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Elvira Dyangani Ose

For Whom Are Biennials Organised?

When Princess Marilyn Douala-Bell and Didier Schaub arrived in Camer- oun in the late 1980s, they made an agreement: they would have their third child. Princess Marilyn, the second generation of a long dynasty of a prominent fam- ily, grew up always knowing that she was part of the local intelligentsia. At the end of the day, she was the daughter of King Bell and granddaughter of Rudolph Douala Manga Bell, key figure in the local struggles for independence, who was hanged in 1914 for opposing German colonial rule. Princess Marilyn studied in Europe, in Paris to be precise, for many years. It was there that she trained as social scientist and met her husband, Didier, a French art historian, critic and curator. Like in any other beautiful story, they fell in love, got married and de- cided to move to Douala – Marilyn’s homeland.

In 1991, their third child was born. She showed a little bit of both parents. Like her mother, she inherited a strong sense of commitment to the community. The aim of any initiative she embarked upon was to reach and involve as many people, and from as many cultural backgrounds, as possible. Her purpose was ‘to intervene in people’s every day experience, questioning the urban environ- ment we all live with,’ as she declared when she became more mature. Like her father, she would soon develop a deep appreciation for all arts, particularly those striving for a new understanding of the collective and the social. She was im- mediately allured by artistic experimentation, politically engaged practices and cultural forms questioning the public sphere.

There she was, little Doual’art. The heiress of the political legacy of the Douala Manga Bell, but also fabulous whizz-kid, in her own right, open to all kinds of new relational poetics. (And just to clarify, I refer here to artistic practic- es involved in what Édouard Glissant defines as ‘poetics of relation’, which recognise the other in ourselves and include the inscription of both the individual and the collective, in one sole social dimension – just to summarise very briefly…).

Here is when the story turns into reality… so you have to imagine, like in the movies, images fading to black… the cartoons turning into real people, and the fictional narrative moving into documentary mode.

The earlier years of Doual’art were marked by the absence of a proper venue. In trying to define its own identity, the organisation staged various actions in the city using mainly the language of visual arts, with occasional incursions into the realm of live and performing arts. Lacking a permanent space, and using that lack as its organising principle, the association worked together with estab- lished international venues, local cultural entrepreneurs and artists, but Princess Marilyn and Didier also turned to the public space, engaging with various com- munities and urban landscapes to disseminate what from then onwards would constitute Doual’art’s main modus operandi. That incursion in the public space, as well as in the public sphere, proved fundamental in shaping the character of this initiative, a pioneer in the African continent as the earliest experimental laboratory focusing on artistic practices engaging with new understandings and interpretations of publicness. Until then, no one else in the country had engaged in that sort of endeavour.

(Just as a side note: there are obvious precedents to Doual’art’s spirit of pub- licness in the emergence of a trans-disciplinary aesthetics in urban Africa, as de- fined by artist collectives’ initiatives and socio-political movements in modern Africa. This aesthetics is neither a depository of modern ideologies on national culture – as determined by the newly independent nation-states’ cultural policies nor does it pursue decolonising or identitarian It is rooted, rather, in a clear commitment to the notion of the social, of the collective, and in the be- lief that political revolution can eventually be effective in aesthetic terms and that art can bring about social justice.

This aesthetics began in the late 1970s, but only in the past two decades has it noticeably proliferated. Whereas recent scholarship acknowledges international events in the 1990s – such as DAK’ART, the Biennale de l’Art Africain Contemporain as the source of a significant shift in contemporary African art and aesthetics, I would propose instead that it is in local initiatives led by artist collectives – against cultural narratives and policies proposed by national institutions – that one can find the genesis for change and experimentation within the Fundamental to this equation as well are the cross-cultural conversations of a Pan-African and African diasporic character taking place throughout the twentieth century, but which took on a crucial significance since late 1960s in relation to major interna- tional festivals and professional encounters, such as the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal (1966), the First Pan-African Cultural Festival, PANAF, in Algiers, Algeria (1969), and the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ’77, in Lagos, Nigeria. A historical analysis of these events might provide an alternative narration of history that can assist us not only in un- derstanding the inherent role of art in politics, but also in reactivating our political relationship to the practice of art in the realm of global politics.)

By the mid-1990s, Doual’art had firmly established itself in the city, mainly thanks to the opening, in 1995, of its permanent venue, L’Espace Doual’art. With a programme of roughly a dozen exhibitions per year, the space soon became a hub for visual artists who from then onwards would have a steady opportunity to address diverse audiences with their latest productions. However, interaction with the public space did not cease. In 1996, as a result of a 30-month-long con- versation between Doual’art, the neighbours and authorities of the Deido district and artist Joseph F. Sumegne, the monumental sculpture La Nouvelle Liberté was inaugurated. A formidable 12-metre-high figure that dominates one of the most transited roundabouts in the city, made of locally-sourced recycled material, the statue prompted a lively and far-reaching debate on the meaning of art and its role in the country’s social and political fabric. Art, in that sense, proposed a new reality that interfered with the city-space and its everyday experience, but also with Douala’s socio-historical process. Creativity and imagination were necessary faculties for knowledge and change – art that was made with and for its audience. Art was a social fact.

From that moment onwards, the quest for the formation and materialisa- tion of these new urban imaginaries took shape in their support of ad hoc ini- tiatives, such as the Bessengue City Project, led by late artist Goddy Leye, who, inspired by the project, in 2003 opened ArtBakery, a centre for contemporary art in Bonnendale, another district of Douala. ArtBakery’s activities included, among other things, a residency programme for visual artists and a training programme in art and visual culture for all ages, as well as support for young artists, critics and curators, promoting the use of new technologies and establishing ongoing interaction with the community.

Other initiatives included international workshops such as Les Ateliers Ur- bains, in which twenty artists from Central Africa were invited to interact with the inhabitants of Bessengue for two weeks, resulting in a series of events involv- ing various artistic expressions – painting, sculpture, poetry and music, among others. Later on, the workshops were transformed into two initiatives: a biennial meeting called Arts & Urbis, gathering together artists, curators, urbanists, archi- tects and cultural and social workers, and the triennial Salon Urbain de Douala or SUD, which would constitute the culmination of their initial attempt at public dialogue provoked by La Nouvelle Liberté.

There have been four editions of Arts & Urbis, always taking place the year before the triennial, and three editions of SUD. I have had the good fortune to participate in two of them: the first one in 2010, in collaboration with artist Younès Rahmoun, and the second in 2013, when, in collaboration with Marilyn and Didier, I curated a series of ephemeral artistic interventions by artist collec- tive The Trinity Sessions, and dancers and choreographers Nelisiwe Xaba and Faustin Linyekula.

Doual’art’s projects and, particularly, its triennial, incorporate two new elements fundamental to that aesthetics I spoke about earlier: the significance of the space in which the art intervention is being produced and a clear reflec- tion on the social relationships established in that space.

In his reading of the city of Johannesburg, urbanist Abdoumaliq Simone first coined the notion of people as infrastructure, with which he explored cer- tain activities of the inhabitants of South Africa’s main megalopolis, the re- sourcefulness of these residents’ day-to-day experience and their incredible capacity to live multiple temporalities. Under that definition of infrastructure – normally interpreted in physical terms – Simone included primarily the generation of social compositions across a range of individual capacities and needs, and the ‘economic collaboration among residents seemingly margin- alised from and immiserated by urban life’. To Simone, the ability of the city’s residents to overcome precariousness and ‘engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices’ far beyond the place and time that tech- nocracy provided them with has defined the flexibility and open-ended charac- ter, not only of Johannesburg, but also of many other African cities, like Douala. I believe that Doual’art’s projects resonate vividly with Simone’s notion of people as infrastructure.

One could argue that the radical presence of that informality as a way of life and an increased social participation of the citizenry in the public sphere, against the constraints of regulatory systems, is indeed one of the main char- acteristics of this African city. Furthermore, I believe that this set of combina- tions functions in the here and now – whenever it might happen, as I said ear- lier, as residents operate in multiple spaces and temporalities – as much as it ultimately affects the potential social compositions or, to use Glissant’s terms, one-sole-social dimension. That is to say, the effectiveness of those combina- tions is the condition of possibility of new social formations and imaginaries.

This is particularly prominent in the context of inner cities, and if you like, in the case of secondary cities in which central governments seem to have less interest or power. It is not by chance that most of the initiatives of Doual’art have taken place in those interstitial spaces between the city centre and the rest, or far away from the centres of power, as in the case of the Rencontres Picha. Biennale de Lubumbashi, my second and last example. Believe or not, I have only spoken about my experience in Lubumbashi on two other occasions, and when- ever I tried to theorise it – not that I have to, necessarily – I find that the rhetoric of my academic research does not do justice to what is indeed a once-in-a-life- time experience in my career as a curator.

I was invited by artist Sammy Baloji and writer Patrick Mudekereza to con- tinue a conversation that they started as founding directors of Picha Art Centre and the Lubumbashi Biennale, with international artists in 2008 and with cura- tor Simon Njami in 2010.

The edition I curated was based on a notion of Enthusiasm, a review of Jean-François Lyotard’s paradigms of audience and participation, in conversa- tion with Simone’s notion of people as infrastructure, mirroring practices, such as those of Doual’art, motivated by the possibility of reflecting on the event, on the experience itself, as institution.

The Biennale, an artist-run initiative, mirrors Picha’s programme – that is to say, it is mainly devoted to three media: photography, video and literature. The way we imagined the project, as a project of projects, was translated into workshops exploring the interstitial spaces and blurred boundaries of those dis- ciplines. Thus, photography related to a larger sense of visual cultural production and printmaking; video stood for moving-image projects; and literature reflected on wider nuances of the term text. A fourth workshop on the city of Lubumbashi also took place, assembling a group of architects, artists, geographers, writers, politicians and other professionals and members of local communities, led by Johan Lagae, who provided a walking tour and in turn a peculiar guide to the city. Picha has proven over and over again the strong and long-term commit- ment to learning as a process in constructing audience and capacity, and as a strategy for developing the local artistic and cultural scene. In addition, many of its initiatives blur the boundaries between artistic practice and everyday experi- ence. The workshops complemented an international group exhibition, spread through various venues in the city, using public spaces and venues as impromp- tu display galleries or cinemas. We held a two-day conference in collaboration with Gasworks and Triangle Arts Network, co-produced a film by Norwegian artist Bodil Furu, collaborated with Escola Maumaus in Lisbon for Angela Ferrei- ra’s public performance and organised a multidisciplinary gathering in which professionals and the public would debate on formulas of participatory art and social practices.

If the two cases above were used to respond to the question ‘For whom are biennials organised?’, the answer would clearly be ‘The public’. You could say that precariousness was, in some instances, the organising principle, that creativity and imagination were necessary tools for knowledge and change. Art was a social act, made with and for its audience. They were experiences that proposed an exercise in participation, abolishing narratives of author versus spectator, organisers versus participants, turning all of us, curators, organis- ers, members of the press, local authorities and audiences alike, undeniably, to once again use Glissant’s words, into the protagonists of a ‘poetics of relation’, a one-sole-social composition.           

This text was first published in Making Biennals in Contemporary Times. 2015. Biennial Foundation. Eds. (Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente, Luiza Proença, Oren Sagiv, and Benjamin Seroussi). Publishers Biennial Foundation, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, ICCo – Instituto de Cultura Contemporânea.
Available: issuu.com/iccoart/docs/wbf_book_r5_issuu

Elvira Dyangani Ose (b. 1974, Spain/Equatorial Guinea) is Lecturer in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, independent curator, and member of the Thought Council at the Fondazione Prada, where she has curated two of its current exhibitions, Theaster Gates’s True Value and Nástio Mosquito’s T.T.T. Template Temples of Tenacity. She was curator of the eighth edition of the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA 2015) and Curator International Art at Tate Modern (2011 – 2014). At Tate, she took a leading role in developing Tate’s holdings of art from Africa and its Diaspora and worked closely with the Africa Acquisitions Committee. She is responsible for Across the Board (2012–2014), a two-year interdisciplinary project that took place in London, Accra, Douala and Lagos. She recently co-curated Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist (2013).

Prior to Tate, she was curator at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (2004–2006) and at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (2006–2008), where she organised several exhibitions, including works by, among others, General Idea, Viennese Actionism, Alfredo Jaar, Lara Almárcegui, Ábalos & Herreros, and Ricardo Basbaum. At the CAAM, she curated the seminal exhibition Olvida Quien Soy/ Erase Me From Who I Am (2006), presenting works by, among others, Nicholas Hlobo, Tracey Rose, Moshekwa Langa, Zanele Muholi, and Mikhael Sutbozky.

She has curated the retrospective exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Social Studies (2010) and the interdisciplinary project Attempt to Exhaust an African Place (2007–2008). She was also curator of Arte Invisible (2009–2010), guest curator of the triennial SUD-Salon Urbain de Douala (2010), and the Artistic Director of the third edition of the Rencontres Picha. Lubumbashi Biennial (2013). Dyangani Ose has published and lectured on modern and contemporary African art and has contributed to art journals such as Nka and Atlántica. She is currently completing a PhD and holds an MA in History of Art and Visual Studies from Cornell University, New York; an MAS in Theory and History of Architecture from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona; and a BA in Art History from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

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Issue 32

In this Context: Collaborations & Biennials

interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

Elvira Dyangani Ose

Notes on Activist Art by Gregory G. Sholette

interviewed by Nancy Dantas

interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

by Ntone Edjabe, Chimurenga in Conversation with Valeria Geselev

Nkule Mabaso

interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

interviewed by Olga Speakes