For Africa to really get away from the West implies having an exact understanding of what it costs to break away from it; it implies knowing how far the West has, insidiously perhaps, come closer to us; it implies knowing what it is, precisely in that that which enables us to think against the West remains Western; and measuring the degree to which our recourse against it may still be a trick that it puts in our way, behind which it is there waiting for us, unmoving and elsewhere.
Y. Mudimbe, L’Odeur du père
To understand the invention of a biennial in Africa, because it is of "invention" that one must speak, one might first of all ask: Who plays the role of the People in the history of art in Africa and in the emergence of the Dakar Biennial? Who makes the history of African art? What are the infrastructures and productive forces in the field of the history of art in Africa, and what are the subjective and objective elements that make this history meaningful and valuable? These questions are approached via the framework of a theory of the history of art, conceived not as a succession of styles, but as a social and political field. The inception and institutionalization of the Dakar Biennial (Dak'Art) is the positive result of debates within Senegalese society. These historically coded discussions were and continue to be social, political, and aesthetic. They participate in the inscription of the Dakar Biennial into history. As for the event itself, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy on many levels: Pan-African, international, and contemporary.
According to the German Web site www.universes-in-universe.org, there is a total of some two hundred art biennials around the world. Among the events that have established themselves on the international cultural circuit, Africa is represented by the Cairo Biennial (Egypt), the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie in Bamako (Mali), and the Dakar Biennial. The Biennial of Bantu Arts, organized by the Centre for Bantu Civilisations (CICIBA) since 1985, has not been able to carve out a niche either internationally or in the region. The triennials in Luanda and Cape Town, launched one after the other in early 2007, will certainly improve the general picture with regard to major artistic events in Africa. n the meantime, Dak'Art remains the standout event for contemporary visual arts in Africa.Ithas forged its identity over the years, becoming a springboard for its own history and an engine of creativity. Artists make work specifically in order to take part. Dak'Art is part of the general history of biennials.
Most of the major cultural events contemporaneous with the Dakar Biennial emerged from the sociohistorical situation of the nineteen-nineties. This historical coexistence makes sense, corresponding as it does to the general renewal of social and political governance undertaken in Africa. The nineties, which worked through the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall, were marked by the end of the apartheid regime, which some analysts interpreted as the end of colonialism and the beginning of postcolonialism in Africa. Before the fall of apartheid, nearly everywhere in Africa the principle of the one-party state was threatened, forced to give ground and allow a political pluralism that was seen as political openness.
The age of biennials was thus, also, a time of political rupture and reorganization and, above all, a time of a general clamoring for liberties. At the forefront of this movement were the young and the working classes rebelling at the general failure of the one-party state. Biennials open up public space, that is to say, space for encounter and debate where art professionals meet and discuss cultural policies or the lack of them, or organize joint projects. n the same space, the work of the visual artists was socially and politically engaged, and in this sense they helped animate the debate on the governance of Africa and the world. Biennials in Africa were part of this general movement of social and political emancipation, a vector of its intensification. They signaled Africa's reawakening to freedom, expressing its new self-belief. n this sense, they contributed to the general logic of "enlightenment" emphasized by Okwui Enwezor with regard to the creation of Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Just as this latter event gave international expression to Germany's determination to turn a new leaf after Nazism and take part in the movement of new ideas, the creation of the African festivals also coincided with a period of rebirth in Africa. Documenta was conceived, among other reasons, as a home for forms of art that the Nazis condemned as "degenerate," particularly abstract art, and to help the moral and physical reconstruction of the city of Kassel, which had been completely destroyed by Allied bombs.
It can be agreed that the advent of biennials in Africa articulated what was at least a double movement: the reception of an unloved art and self-reconstruction. The contemporary art biennial is connected with the problematic of the reception of African art, which was seriously low in the pecking order of the international art system.Itpartook of the efforts to reconstruct Africa in the midst of its democratic crisis. Also, the positive PR resulting from the biennial helped put Dakar on the map, establishing a place for Senegal and Africa in the world of fine art. The African biennial of contemporary art therefore relates to the question of Africa's place in an ever more globalized world.
Theodor Adorno would have rejected blockbuster exhibitions in the style of the Dakar Biennial as a manifestation of mass art, with mass art being a form of the culture industry that turns the individual into a faceless creature, lost in the anonymous cohort of visitors, rather than stimulating people's critical potential. At the same time, are people visiting biennial exhibitions not to confront the enigma of art, helping to prove Adorno's point that "art has lost its obviousness"? Does this face-to-face between an unlikely artwork and its occasional visitor not bring with it tension and critical wakefulness?Itdoes insofar as the viewer realizes that the contemporary artwork is not only a two-dimensional pictorial work or a kinetic and tactile work in three dimensions, but increasingly involves installations, that is to say, “spatial units that may be descriptive or imaginary, and that are capable of evoking a technological environment in order to attain the virtual." The confrontation with works is a critical moment that makes it possible to verify and evaluate the problematic character of the contemporary artwork. I recall several moments in the evolution of this problem that, in the history of Dak'Art, have proved controversial.
I have not tried to make the Dakar Biennial a theme, attempting to recite Adorno by heart. I have stirred a few moments of debate and tried to understand from the inside how the need for a major cultural event like the Dakar Biennial elaborates a kind of mass art while resisting blindness or standardization. n analyzing this question, one faces some of the problems that confront the vanquished when, as Walter Benjamin and Adorno recommended, they take it upon themselves to recount history from below-history from the loser's viewpoint. And we have gained a sense of the victor's power and resonance. When he chooses to play the viewer, he is taken on as a player. And when the match is a draw, he ends up the winner. Even more seriously, when one believes one has won, even against oneself, it would seem that the most one has succeeded in doing is producing a weak copy of his masterpieces. We refer to him, in time and in an untimely way, for better and for worse.
The point of the list of misconceptions that follows is to compare differing accounts of the construction of the Dakar Biennial, starting from that initial question: Who makes history? Looking beyond the different subjects that come up in the invention of the Dakar Biennial, it is our hypothesis that the Biennial itself functions as a machine for making the history of art, of Pan-Africanism and contemporaneity. That history employs the notion of art as if it were self-evident. But this view is shared only by those who consider the notion of art as an external one that is not really compatible with African reality.
"In what sense can one speak of 'art' when one speaks of African art?" The answer to this question, which sounds deliberately provocative, is not simple. One can choose between two types of answer. The first is to state that there is no African art because there is no equivalent term in African languages. "Most African languages have no words to designate a work of art, an artist or art."1 This conception assumes that words are the verbal confirmation of things and the events leading up to them. It thus closes the door on the unnamable or the ill-named and forgets that behind a word there is more than just a thing for which it is the more or less appropriate name. The second option is to state that African art does exist and, with generous condescension, to extend the category of art to include works produced for nonartistic purposes that can nevertheless stand up to a formal, aesthetic interpretation. The art nègre movement takes its place within this second approach, at a distance from those who claim that the concept of art is not African but Western, and that pseudo "African art" is at most a form of Art Brut, or nai've art-in a word, the childhood of art.Itwould therefore follow that what has taken its place throughout the Western and Westernized world under the label of the "fine arts"-the expression itself exudes a sense of the duty to contemplate the sublimity of these outstanding works produced by men of genius-has no equivalent in Africa. n both cases we remain caught in the vice of the postulate that, whether brutally expressed or not, boils down to this: Africa has a problem with art.
Africa has been under the Western gaze at least since the turn of the twentieth century, if not before. This recognition is part of a historical sequence that began with the modern age, if not before.Itculminated with the notion of art being removed from the matrix of beauty and made to revolve around the notion of the artwork. This aesthetic shift is one of the theoretical conditions for the reception of so-called art nègre. It followed the depletion of the resources of classical painting whose key innovation, at least during the Renaissance, had been perspective.Italso made the criteria of adroitness and technique intrinsic in the notions of artes and tékhné obsolete. When visiting museums in New York, Tokyo, Dakar, or Paris, you will often get young or older people coming up to you and asking, "Where is the art in all this? Where is the beauty? Where is the emotion?" And more than once, men and women will say-and not without justification-"Well, if that's art, then I'm an artist!" As Adorno would say, "Art has lost its obviousness."
The question of the status of art could be enriched by opening onto that of "artiality," understood as the set of objects that are, actively or potentially, art objects. “Much that was not art-cultic works, for instance-has over the course of history metamorphosed into art; and much that was once art is that no longer.” Jean-Hubert Martin has often formulated this question: when Michelangelo was decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, did he claim to be making art? n the same way, the Dan sculptor making a mask for an altar does not see the creation of beauty as his main objective, but he does render the mask concept he has been asked to as best he can, with all his talent, style, and inspiration. n the same way, photography was first seen as a technology for reproduction, and therefore for imitating nature, but later became a form of representation, like painting and sculpture.Itis worth diffracting the term art in order to see how it is used to signify and crystallize the artial as the artistic. The extraordinary variety of versions of art goes beyond the supposed unity of art. There are different kinds of artiality, each one mobilizing a specific range of affects. Art is not an exclusive attribute of glorious humanity.
As for the notion of African contemporary art, it touches on the relations between Africa and the West. What Africa must do is be contemporary with the world, with or without the mediation of the West. Africans must be their own contemporaries in a world whose shockwaves they themselves feel and in which they would like to be active players. Africa is not a country but a continent. Why do people get that wrong?Itall comes down to prejudice, ignorance, and misinformation-in short, to the representations that we form both of ourselves and of others. These representations concern what are common images of Africa as well as images that Africans themselves put into circulation in the inventive course of everyday life. Art is part of this everyday life. As a maker of forms and rhythms, it liberates images that may invalidate or confirm, but that fundamentally express the concerns of the man or woman engaged in abstract activities, for and by whom ordinary men abandon, more or less provisionally, their duty to create and invent: the artist. Self-expression may directly or indirectly help repair or restore one's self-image. Artistic representations remind us all that images are plastic and mobile, and that they bring internal tensions to the surface of consciousness, making painting, sculpture, or video their avatars.
In1989, explaining the absence of African partners in the curatorial team for Magiciens de la terre, Andre Magnin pointed out that the organizers simply didn't know of any professionals likely to fit in with their projects. Of course, this justification judges itself, in that it reveals the organizers' level of information. Putting on a biennial implies having men and women who are competent or can be trained. The construction of the event is a performance that creates qualifications, that enriches the professional competence of the art workers striving to make it a success. Dak'Art can take pride in having contributed to the visibility and validation of a certain number of skills in the artistic professions.Ithas not only validated competence, but also actually brought it into being. The involvement of African critics and curators in defining the content of the event reestablishes the truth as to the purported lack of contemporary art professionals in Africa. Dak'Art demonstrates that a curator is someone who has been certified as a professional, but also someone who has been professionalized. Dak'Art is a platform for the professionalization of artists, critics, exhibition designers, and cultural operators.
In September 2005 torrential rain beat down on Dakar. Unusual for a Sahelian country such as Senegal, the duration and intensity of this rain caused a real natural catastrophe. The national TV channel showed men, women, and children in distress. Desperate men were explaining to the authorities that they had lost everything they had. n many neighborhoods the waves climbed up the pavement and into houses. The infiltration of water forced the inhabitants to wrap their possessions in plastic.Itwas like a tropical adaptation of Christo's work. This was when an important figure at the Ministry of Culture in Dakar put to me the following question: what will you say if one of these poor people asks why you devote so much money to organizing a biennial for a privileged few when the houses of Dakar's poor are flooded with rainwater? The answer that immediately came to mind was as follows: The money that we could save by cutting the Biennial would certainly not be spent on improving the poorer districts! True, poor people may not necessarily need a biennial, but they don’t wait to have everything they might need before starting to love music, dance, beautiful forms, and beautiful things. The answer I actually gave was more convivial: the million or so francs that Senegal agrees to pay for the Biennial are next to nothing when compared with the huge sums that we effectively need to find in order to fight flooding. Beyond these answers, the fundamental question raised by the friendly objection formulated above is that of financial viability.Itis also that of the financial viability of festivals and other events. Artists and cultural professionals are on the wrong track if they respond by arguing that painting can immortalize memories of the floods of 2005 and elaborate a tropical version of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa! That landmark painting from 1819, which refers to the sinking of a frigate that occurred in 1816 off the Senegalese coast, speaks of the atrocious sufferings endured by its passengers for ten whole days. The work also raises the question of responsibility (who made the disaster inevitable?) and denounces the inequality of the different classes before death. The privileged passengers were saved while the less well-heeled were abandoned, left on that raft.
It is also a waste of breath answering the culture skeptics that art and culture, a fact attested by the so-called development theater, can help in the fight against malaria and AIDS and may also, let us not forget, serve to formulate more or less educational arguments on social issues such as democracy and human rights. Culture skeptics are impervious to arguments demonstrating the effects of culture on social cohesion, the construction of dignity, social development, etc. As Saint-Exupery's Little Prince observed a long time ago, "Adults love numbers." Figures are the only language they understand, and what they expect is a mathematical demonstration of the benefits of culture in cash value. Now, most of the cash generated by culture doesn't find its way directly into its coffers, hence the joke made by Minister Abdoulaye Elimane Kane: "Yes, Dak'Art does have a structuring effect. I mean, it has a structuring effect for airlines, hotels, restaurants, shops, taxis, and gallerists."
In effect, the Biennial does often incite airplanes and hotels to work at a constant rhythm. Most of the meager budgets allocated by the public authorities and international cooperations do not go into artists' pockets but are injected into the national economy.3 The Biennial creates the conditions for the general activation of the national economy.Itfollows that the real budget-eaters are not those who are singled out for attention, but the airlines, the hotels, and the communications agencies. If only a fraction of the sums spent by festivalgoers in each of these areas ended up in the Biennial's coffers, then surely it would not always need to go from financier to financier in order to make up its budget. Having been financed once, it would remain in funds for many years. And it would then no longer be seen as financially voracious.4
Festivals are also powerful vehicles of communication, a dimension confirmed by the many posters around the city and the coverage in the press, on the radio and television, and in various international media with an interest in African issues. Thanks to the Biennial, Senegal enjoys prime coverage in the most prominent media. Press response in and beyond Africa, plus airtime, sends images of the country's vitality all around the world. n addition to this indirect publicity for the country, there is also the aspect of diplomatic communication. The authorities of the host nations that provide limousines and cocktails for their prestigious guests use the Biennial to reaffirm their role in the subregion of West Africa, in the larger region of Africa and in the world. This cultural diplomacy is aimed at ministers in the subregion and the higher bodies of international cooperation (European Union, World Bank, etc.), as well as at representatives of civil society such as associations and NGOs, which use the festival as an occasion for organizing initiatives and consolidating their work with urban and village communities.
Man is born of man. Such is the law of the species. But is a biennial born of a biennial? The Venice Biennial has on occasion been presented as the model purportedly "under-developed" by Dak'Art:
The first Dakar Biennialwasorganizedin 99 , againwithastructureclosetothe pavilion model of the Venice Biennial. The first edition of Dak'Art was an international exhibition of contemporary art at which artists were grouped together by nationality. In order to select and invite foreign participants, the organizers contacted embassies, foreign cultural institutions, and international organizations, using a network linked mainly to the government and supplemented by a few personal contacts. It was therefore inevitable that the first Biennial should consecrate international political relations more than contemporary art.5
This presentation of events gives Venice a great deal of importance. n fact, there were no national pavilions at the 1992 Dakar Biennial of Arts and Literature. n the catalogue, the artists were presented by country for the sake of editorial convenience, as they were again in 1996, but this did not reflect the reality of the concept or the design of the exhibition. Certainly, the cultural centers of international partners facilitated the participation of artists from the countries concerned. But the vorians expected at this edition did not all appear and were not registered by the government. n her report, commissioned by the European Commission, sabelle Bosman noted: "It was announced that Africa, Europe, America, and Asia would all be taking part. The reality was that several countries, especially from Africa and Asia, were represented by only one or two works by a national based in Senegal or Europe. There were few direct relations with the countries concerned."6
A misconception: the Dakar Biennial has sometimes been presented as a replica of the Parisian exhibition devoted to those famous Magiciens de la terre held at the Centre Georges Pompidou and La Villette in 1989. Not only does this way of looking at things impute goals to Dak'Art that it does not have, but it implies that if you want to refute an exhibition put on in Paris you need not only another exhibition but a whole institution. ndeed, in 1990 or 1992, how many Senegalese even knew of the existence of Magiciens de la terre? And furthermore, how many Senegalese and African artists and intellectuals considered that exhibition as something that urgently needed to be refuted? n the presentation texts for the Biennial of Arts and Literature, and then of Dak'Art, Magiciens de la terre is nowhere to be seen. ndeed, neither the Venice Biennial nor Documenta nor Magiciens de la terre has claimed to have invented Dak'Art.
So, if the Dakar Biennial is neither a replica of the Venice Biennial nor an effect of Magiciens de la Terre, what is its origin? Of what is it the sign? How did it attain the undeniable renown that makes it one of the important events in the calendar of international biennials, and one of the biggest cultural events in contemporary Africa?
Rather than hypothesize, I propose to consider the thoughts of the social and political players who, in the field, while at the same time inventing the conditions of their everyday survival, were dealing with the shifts and orientations that have positioned the Biennial in the contemporary history of art and of Africa. The Dakar Biennial is an avatar of the Biennial of Arts and Literature. How could it be otherwise in the home of Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal?
Senghor voluntarily stepped down on December, 1980, after a twenty-year rule, retiring to France and leaving his heir apparent, Abdou Diouf, to complete his term of office. On March 9, 1984, the former president, a founding member of the Senegalese Socialist Party, was elected to the Academie Fran;;aise. This was the culmination of a long campaign waged by his friend Maurice Druon, and supported by the opportune accession to power of Fran;;ois Mitterrand and the French Left. n 989 Amadou Lamine Sall, the disciple that "the bard of negritude" considered the most gifted poet of his generation, and who had followed the master in his retirement in France, returned to Senegal and to the Culture Ministry. His name remains intimately linked to the implementation of the Biennial.
In his great solicitude, President Senghor, "the poet-president" who was also a critic and patron, had provided artists with a number of structures. The regime of President Abdou Diouf, when faced with the structural adjustment programs, chose not to maintain these. Consequently, important aspects of Senghor's cultural heritage were eroded. The privatization of Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines (NEA), the transformation of the Musée Dynamique into law courts, the termination of the aid and subventions that benefited artists and poets, the closure of the Village des Arts de la Corniche in 1983–all these acts of renunciation heightened the impression of a process of "de-Senghorization," causing much nostalgia and resentment. Artists became increasingly militant in their attitude, albeit reluctantly. For them, the opening of the National Gallery of Arts looked like no more than a feeble consolation prize. Under the directorship of Papa Ibra Tall, a comrade of Senghor's, the National Gallery hosted a Senegalo-Afro-American exhibition that featured only a handful of Senegalese artists. Those not included reacted by organizing the first National Salon of Visual Artists.
The following year, in 1986, the Salon chose an overtly political theme: "Art against Apartheid." That year, President Abdou Diouf "made the struggle against apartheid the defining theme of his tenure."7 Since that edition, the Salon has been placed under his patronage. The decision to organize a Biennial of Arts and Literature was announced by Diouf in October 1989. Ousseynou Wade, the second secretary general of the Dakar Biennial, links this step to the realpolitik of the time. The Diouf regime was all the more ready to lend an ear to artists’ concerns because it had just completed its second structural adjustment program.Itwas economically more comfortable and could more easily entertain the project of a Biennial of Arts and Literature, while at the same time opening a new Village of the Arts. Then, at the awards ceremony for the Grand Prizes of the Arts and Literature on August 6, 1990, when speaking about writers and artists, the head of state stated:
They will be offered a new expressive framework, the Dakar Biennial. As I previously announced in this same place, Dakar will be hosting the Biennial of the Arts and Literature from December 10 to 18, 1990. This regular event will enable men of culture on this continent and in other countries to meet and communicate and to share the fascinating experience of creating and recreating. Dakar will thus offer our peoples one of those moments of fraternity when a civilization creates, thinks about what it is, and prepares to go forth and conquer its future.8
Dak’Art began to present itself as a Pan- African arts festival in 1996. By positioning itself in this way it took as its center of gravity the intertwining of the "History of the Dark Continent" with the more or less edifying “story-ettes” of individual or collective subjects who partly or wholly identified with its destiny while at the same time moving it forward, rather as the walking man transports and projects his own shadow.Itwas standing up and speaking on behalf of Africa and in the name of Africa. The Pan-African option induces a theoretical position, an argument of a philosophical nature, and a style of case-making that are not unproblematic. The Pan-African role of the Dakar Biennial reduces participation by Senegalese artists in a biennial to only a limited number of places in an event for which they fought so hard-a meager share, in fact. Those who thought themselves naturally entitled to the Biennial reluctantly found themselves confirming the proverb, "There is only one hunter, but the whole village feasts."
Becoming a Pan-African arts festival meant that the Dakar Biennial exhibited fewer and fewer Senegalese works. Thus despoiled of their birthright, many have found an effective alternative in fringe events.
For Pan-Africanism the idea of African unity or union is a question not so much of essence as of meaning.Itrepresents a determination to confront the complexity of reality while gesturing towards a historico-mythical origin. The idea is to make Africa a living pulsation, to help it live and accept itself with as much dignity and as freely as possible, and to make the idea of African unity come alive, while keeping it from a monolithic conformism. The Cairo Biennial, which is particularly open to the Middle East and to Arab countries, hosts more artists from Europe than from sub-Saharan Africa. The Dakar Biennial bases its identity on a claim to promote African artists.
In 1995 the first Johannesburg Biennial was deliberately international, in which respect it was just like all the other biennials glittering in the firmament. Africa was its space, but in terms of time it was plugged in to the simultaneity of the global village. n Pan-Africanism, Africa was engaging with its internal and external realities, with the plasticity of its fixed and shifting identities. This was an Africa that was constantly moving, open and outspread in the complexity of its children’s relation to their adoptive lands, on the one hand, and to the motherland on the other. Between, so to speak, the father-earth and the mother-earth, several nodes of memories formed, and one could choose a number of them without contradicting oneself. The new information and communication technologies have changed man’s relation to space and time. Africa and Africanness have consequently been potentially reconfigured. While remaining the center of gravity for men and women who feel that they are named through its history and geography, Africa is constantly shifting on its foundations, in keeping with the movements of its children and their departures and returns. The African integration effected by Dak'Art is not only internal; it is also external. Dak'Art and events like it take on board an Africa that is open to its historic divisions and dismemberings. This approach is not authoritarian: those concerned and enrolled are only artists who recognize and accept their African origin.
The opening of Africa to its diasporas sets Africanness in motion.Italso reminds us that Africa is not only a geographical reality, but also an idea. n the words of Simon Njami, "an artist like Moataz Nasr discovered that he was African when he went to Dak'Art. He didn't know that such an event existed in Dakar. He went back to Cairo with a totally new physical, intellectual, and human map of Africa."
Behind the idea of Africa is a desire for Africa, a project sustained by the ambiguous energy and unconditional love and impatience of men of action. The fact of meeting up in Africa around a Pan-African project is part of this dynamic. The experience of the Biennial and of its strengths and weaknesses helps bond all those, both Africans and non-Africans, who dearly want Africa to be respected and worthy of respect.Itfeeds the desire for unity. For all that, however, the idea of Africa does not need to be either real or just. For it is a more or less phantasmal representation, and believers never ask for a certificate of authenticity.
This openness affects both the form and content of Dak'Art. The diaspora has accelerated the acceptance of new styles, including video and multimedia installations and performance, both at the Dakar Biennial and around Africa.Ithas thus exerted all its influence on the content of selections, haunted as these were by the question of so-called international criteria. From the outset, the bulk of selected artists were Africans from Europe. The selection process in place since 1996 is founded on the applications sent directly by would-be exhibitors to the Biennial’s general secretariat, and it is manifest that artists from the diaspora have been better than their continental counterparts at adding the technological trappings (transparencies, slides, then CDs) to their inherent talent, and that the quality of this presentation added to the value of their works. Better informed of artistic developments because of a more richly furnished cultural environment, better equipped, and highly motivated, they quickly develop a sublimated relation to the continent. All of this stimulates the imagination and enhances art-making. Arithmetical data aside, the artists of the diaspora show that distance can be a motivation for getting more intensely involved in the questioning of origins. More than Africans living in Africa, communities that have exported the idea of Africa feel the need to keep a living connection to the continent. Culture is one way of doing so. Between history and memory, domination and resistance, it sustains the will to survive and remember in men and women living in different contexts and time frames who, despite themselves, are reinventing their identity. Leibniz's theory of the monad offers the brilliant idea of the subject's radical singularity. As a monad, each subject sees the world from a unique viewpoint, and, to speak like Aime Cesaire, from the viewpoint of a cry that only he can articulate. Depending on the amount and quality of reflexive effort put into making his particular relation to the world intelligible, the subject helps or does not help to make the world better. But the general state of efforts produced by all, validated at every moment by God, produces the best of all possible worlds. The privilege and responsibility of artists and men of culture is that they are aware that it is their role to understand and communicate their particular relation to the world.
All art bears a relation to society.Itcan rehearse its cultural and moral givens and change form when its social base is irremediably transformed. The notion of contemporary art adumbrates a visual space in which societies, all societies, are encouraged to be in tune with the historical and technological changes informing artistic practices. n Africa, contemporary art has been popularized by biennials and festivals. Better than museums, which are to a great extent the prisoners of the anthropological vocation of conserving heritage, and better than galleries, which are focused on the model of the artwork as something that can be transferred to a private living room, biennials have managed to find a place for this new aesthetic that validates a certain number of operations, including the substitution of the representation of the object for its presentation, the abolition of boundaries between disciplines, the subversion of style, the destructuring of forms, the transfiguration of disciplines, the integration of new media such as photography, video, installations, and all the approaches drawing on the language but not the machinery of cinema, etc. We may note in particular that contemporary art is pursuing a radical questioning of the traditional notion of approved modernism. Henceforth distanced from the models of the demiurge and the genius, the artist no longer even needs to have talent or to exhibit a particular know-how.Itis enough for him to have an idea, a concept, and to ensure that he has the means to put on a powerful and even spectacular visual presentation.
The problematic of the contemporary came to the fore at the same time as major exhibitions, such as the Dakar and Johannesburg biennials. There is a factual contiguity between contemporary art and the biennial as a specific form of exhibition. The biennial as authority and institution is an element within the contemporary art system.Itdesignates great artists in collaboration with the active community of gallery directors, museum and non-museum curators, and critics.Itis worth describing the conditions in which this element emerged. Dakar has no contemporary art museum, only a national gallery, cultural centers run in cooperation with other nations, and a few private galleries. n this environment, the event that is the Biennial holds all the power that would devolve to institutions if they existed. This state of affairs endows the Biennial with immense institutional power. n fact, the Biennial assumes and exercises the power of the museum before sharing it with curators. And there is much to be shared. The time of biennials is also the time of curators. This makes the Biennial a performative instance of the contemporaneity of art in Africa.
Biennials stage the contemporary. ndeed, they have promoted this adjective, which implies certain international criteria for the selection of artists. Consequently, the Dakar Biennial has been the home of international critics and curators who, along with a few African specialists, have articulated their version of contemporary art in Africa. This construction is based not on unanimity but on debate and confrontation.
The blockbuster exhibition fits with the modern and postmodern logic of the "society of the spectacle." n the Biennial, Senegal puts Africa on stage and attempts to negotiate a place in what Heidegger defined as the time of representation. The Dakar Biennial represents Africa not only by speaking in its name, but also by its presence in places where Africa is absent: in the supermarkets of culture and the spectacle. It also represents Africa in that it gives it a new presence: a presence in the contemporary, when Africa is endlessly associated with tradition and folklore. It represents it in a different light, so to speak: it gives it a makeover. In this respect, it is a form of resistance against residual colonialism. But at least since Cain, we have known that it is not enough to destroy the other if we want to escape the power of his gaze.The nineteen-nineties were characterized by a play of forces on the art system that encouraged relative optimism. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Eastern Bloc gave wings to the discourse of globalization. One practical effect of these discourses was precisely that more and more Africans could make themselves heard in the world of contemporary art. The first African presences at the Venice Biennial (the world's oldest) are part of this context. n 1986 Venice thus saw its first participation by artists from South Africa, which was still under the apartheid regime at the time. This signal to Africa was stronger at the 1990 edition, which included five African artists: Tapfuma Gutsa, Henry Makembera, and Muyarase from Zimbabwe, El Anatsui from Ghana, and Bruce Onobrakpeya from Nigeria. Mustapha Dime was invited to Venice in 1992, and Ousmane Sow in 1998. These timid but regular overtures whetted African artists' appetite for visibility. Could it be said that the call for an African biennial was driven by the desire to make up for the lack of visibility of African artists? To answer this question in the affi 攷rmative would be tantamount to saying that a satisfying representation of African artists at existing biennials would have removed the need for an African biennial. However, the organization of a major cultural event is not just a solution to problems of the "artistic showroom" variety; it is also an undertaking in which human resources are mobilized and remobilized on a number of levels. A lack of visibility does not mean only that Africa is not suffi 攷ciently shown.Italso implies the dubious nature of those infrequent presentations in which Africa is poorly shown and inappropriately named.
In a general context where criticism is timid, galleries rare, collectors unlikely, and the public evanescent, the Biennial helps to polarize, inject dynamism, and mediate.Itprovides proof that an art system can exist without a formal museum.Italso makes the case for contemporary African art, illustrating its existence and showing that it can be encountered somewhere in Africa, if one makes an appointment. Another challenge is to get African art away from provincialism so that, without having to go to New York or London, an artist in Bangui or Bujumbura can become known and recognized and sell his work. Unlike other major exhibitions, such as Magiciens de la terre, which have aroused interest and stirred debate about contemporary African art, the Dakar Biennial is held in Africa.Itstands as a concrete record of the consciousness and memory of African professionals and of the general public.It does not relate to history by proxy.Itis, rather, an objective given in which the main protagonists are both Africa and the situation. One important function of Dak'Art is thus to integrate it into the distribution circuits of so-called global art, which tends to mean Western art.
Recognition of Africa by the West came slowly and late.Itremains incomplete and can perhaps never be complete. The fact remains that the history of this recognition shows art and artists to have been in the vanguard of a struggle that was heavily conflictual, both symbolically and in reality. This recognition has not been without violence.9 The recognition of African art as part of universal art is the humanist aspect of a violent practice of expropriation. At first real and brutal, this has since become more diffuse, more complex.
What is at stake in a theory of African art (and therefore of a biennial of African art such as Dak'Art) is determined around a central proposition: Africa may have in some ways been "underdeveloped" (you never know), but certainly never on the level of the arts.
This essay is an abridged and translated version of several chapters of: Yacouba Konaté, La Biennale de Dakar: Pour une esthétique de la création africaine contemporaine: Tête à tête avec Adorno (Paris, 2009).
Translation by Charles Penwarden.
1 Éliane Burnet, “L’Africain de service: Des zoos humains aux biennales d’art contemporain,” Éthiopiques, no. 73 (2004), http://www.refer.sn/ethiopiques/article.php3?id_ article=117&artsuite=4.
4 In 2008, for the 150 professionals invited by the Biennial, including the chosen artists, 300 other professionals made the trip on their own initiative. We can therefore say that in that year, for every ticket or hotel room provided by the Biennial, two others were bought by international art professionals and cultural tourists. The Biennial also has this stimulating effect where exhibitions are concerned. In 2009 there were 160 exhibitions in the unofﬁcial part of the event and their average budget was 5,000 euros. In all, Senegalese, African, and international cultural operators invest more money in the Biennial than do its state and international partners. The sums thus injected are of beneﬁt in the ﬁrst instance to artists, for whom Dak’Art is a space for exhibiting and selling work. It is estimated that an average of three works are sold per exhibition. Of course, not all exhibitions offer works for sale. With the average price being 1,000 euros, it’s easy enough to do the math.
9 The violence of seizure and theft was still in evidence when the Dakar–Djibouti mission led by Marcel Griaule with, among others, Michel Leiris crossed Africa in 1929. To put it simply, while in Paris the Cubists were celebrating “negro” sculptures, scientiﬁc missions were conﬁscating and stealing objects from “the natives,” working under the immunity provided by the colonial administration.