Walking through the 2004 Whitney Biennial after visiting Dak'Art: The Biennial of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, Senegal, on the previous weekend, I found myself making comparisons between the two exhibitions on aesthetic and conceptual levels.
Both are massive undertakings that survey the contemporary art landscape with a geographic focus, and on some level both are meant to be arbiters of the zeitgeist. Each platform presents newly commissioned pieces and existing works and attempts to avoid totalising approaches to "American" and "African" art practices. While the Whitney Museum may have an edge over Dak'Art as a venue (considering space, installation methods and technology), and undoubtedly more access to resources and infrastructure, I found the overall quality of art in Dakar more inspiring than that in the Whitney.
Dak'Art 2004 (May 7 to June 7) presents 33 artists and five designers from 16 African countries, along with three separate exhibitions curated by Yacouba Konate, Ivo Mesquita and Hans Ulrich Obrist. In addition to the official offerings, there are more than 130 auxiliary OFF exhibitions on view across Dakar, Gorée Island, St Louis and other regional venues. Ideally, one should dedicate at least a week to Dak'Art to properly navigate and experience the art and its vibrant host city, Dakar.
The International Committee of Selection for Dak'Art brought together a diverse range of art professionals from around the world, including Meskerem Assegued (Ethiopia), Emma Bedford (South Africa), Thomas Boutoux (France), Sara Diamond (Canada), Gerald Matt (Austria), Didier Pierre Schaub (Cameroon), Victor-Emmanuel Cabrita and Ousseynou Wade (Senegal).
A grand opening ceremony for the International Exhibition was held on May 7 at CICES, the International Centre for Foreign Trade in Senegal and main exhibition venue. During the festivities, numerous performances took place, formal speeches were given, and M Abdoulaye Wade, President of the Republic of Senegal, presided over the official award ceremony. The President's Prize was awarded to Michele Magema (Democratic Republic of Congo) for Oye Oye; the Ministry of Culture and Listed Heritage's Prize was given to Asmae Lahkin Bennani (Morocco); the Prize of the European Community went to Jules Bertrand Wokam (Cameroon); Francophonie's Prize was awarded to Khaled Hafez (Egypt); the Cultural Centre of Marseille's Prize went to Maha Maamoun (Egypt); and Thando Mama (South Africa) won the Community of Belgium's Prize for We Are Afraid.
At the CICES entrance, the Laboratoire Debelinisation installed an exchange bureau where visitors could purchase second edition Afro currency. Conceptualised as a "pschyo-social media intervention" by Mansour Ciss and Baruch Gottlieb (and launched at Dak'Art 2002), the Afro is one currency for all of Africa. The polychromatic currency is sold in hand-made fabric pouches and is said to be indestructible.
One of many highlights in the International Exhibition is Zoulikha Bouadellah's 2001 video installation Dansons in which the artist drapes her torso in an elaborate red, white and blue spangled scarf and performs an erotic belly dance to the French national anthem. Printing panoramic images of dress fragments and cityscapes onto vinyl, artist Maha Maamoun poetically infuses urban scenes in Cairo with feminine imagery. Poised to jump off the edge of her board, Doreen Southwood's Swimmer inhabits a central location on the second floor at CICES. Southwood puts a dark twist on her Swimmer as the angelic swimmer bears a brass-coloured plug in her back end — suggesting that her tenuated limbs will have to paddle quite earnestly to keep her brass-cast body afloat.
Bridging working methods used in her earlier portraiture work in the 1980s with recent photography-based works, Sue Williamson's Better Lives (2003) presents an installation of oversized studio portraits with a DVD projection. Williamson's piece focuses on people who have relocated to Cape Town from other parts of Africa in search of opportunity and ultimately, as the title suggests, a better life. Working in this method of recovery and reconstruction of personal histories, triumphs and memories, Williamson's Better Lives adds to her evolving visual vocabulary that chronicles and records vignettes of South African life.3x3: Three Artists/Three Projects is the standout OFF contribution curated by Salah Hassan and Cheryl Finley. Artists David Hammons, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Pamela Z were selected by Hassan and Finley to represent the United States. In conversation, Hassan commented that artists and projects were orchestrated to optimise local Senegalese interaction. I felt fortunate to be able to witness Pamela Z perform An Evening of Works for Voice, Electronics and Video at the Théâtre National Daniel Sorano. Using her voice, projected images, an empty water bottle and computer-aided technology, she delivered a riveting performance. At the historic Maison des Esclaves (house of slaves) on Gorée Island, Pamela Z also contributed a six-channel audio installation entitled Just Dust.
Campos-Pons' Threads of Memory site-specific installation is presented in a converted textile factory now called Cacao Dakar, Centre d'Art Contemporain Afrique de l'Ouest. A Cuban of African descent living in America, her piece presents five parallel stories of memory, diaspora and displacement on five screens along with a series of oversized beaded strands, a conical sculpture that recalls a Yoruba beaded crown, and an otherworldly piece of machinery. Beautifully colour-saturated projections alternate rhythmically on the five screens illustrating still-life images, abstractions and real-time footage captured at subway stations in New York City and Boston.
Hammons' project entitled Dak'Art 2004 Sheep Raffle, conceptualised as an ephemeral project that would resonate locally, took place daily at Avenue Bourguiba. Raffle tickets, written in French and Wolof, were distributed free of charge on a daily basis. Each day at 4pm from May 6 to 13, Hammons raffled off one sheep. Critics were quick to call attention to the fact that sheep raffles like these, called Tombola de Moutons, are staged regularly by promotional agencies. However, I believe the genius of Hammons' project lies in his appropriation of the sheep raffle as a compelling strategy to further his engagement with "the idea of the performative". Furthermore, the time-specific event forced biennial visitors to embark on an adventure to find the appropriate raffle intersection and engage with the local population during the festivities.
Returning to the juxtaposition of Dak'Art 2004 with the 2004 Whitney Biennial, I found that artists in both of these exhibitions are dealing with issues that range from intimately personal to overtly political, blending elements of popular culture into the fabric of their visual vocabularies, and are articulating anxieties and uncertainties about the current state of the world. In other words, artists from diverse backgrounds are working with similar issues in a multitude of creative ways.
In closing I decided to ask several of the artists why they felt it was important to participate in an African-based biennial. Sue Williamson responded that, "In the absence of the Johannesburg Biennale, Dak'Art is the only international exhibition focused on the contemporary visual artists of Africa — and for me, its significance is providing the opportunity to have my work viewed not only by the art world visitors from Europe and the US but also by my colleagues from the rest of the continent. In turn, I greatly value the chance to meet them and see the new work they are making." In this spirit, I hope that Dak'Art will continue to engage local and international artists, intellectuals and politicians within creative contexts.
Laurie Ann Farrell is Curator at the Museum for African Art, New York