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interviewed by Nkule Mabaso

Smooth Nzewi

Nkule Mabaso: Its fundamental objectives are to support and encourage artistic creativity, production, protection, distribution, training, and education in Africa and to promote African artists in Africa and on the international level, through state and private actions. In this way, the Dakar Biennale, DAK'ART, aspires to be an instrument that will integrate Africa through a common cultural market, a platform to allow African artists access to the international art market. These are the historic aspirations of the biennale—how relevant are they in the current climate of production and how can they be reframed to be more relevant?

Smooth Nzewi: These are genuine ambitions critical to creating a system and building its structure. Yet to aspire is one thing, and to actualize is another. To an extent, the Dak’Art Biennale has acted as a sort of fulcrum on the continent, but it contends with a slew of mitigating factors. Because of its longevity as the oldest biennale in Africa, it commands some credibility despite largely failing to accomplish some of these noble causes. From an economic standpoint, it is a platform that promotes the business of culture. It also claims as a moral imperative the necessity to pursue this continental agenda. I want to pick up on the idea of a common cultural market, though laudable it can be viewed largely as utopic. When the idea was pushed forward at the Rencontres et Échanges at Dak'Art 1992 and elaborated further in 1996, it took into account sweeping globalization, the position of modern and contemporary African art at the bottom of the value system of the international art world, and more importantly historical injustices such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, racism, and colonialism, upon which global capital was built and which continues to exploit the African commonweal. In spite of the obvious merits of the Dak'Art position and my convictions, I think it is also necessary to rigorously evaluate the idea of a common cultural market shorn of sentiments and myths in order to arrive at what is possible and that which reflects the reality on ground. Hazy ideals such as the European Union easily come to mind, no less because of its moral bankruptcy and a certain hierarchy of inclusion. I am thinking about Greece's current economic debacle on the one hand; the contingent history of the World Wars, the Greek origins of Western civilization tied to the Frankfurt School, and Germany's current position in Europe, on the other hand. These are all food for thought. Our neoliberal present does not always mesh with myth or fiction. One is mindful of idealism-driven positions that end up serving a lucky few. I am also thinking, more specifically, about other forms of collective agendas on the continent such as the African Union, and the various economically driven sub-regional blocs such as ECOWAS, SADC, etc., or even NEPAD. They are all window dressing, platforms that are yet to mean anything. They are yet to reflect or achieve the reasons they were established in the first place.

With these in mind, I still think that Dak’Art has tried to fulfil some of its set objectives, albeit in a rudimentary way. It remains a viable platform that showcases African artists and introduces them to the international art world system. One can also think of Dak'Art's role on the continent as being that of creating or stabilizing an emerging African art world; artists, galleries, auction houses, curators, etc. For example, under the auspices of Dak’Art 2014, there was a major conference on Black Consciousness, organized by art historian Salah Hassan through Cornell University’s Institute of Comparative Modernities. The curator Bisi Silva brought her Asiko platform, the most important avenue for training the next generation of curators and art practitioners in Africa, to Dakar, to coincide with the biennale. These among other events occurred during Dak’Art 2014 and point more clearly to a more diffused system that the biennale can engender, but more importantly, how a common agenda can still be achieved in other forms and through other means.

Co-curators of Dak'Art 2014 – Abdelkader Damani, Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Elise Atangana Faten Rouissi. Images courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi


NM: Your review of the ninth edition of Dak'Art was positive, if not optimistic. In it you touched on the subject of “the recurring problem of paucity of funding almost jeopardized the staging of the biennale and some scaling back of programming”. In your position within the curatorial team, what was your strategy in dealing with this “recurring problem” and how was this transcended?

SN: I am not sure that I suggested that the situation was optimistic in my review. The ninth edition was the most precarious in the biennale’s history. It was competing for attention with the various legacy projects of then president of Senegal, Monsieur Abdoulaye Wade. It was also the moment the European Union, its biggest sponsor after the Senegalese government, decided to terminate its partnership with the biennale. That the Dak’Art administration under the leadership of former Secretary General Monsieur Ousseynou Wade was able to make it happen in the face of government’s lack of interest or commitment was admirable. Maybe that was the tint of optimism you read into my review. The ninth Dak'Art was the most difficult in the annals of the biennale.

Like most biennales, Dak’Art suffers from lack of adequate funding. The government of Senegal is the major sponsor, and there are all sorts of red tape and official bureaucracy, as you can imagine. The biggest challenge, however, for the biennale is its lack of capacity as an institution and the fact that a lot of people are interested in what Dak’Art can do for them and not how it can be supported and strengthened to play its role effectively. We encountered similar difficulties in putting together the eleventh iteration. It was a tough situation to work with the Biennale’s administration that did not fully grasp the importance of the biennale to Senegal and Africa.

Le fantôme de la liberté (Malla Ghassra) (Ghost of Freedom), installation with 17 WC in ceramic, 700 x 300 x 50cm, 2012,. Dak'Art 2014. Images courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

NM: What were some of your reservations going into the curation of Dak’Art 2014?

SN: Having attended several previous iterations of the biennale, I was fully aware of its enduring challenges. I was mostly worried about the biennale administration, if it understood the enormity of its responsibility. With the FESMAN 2010 fiasco in mind, I was very concerned about the treatment of artists and their works. Dak’Art has not always been very effective in handling logistical issues despite its existence for more than twenty-five years. At each edition, it always appeared as if it was the first outing of the biennale, as if there was no institutional memory about previous iterations. As curators of Dak'Art 2014, my colleagues and I were aware of some if not all of these issues. But we were prepared to cut the new administration some slack. As it turned out, the lack of experience became progressively worse over the course of the biennale. What should have been a very beautiful experience for everyone involved became a difficult one. Still, Dak’Art is a festival one holds very dear to one’s heart because of its history, longevity, and the selflessness of the government and people of Senegal. It is their gift to Africa.

Installing Dak'Art 2014's international exhibition, Village de la Biennale, April–May 2014. Artists Radliffe Bailey and Tam Joseph in fornt of Bailey's Storm at Sea. Images courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi


NM: Taking your curation as a moment for critical reflection on the biennale's impact on contemporary art in Africa over the last twenty years, what are your hopes for the biennale for the next twenty years?

SN: I would say that Dak’Art 2014 was an opportunity for us to re-insert the biennale into the art world's consciousness. I had use the word "reposition" in the past to describe what we set out to do. I am not sure that we ended up doing that not because we did not want to, but because the opportunity to do so was largely distorted by the biennale's administration. Yet at the back of our minds, we felt that it was an opportunity to explore the role a biennale can play in addressing our common humanism. We were thinking about the biennale's history and raison d'être. It was primarily created to fill a void: the absence of a legitimate voice for contemporary artistic production by African and diaspora artists. The year it was founded, 1989, holds symbolic historic value. It was the moment the international art world began to globalize. The Magiciens de la terre exhibition, in spite of its shortcomings, especially operating with a different set of values for Western and non-Western artists, is generally considered as the obvious catalyst. It was one of the few exhibitions that attempted to give prominence to non-Western artists in a period when they hovered largely in the margins. Even more significant, for the purpose of this conversation, is the anthological The Other Story exhibition curated by the respected artist and social entrepreneur Rasheed Araeen, which focused on modernism from a black British perspective. These events can be viewed as isolated, having no direct bearing on the Senegalese government's decision to create Dak’Art. Yet considered together, they were all speaking a similar language of de-centring, of dismantling the Eurocentric vision of the art world at that point in time. In Senegal, the government’s rhetoric was that it was the successor of the First World Festival of Negro Arts of 1966, which was part of the first wave of international festivals that celebrated global black modernism in the independence decades of the 1960s and 1970s. We took all these histories into consideration as we conceptualized the eleventh iteration of the biennale.

Kamel Yahiaoui, Le Poids des Origines, mixed media, 115 x 69 x 75,5 cm, 2013. Dak'Art 2014.
Image courtesy of the artist. Photo credit - Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi.

NM: Could you explain in what ways and why Dakar is different from Venice, São Paolo, and other international biennials?

SN: Every biennial has its individual identity, agenda, and frames of reference. At the beginning, Dak’Art espoused an emancipatory rhetoric that derived from percolating postcolonial discourses or, at least, it was read in that light. It has focused great attention on African and African diaspora artists as the core of its institutional identity. It is an example of a geographically, and ethnically, if you like, circumscribed venue, that illustrates what Monika Szewczyk describes as a critical regionalism that some biennales evince to ward off global pressure. I am more inclined to say that Dak'Art deploys pan-Africanism (advanced loosely in some of its iterations), which may be deemed parochial as an ideological, organizational, governing strategy, to secure a particular institutional identity that distinguishes it from other art biennales. Biennales such as Venice and São Paulo are much bigger global events than Dak'Art and are also the two oldest art biennales in the world. Both biennales, for the major part of their history, reflected a dominant Eurocentric vision of art modernity. I think where Dak'Art differs from the two, beyond its focused interest in artists of African descent, is its lack of financial means and prestige that both institutions command. Beyond that, biennales these days are a mirror of each other.

Locating the venue of Dak'Art 2014, January 2014. Images courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

NM: While its importance is stressed, Dak’Art tends to be evaluated only on its failings and not its own benchmarks, i.e. the idea that Dak’Art—as the only biennale dedicated to African art—has failed to give artists from Africa a chance to occupy a space and position in the international art scene, and it is reproached for following the trends and structures of the global art community that contribute to an ever flawed exhibition, because in trying to emulate something else it fails to engage its own unique context.

SN: There is always the tendency to expect the worst from Africa. Though Dak’Art has not always helped its case, it is not critiqued for following international trends, whatever that might mean. Obviously one recognizes the critical insights posited by Rasheed Araeen and Anna Stielau in their respective reviews of the Biennale in Third Text in 2002 and in The Postcolonialist in 2014. Both reviews were objective, well-intentioned, and intellectually relevant. But the saying that when one dines with the Devil, it has to be with a long spoon is particularly apt in describing what the biennale is up against. Swim or sink, it has to chart its own alternative path while hoping to remain a credible platform in the international mainstream. I believe that is the least we can expect of it. My own criticism of the Biennale is that it eschews best practices in its organisation.

NM: The structural, organisational flaws and the inability of the Biennale to provide a reliable organisation have escalated to the point where artists refrain from participating in it. How much truth would you say lies in these statements, and with your team of curators how did you engage these perceptions?

SN: Quite to the contrary. In spite of its many challenges, it is still viewed by many as the most credible platform for contemporary art in Africa. In fact, most African artists want to show there because it provides a ready path to the international mainstream. We did not deal with the perceptions you mentioned. Instead, we had a deluge of applications that included serial applicants and those who have participated in several editions of the Biennale. Without mentioning names, some of the applicants are those who you would consider to be big names in the international scene.

NM: The Dakar Biennale in its past episodes has claimed the African continent as its focus. To what extent has its impact been felt, and what is the level of awareness of the Biennale within the continent?

SN: Well, you and I are very cognizant of this fact, and that is why we are having this conversation. A significant number of artists in and out of Africa, in addition to most local art scenes on the continent, know about the importance of Dak’Art. The general public might not be very aware of it. This is usually the case given that high art is not exactly popular culture. Having said that, the scenario you have painted is not limited to Dak’Art or Africa. We can look intently at other biennales such as Liverpool, Sharjah, Gwangju, or Moscow, for example. Beyond the art community (local and international), arguably only a small fraction of the general public in those contests mark their calendars in anticipation of such events before they happen. Art exhibitions are not music festivals. Bigger biennales such as the Venice or Documenta have become part of popular culture and so would attract greater visibility and visitors. Yet it is important to state that we received more than 700 applications for Dak’Art 2014 from all over the continent and the diaspora. That should give you a sense of the Dak'Art Biennale's impact or reputation. And, of course, a lot more applications sent via snail mail never made it to Dakar.

Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, 72 (virgins) on the sun, sculpture and installation, mixed media, variable dimensions, Dak'Art 2014. Images courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

NM: The Biennales generally combined their art exhibits with conferences that dealt with issues of contemporary relevance. What were the main areas of discussion in your program and why?

SN: The Rencontres et Échanges, (Dak'Art's official conference meetings) was quite dense in 2014, more than was the case in the past. Its cocktail of panels explored topics including "The artist and the gallery manager", "Contemporary art institutions: fairs, auction houses, museums, biennales", "Art dealers, buyers, collectors, sponsors", and "Journals and magazines of contemporary art", to mention a few.

NM: For the 2006 edition, Dak’Art introduced what it described as a ‘college of curators’ to determine the selection and to set the conditions for a ‘balanced representation’ of the various areas of the continent, and the selection process was modified such that, in addition to the traditional approach of inviting artists to submit portfolios, individual curators could propose artists for consideration. In 2014, how was the Biennale and its curation structured? What are the criteria for the selection of participating artists/curators? How much did/were you able to deviate from the much criticised “open call” process?

SN: I have a contrary opinion regarding what you have described as “the much criticised open call process.” It is indeed reflective of how people would give a dog a bad name to hang it. As I already pointed out, it is part of the narrative that Africa is set up to fail. The open call process is one of those inventions in the context of art biennials that help to distinguish Dak’Art from a lot of biennials. It gives agency to artists and democratizes the process of selection if it is properly done. It has allowed the Biennale to be able to discover young talented artists who otherwise might have been marginalised, as they are an unknown quantity. It is also a process that allows the Biennale to manage its meagre resources. It does not have the resources of the Venice Biennales or Documentas of this world. The alternative would be that curators would have to visit most African countries and the diaspora to find artists. I think the major down side of the open call process is that the curators may not properly assess the quality of artworks. Some artists are very astute at putting together dazzling portfolios, others are not. There have been situations in the past when the actual works fell short of the glory of the photographs sent as part of the submitted portfolio. Dak’Art’s modus operandi combines the open call with curators’ invitation of some of the participating artists. That was the case during Dak’Art 2014. My colleagues and I felt it was a balanced approach.

NM: What is the continuing justification for the Biennale? How does the Biennale as it is presently hope to remain relevant in contemporary issues in both African and global culture?

SN: Dak’Art, in spite of all its shortcomings, remains the preeminent platform for African artists. It has either helped to either launch or solidify their careers. It is viewed in that way in the international art world system. It attracts the greatest number of visitors for any art event in Africa. But like I have stated several times in this conversation and elsewhere, it must address perennial issues.

NM: How is this Biennale different from previous ones? What issues did you hope to raise, and what was the depth and level of engagement with these issues?

SN: In our first press interview with Contemporary&, we stated quite clearly that we wanted to reposition the Biennale, re-energize it, and make it once again a force to reckon with. We wanted to think more critically about the intersection of politics and aesthetics in the context of the Biennale from the perspectives of Jacques Rancière and Michael Hardt. We were drawn to the idea of the common as a binding force of humanism, not in the classical sense of commons as collectively held resources, but in reference to the Ubuntu philosophy. As such, our quest was for a deeper understanding of the human common at a time in history where the cult of the individual and the monster of neoliberal capitalism are at ravaging heights, and what art might hold as an outlet. We were thinking about these things and how they can capture Edouard Glissant's Tout-monde. The works we assembled provided a fascinating collage to work through these ideas.

NM: The Dakar Biennale is one of the few biennials that is primarily government-sponsored. How does the Biennale deal with the problem of navigating between the desires of the state and its own critical independence?

SN: I am well acquainted with Dak’Art and Senegal and would say that the state does not shape the outcome of the Biennale’s exhibitions and other activities. There is an Orientation Committee, once called the Scientific Committee in a typical European fashion, populated by people who are involved in the Senegalese art world who work closely with the Biennale’s administration to shape every iteration of the Biennale. But bear this in mind: no institution anywhere in the world is independent in the true sense of the word. The so-called independent art initiatives or spaces in Africa have to conform to the funding regulations of their sponsors, and that is neoliberalism for you. The earlier we begin to lose such a delusion, the better for all of us. To be more precise, in the case of Dak’Art, after each edition, there is both internal and external assessment. The verdict that is returned nearly all the time is that the Biennale must wean itself off the government, as if when it is done all of the Biennale's problems will be gone. I have maintained that Dak’Art’s problem is a lack of selfless and knowledgeable people interested in developing the much needed organisational capacity. If Dak’Art is to become a foundation, as most critics are arguing for, it might prove inimical in the long term. There are a lot of factors to consider, namely the absence of a real structure, the climate of economic uncertainty, among others. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying the government’s involvement is the best-case scenario. One is truly worried that if it decides to be hands off, it would mark the beginning of the end of Dak’Art. For one thing, how can the Biennale sustain itself beyond running to Europe for hand-outs? Are there any persons or corporate organisations in Africa that are ready to put their money where their mouth is? I was in South Africa at the time of the eKAPA Sessions, and we know how challenging it was organising the Cape Biennale that never was, in spite of the fact that South Africa has the deepest economy in Africa and a better art world structure.

NM: In terms of the Biennale and the addressing of the cities’ publics, not very much seems to have been written that critically reflects on the last Dak’Art, and is this either a positive sign or a dejected disinterest in rehashing the same criticisms that have plagues the Biennale traditionally?

SN: There is a review of the last Dak’Art titled “Trouble in the Village” by writer Moses Serubiri, published in Africaisacountry, the online platform. Serubiri was very critical of what he felt was our academic approach to the Biennale, and more particularly our theme of "Producing the Common”. He felt that it was high-sounding, especially with the citations of Glissant, Rancière, etc., and disenfranchised the local public who may not be familiar with such cultural figures. Fair enough, I would say. Yet is it a fair criticism to imply that the Dakar public, one of the most sophisticated on the continent, is not familiar with such philosophical thought that they live with every day in Senegal? Our curatorial position took the country of Léopold Senghor and the city of Dakar as our points of departure.

NM: How does the Biennale reflect on the achievements of African artists or itself as a platform? Your selection based on the open call and its positives and negatives, merely collecting some artist’s works and putting them together and then calling it a biennial are fast becoming a farce.

SN: One can say that Dak’Art is not the Only one guilty  of what you refer to as a farce. A lot of what we see in biennials these days are heavy on verbiage, trendy on issues, and thin on substance. Biennials tend to mirror each other in terms of intent and in recycling same artists, and occasionally, same works. And as Charlotte Bydler reminds us, they have increasingly become hubs for networking where social capital and not necessarily art is emphasized. At Dak'Art 2014, we wanted to show artists who have never been in the Biennale before. I think our theme was thoughtful and was the basis of our artists’ selection.

NM: Can Africa through the Biennale assert its independence or develop its own structures and vision within this context without critically confronting the dominant structures of art around the world today?

SN: To some degree, that is what Dak’Art is about, though I think you are giving it far too much responsibility that it can bear with little or no credit. As I already pointed out, it is always a “Catch-22” situation for Dak’Art in terms of how it locates itself within the matrix of the art world system. A lot of pragmatism is required to navigate the fraught terrain of an international art world.

NM: Is it enough to say that it is a biennial representing Africa, or that it is now the only biennial representing Africa, of visual arts showing the works of African artists living both Africa and abroad?

SN: It is not the only biennial representing Africa and has never aspired to be so. When it was created there was no comparable platform on the continent. It has also evolved over the years and varied its exhibitions from one edition to the other. However, its core ideology of serving as a platform on the continent remains unchanged.

NM: Previously there have been many problems—of a material, organisational, artistic, and ideological nature—to which it seems little attention has been paid, and which consequently have prevented the Biennale from fulfilling its historical objectives. The call for critical evaluation based on the platform’s crisis of purpose were called for as early as the year 2000 by Olu Oguibe and others. How healthy is the state of the biennial?

SN: As I have already pointed out, some of the issues are perennial. Others have been addressed to some degree. Dak'Art remains a work in progress.

NM: What is our responsibility as Africa-based practitioners to the Biennale and its possible futures?

SN: My hope is that Dak'Art will grow from strength to strength, as it is an important fulcrum for artistic contemporaneity on the continent. Every African artist wants to show at the Biennale. However, we must learn to do things the right way. We must shake of that mentality that, since it is Africa, people must be more tolerant of inadequacies and that there is a different set of rules for doing things in Africa. We should aspire to provide an elevated framework, context, and platform for the practice of contemporary art and its discourse. Our responsibility, therefore, is to hold the organizers of Dak'Art accountable and alive to their responsibilities.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is an artist, art historian, and curator of African art at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. He holds a B.A. in Fine and Applied Arts from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Nigeria; a postgraduate diploma in Museum and Heritage Studies from the University of Western Cape, South Africa; and a Ph.D. in Art History from Emory University. He co-curated the eleventh Dak’Art Biennale in 2014.

Nkule Mabaso, b. 1988, graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town and received a Masters in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts. She has worked as Assistant Editor of the journal OnCurating.org and founded the Newcastle Creative Network in Kwazulu Natal. As an artist, she has shown work in Denmark, Switzerland, South Africa, Germany, and Zimbabwe. She has curated shows and organized public talks in Switzerland, Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa. Currently a PHD Candidate at the Rhodes University as part of the research team SARChI Chair 'Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa', and curator of the Michaelis Galleries at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.

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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