Dak/Art 2002 Biennial of Contemporary African Art
Wednesday May 8
After a 28-hour trip from Cape Town, hopping up Africa by Air Cameroon via Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Douala, Lagos, Abidjan and Bamako, Kathy Grundlingh of the South African National Gallery and I finally arrive in Dakar, Senegal, late at night. Invited for an art criticism seminar which was cancelled at the last minute, I have been asked to attend anyway and write about the fifth Biennial of Contemporary African Art. Kathy is to speak at a conference on biennials.
Thursday May 9
My hotel window has a view of the harbour, and I lean out to watch the scavenger hawks gliding over the city. I'm very interested to see the work on show, and take a taxi to the CICES exhibition centre with Cape Town artist Lisa Brice, who is here from London and exhibiting on the international section. CICES is way out of town near the airport. Previously, the main exhibition has been held in the Dakar Museum, a pleasant colonial-style building in Soweto Place in the middle of town. The new venue is more adaptable for contemporary art - dry walls for installations and video rooms have been built - but after the opening crowd has left, I wonder who will come.
Friday May 10
Opening day. At CICES, five frenetic dance troupes dressed in brilliant colours perform for the crowd. Inside the vast theatre, almost a thousand guests seat themselves to listen to the speeches. These are conducted entirely in French, which I find difficult to understand all the time. It's more interesting to look around at the Senegalese in their gorgeous clothes. The prizes are announced, with the grand prize going to Senegalese artist Ndary Lo. I go and have a look at the piece and can hardly believe it: an army of elongated metal marching figures, entitled The Long March to Change. It wouldn't have been my choice. (For more on the exhibition, see international reviews.) I'm not the only person to be dismayed by the decision, and a member of the jury later reveals that only two judges actually selected Lo's piece, but the jury was under pressure to select a local artist. Well, no biennale is complete without its controversies, I suppose.
Saturday May 11
Brave the markets of Dakar in the company of Lisa Brice and local photographer Pape Seydi. Persistence is the key mode of hawkers here, and we are constantly followed by a trail of hopeful sellers. There are lots of snakeskin handbags, sandals, paintings under glass, beads, and Senegalese-style robes. Invited back to Pape's house for lunch, we sit on the floor round a huge dish of a traditional Senegal recipe, chilli spiced rice topped with fish, with hibiscus juice and ginger beer to drink.
Two openings this afternoon. The first is at the derelict Palais de Justice, abandoned apparently because the building was declared unsafe. Here, Italian curator Bruno Cora has invited three artists from Europe - the only non-African artists on the main programme - to make installations: Jannis Kounellis, Franz West and Jaume Plensa. None of the three artists has actually attended the biennial. The entrance level of the building is a vast, pillared lobby set around a square garden, now dead. Kounellis, one of the leaders of the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, has set plastic sacks of various grains around each of the columns on his side of the courtyard. The plastic is green, pink, blue, white; the sacks open to show the different grains. The effect is pretty - but I'm not quite what the point is. West, known for his interventions with chairs, has the top space, while at the bottom Pensa has had cooking pots with plaster marks submerged in water. Tears run from the eyes of the masks. The effect is melancholy and striking. In this area, Cora has elected not to clean away the existing rubble, which surrounds the pots. A walk upstairs reveals rubble in every room - smashed filing cabinets, old record books written in ink, all covered in layers of red sand.
The second opening is at the Dakar Museum. N'Gone Fall has curated three artists in a show called 'Myth, Memory and Concept': Berry Bickle, Amahiguere Dolo and Aime Ntakiyica. Here, the standout piece is Bickle's - a long wall entitled Cidado, meaning citizen. To build up a portrait of a city, Maputo, Bickle kept her camera low, photographing legs, feet, mud puddles and potholes, then allowed veils of rust to eat into photographic grids which have been laminated onto metal.
Onto drinks at the French ambassador's house - and if one is in any doubt as to the continuing power of the French in West Africa, this visit sweeps it away. The residence is magnificent, with a wide verandah overlooking beautiful gardens that sweep downwards, looking over the sea and the Isle of Goree.
A quick nap back at the hotel before catching Youssou N'Dour's performance at his club, which starts after midnight. The club is jammed but he's great, and the mainly local crowd can't get enough of him.
Sunday May 12
A day to relax around the hotel pool and exchange gossip with all the other artists. Fernando Alvim of Angola is here to launch a local branch of Camouflage, and is a very funny raconteur. He is also launching the fourth issue of Co@artnews here at the biennial, and it is the best issue yet, with excellent articles on aspects of culture in Africa. Inquiries to email@example.com.
Monday May 13
Take the 2pm ferry to the Isle of Goree, a 20-minute ride from the harbour. Goree is enchanting, with its little beach and narrow, sandy streets lined with old houses. No cars here. Its charm belies its dark history - as the embarkation point for many of the 12 to 15-million slaves who left Africa over a four-century period to provide free labour to the Americas.
There is a little printmaking workshop here, set up by Jan Jordaan of Durban, and the idea is that some of the visiting artists will make a print for a portfolio. Today, there's not enough time to organise that. Instead, we eat shrimp and grapefruit salad in a little outdoor restaurant overlooking the beach.
Wednesday May 15
Today there is an excursion to the Villa Gottfried, about two hours north of Dakar. It's always interesting to get out of a city. Dakar is much bigger than I imagine, and the bus takes ages to get through the urban sprawl. Finally we are in the flat surrounding countryside, dotted with baobabs, and a number of unfinished housing projects. The Villa Gottfried is newly completed, somewhat in the building style of the famous mosques of Mali, and is intended to provide residency space for visiting artists. Senegalese artist Mansour Ciss has been the driving force behind the project. An artist's village is under construction nearby.
Friday May 16
Today is the symposium on biennials, to be held at CICES. I'm looking forward to hearing Ousseynou Wade, first-time director of Dak/Art, but the Senegalese president chooses this day to visit the international exhibition, so Ousseynou's speech is cancelled. The president, Abdoulaye Wade, visits the conference and says that artists are able to go further than politicians, a graceful remark. Bongi Dhlomo gives an excellent account of the history of the Johannesburg Biennale, curator Simon Njami talks about the Bamako Photographic Biennale, and then it's lunch. Since there is no food at CICES the bus takes everyone off to eat elsewhere, and does not return until almost 4pm - two hours after the conference was meant to resume. In the meantime, the handful of us who have stayed behind - Salah Hassan, editor of NKA; Kathy Grundlingh; Flash Art news editor Melissa Dunn - wonder whether to stay or go back to the hotel. In the end, there are two more short presentations - from Hassan, raising serious questions about the organisation of the biennial, and Alvim, who talks about the launch of Camouflage. Moataz Nasr, who was going to discuss the Cairo Biennale, and Kathy Grundlingh have not been given the chance to speak.
Like so much of this biennale, one felt that an important opportunity to further discourse on contemporary art in Africa had been missed through poor organisation and lack of forethought. It was really interesting being here in Dakar, but I wish I could give a more positive reportback.