Dak/Art 2002: Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Dakar
by Sue Williamson
"A morsel of sugar on a plate is not art". This headline pronouncement by veteran Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow was made in one of the special newssheets published by the Dak/Art organisation in the first week of the Fifth Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, which opened on May 10. Sow was responding to the increase of installations and video art on this year's Dak/Art (and the corresponding decrease in painting and representational sculpture). His comment underlined the difficulties of an event which aspires to be part of the international circuit of biennales, now an integral part of the global art world, while at the same time attempting to hold onto its African identity, and maintain for its artists the right to make work on their own terms.
During the opening speeches and in other proceedings over the first week, the ghost of Picasso encountering the African masks in a Paris museum in 1907 was invoked at least three times by speakers wishing to make the point that the debt owed by Western art to African art is as great, if not greater than the other way around. Perhaps it is time for both sides to acknowledge this point and move on. Despite the fact that most artists working in Central and West Africa have left their home countries to pursue art careers in Europe or North America, they are still caught in an uneasy quicksand between the two cultures.
The struggle of the contemporary African artist to hold onto the legacy of an authentic cultural heritage while making work that will please Western critics and find a place in the international art scene is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in the work of Senegalese artist Mansour Ciss, who showed work both in the international section and on the fringe. In the CICES exhibition centre, used by Dak/Art for the first time, Ciss showed an installation of dancing wooden figures set in sand and constructed from rough poles and fabric with a nod to the age of technology - some of the figures have computer discs or a mouse strung around their necks - read by this viewer as traditional Africa attempting to come to grips with a changing world.
At the Villa Gottfried, north of Dakar, Ciss showed a series of images of passports and identity cards from various countries, which purport to demonstrate that the artist is a citizen of each, with varying birthdates - reading: the artist does not wish to be classified by his own history. In a third project, Ciss worked with Canadian/German Baruch Gottlieb to produce a new series of notes - the Afro - designed to bring the countries of Africa together with the same unifying intention as the Euro. These were sold from a small tin street booth outside the main exhibition building, and provided one of the few genuinely witty moments of Dak/Art.
Another moment of wit - and one particularly apt at this moment in sporting history - was provided by Otobong Edet Nkanga of Nigeria, whose piece Foot pitch showed a photograph of the underside of two feet painted with the lines of a football pitch. At floor level, Nkanga had made a step of which the top surface also replicated a section of football field.
The best one can say for the overall selection of work is that it was extremely patchy, with a few highlights. Here one might mention the work of Erruas Safaa of Morocco, who utilises the simplest materials, tiny fragments of photographs, cotton wool taped to the wall with crosses of tape, pinpricks on the white surfaces of wooden panels to set up delicate and understated dialogues. From the same country, Zoulikha Bouabdellah made a simple statement on identity in a video in which a young, dark skinned girl, her face lit with the reflection of the image of the head of a white man on a television screen, starts to paint it out in black paint, her own face becoming dimmer and dimmer as the screen is covered in black paint. Lisa Brice returned to her theme of the way in which violence towards women must be figured into daily life with her installation of embroidered cloths advertising a spray to use against attackers.
But there was much that was weak in concept and unresolved in execution. "It is time to review the method of selection" was a headline in another issue of Dak/Art, this time attributed to curator Simon Njami. Some artists were invited to send information on work on the recommendation of artists who had showed previously, some heard of the event by email, and some tracked down information on the web and submitted information by mail. In the event, the selection committee, headed by Mexican based Ery Camara, often had to judge the work purely on the slides sent, with no firsthand knowledge of the work of that particular artist. Njami's point was that a photograph is not enough.
Apparently South Africans submitted 12 submissions, and the country was eventually represented by four artists: Brice; Rodney Place, who showed a sizeable installation in which he reprised the elongated video called Bread City exhibited in Johannesburg and at the World Wide Video Festival in Amsterdam last year, adding in some "characters" in the form of head shots of workers from other parts of Africa above outfits of citywear printed with street maps and road signs; Cape Town artist Donovan Ward, and the London-based Bruce Clark.
Apart from the international show, there were three exhibitions of three artists each by invited curators N'Gone Fall, Ery Camara and Bruno Cora, and a full programme of over 90 fringe events. There was a new director this year - Ousseynou Wade, who took an important step forward by insisting that the catalogue, previously printed in France, be printed in Senegal. It is a fine publication, with interesting curatorial essays and it was available on opening day, but the general opinion of biennale visitors seemed to be that, overall, the event was an important opportunity for furthering contemporary art in Africa which had not realised its potential.
Also see Sue Williamson's Diary