were still being installed as the viewers walked through the galleries on Friday morning.

Eight commissioners from various areas were tasked with choosing artists who were all considered African although many of them lived on other continents and sometimes had tenuous relationship with Africa. This gives a different flavour from the one overall curator which has been the case in many recent Biennales. However, I felt that the overall exhibition suffered somewhat from a lack of curation which could have pulled together a theme which was rather obscured by a haphazard placement of individual works. This theme was "Afrique: Entendus, Sous-entendues et Malentendus" officially translated as "Africa: Agreements, Allusions and Misunderstandings".

A remarkable feature was the large number of video installations which made up at least a quarter of the exhibition and which does not fit into the stereotypical image of African creation being mainly sculpture and painting. There was also a notable absence of photography which is currently one of the most prominent mediums in contemporary art. This may have been due to the selectors' preferences or perhaps due to the recent Bamako Photography Biennale which featured this medium. However, to accept that a separate Biennale takes care of photography on the continent is a disturbing thought when art now is about dissolving boundaries.

The main prize-winner was Moroccan artist, mounir fatmi, a well established international artist who submitted a video installation about the Black Panthers, a resistance movement of the sixties in America started by a group of African-Americans. His work consisted of video, photographs, documents and related objects which was a well-thought out, intelligent and coherent revision of a sometimes forgotten aspect of African history. An Angolan artist, Claudio Christavao was also a prize-winning entry for her video installation on memory and the relationship of many people who had left Angola at the time of independence in the early 1970s with their parents and were interrogating how and why they considered themselves as African.

Another notable prize-winner was Kenyan painter, Joseph Bertiers whose cynical and densely peopled narrative paintings remind one of a contemporary Breughel. His works fall into a specific genre of African painting and make cutting comments on everyday life and morality. There were several other prizes many of which fell into specific categories such as being Francophone, working in the medium of painting or sculpture, living in Senegal, exhibiting for the first time on this biennale etc. These categories were not made known at the prize-giving and certainly made our task as jurors complex. However, a great bonus this year was the presence of 14 representatives from the Res Artistes network – an organisation which links residencies around the globe and they each chose one artist to whom they awarded a residency swelling the prizes considerably.

The artists selected as South African representatives were Churchill Madikida, Bernie Searle, Wim Botha, Robin Rhode, Andrew Tshabangu and Colbert Mashile who together formed a strong contingent and whose works attracted much favourable comment and interest.

The fringe or "Off" shows also drew great interest and it was impossible to get to them all in the few days I spent there, however those I did see gave me a good overview of a thriving contemporary art scene in Dakar where international buyers are currently showing a great interest. There are some good contemporary galleries in the city and some funky and interesting alternative spaces such as the hairdressing salon where the owner, who was a psychologist in France, visited Dakar some ten years ago, fell in love with the city, threw up her practice and became a hairdresser cum gallerist establishing a thriving business. Stories abounded of visitors to the city who subsequently gave up their established lives and settled there.

There's a magic in Dakar which is intensified in Goree Island where Breyten Breytenbach has a home and where Jan Jordaan established a printmaking studio. There's also a judge who became a jeweller and who makes exquisite jewellery in a pink house above a museum in which well-known Senagalese artist, Ndary Lo had set up an installation. A little further down the road we visited the studio of Moustapha Dime (now deceased) where Gabrielle Kemzo Malou now works. This is set on a cliff in an ancient weathered building where the sea below gently washes over the rocky shore. He showed an installation which looked like a shipwreck in the water and which was meant to remind the viewer of the importance of Goree which was the last outpost to ship slaves from Africa to the Americas.

Finally, despite a few hitches and delays, the Biennale was a remarkable feat and even more remarkable was the quality of publications produced by the dedicated skeleton staff of the Biennale under the direction of the charming and urbane Ousseynou Wade. A 400 page full-colour catalogue appeared at midnight on Thursday before the artworks were even installed and a full colour newspaper of the daily events containing interviews, photos, discussions appeared daily at all the sites. This was truly an admirable achievement of its own and bodes well for a long future for this admirable event. - Carol Brown




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