Dakar biennale spurs life in Africa’s contemporary art

Carley Petesch
Associated Press

Dakar, Senegal –

Videos projected onto massive buildings, pop-up art galleries and installations in an old courthouse are features of the Dakar Biennale, Africa’s largest contemporary art festival currently enlivening Senegal’s capital.

Held every two years, Dak’Art gives African and diaspora artists an opportunity to engage with each other and audiences from around the world.

The theme of the 12th edition of the Dakar biennale, “The City in the Blue Daylight,” is taken from an excerpt of a poem written by Senegal’s first democratically elected president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, a poet and strong supporter of cultural activity.

“It’s a dream of building a nation where people would all be brothers, would all be happy, it was a dream. And I think that we need to refuel our world with dreams of that kind,” said the artistic director of this year’s biennale, Simon Njami.

The main exhibition at the Dakar biennale, which ends Friday, features artists from Senegal, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, France and beyond.

The abandoned interior of the former Palais de Justice in downtown Dakar houses some of the art. Music played from Alexis Peskine’s “Raft of Medusa” video and an art installation that pays homage to migrants can be heard upon entering the space of the former courthouse. Sunlight pours through the central open roof onto an installation of hanging clothes with prints on them by Mouna Jemal Siala, who is from France and Tunisia.

One hallway has pasted to its walls articles about violence in Syria and Egypt, leading to a room of trees shaped from slingshots made of iron rods normally used to erect buildings and barricades as part of work by Kader Attia, from Algeria and France. A cloud of plastic bags surrounded by a barbed wire hangs from the high ceiling, a work called “Un reve” or “A dream” by Nabil Boutros, from France and Egypt.

Next to it, art by Arebenor Bassene, who lives in Senegal, mixes English, the local Wolof and French in writing that looks like hieroglyphics from afar.

“When they talk about the contemporary art world, they talk little about Africa. We have so much to say,” he said. Dak’Art is an important opportunity for the artists to expose their work to an international audience, he said.

At the biennale, European artists collaborated with Senegalese artists as part of an Afropixel project to digitally map large buildings, enlivening them with video projections of life in Dakar, scenes and patterns that hundreds gathered at different times and places to watch.

The festival’s energy also comes from what it calls the Dak’Art OFF, with over 260 expositions around the city, under awnings, in parks, restaurants and in homes. Musicians pair with fashion designers and others to create concerts and events alongside the art.

Komla Eza, who is from Togo, but has been in a residency in Senegal since last year, showed sculptures made from colorful, recycled and compressed flip flops and shaped into animal-like forms to focus people on the environment.

“The biennale this year is important because it helps affirm me and my work,” said Eza. “It helps me become a bigger part of the African art scene.”