At the Palais de Justice, a vast and crumbling courthouse-turned-gallery in Dakar, Senegal, anxious-looking artists put the finishing touches on their exhibitions. The grand opening of Dak’Art 2022 is the following day.
Angolan textile artist Ana Silva meticulously sews bright orange wool throughout her delicate artwork comprising female figures embroidered on lace, doilies and raffia bags. South African sculptor Ralph Borland lugs rocks to his exhibition space to use as weights for a 4m-high comic book-inspired print that needs overnight glueing. Ferielle Doulain from Tunisia patiently weaves fine rope through hundreds of bright blue plastic throat tubes. Hanging from the ceiling, her piece is starting to look like a giant undulating waterfall.
As curators dash from room to room, offering feedback, encouragement and new ideas, they are also on hand to source raw materials and assistants for artists desperate to make their visions come alive before time runs out. Eager to help, I am enlisted to race across town to buy yellow spray paint before the shops close for the night.
Egyptian sculptor Karem Ibrahim naps on a bench, exhausted from long days and nights welding his giant egg-like structures. Nearby, teams of workers bring bricks by the wheelbarrow, building a round structure that looks like a water well. It is an installation by French-Cameroonian Beya Gille Gacha titled L’Autre Royaume, meaning “The Other Kingdom”. Suddenly, the work is ready after a beaded royal-blue sculpture of a young girl is placed in the middle of the well. Dazzling and serene, looking up to the sky, the figure was created using traditional Bamiléké beadwork from Cameroon. The effect is breathtaking: a figure of hope in a sacred space made from raw earth, water, air.
Some artists have shipped their paintings ahead of time; others have chosen the challenge of creating work from scratch here in Dakar. Moroccan artist Laila Hida’s installation, Everything is Temporary, was created from her daily treks to Dakar markets, where she noticed that street vendors used cheap China-made bullhorns to advertise their wares. She bought one of them and used its recording function to record her own voice in French. She left it in the space she set up, along with other items bought at the market: men’s shirts, a bench and a book about the controversial Senagalese politician Blaise Diagne, a former mayor of Dakar and a man accused by WEB du Bois of lacking commitment to African interests by accommodating French rule.
Each object tells a story, but the visitors who wander through the space can create their own narrative. Over the past few days, Hida has carefully rearranged the objects, adding here, subtracting there until, finally, she stops.
Healing and care
Across the city in a different venue, South African curator Greer Valley is relieved. After “literally watching paint dry” for days, she has finally been able to install her exhibition titled Unsettled. It is a collection of artworks along the theme of land justice and unbelonging in southern Africa, inspired in part by the 110th anniversary next year of South Africa’s 1913 Native Land Act.
One of the works, by Zayaan Khan, consists of clay vessels, salt, ash, pieces of coral and candles laid out on a table. It conveys a sense of offerings either from or to ancestors, of healing the violence of our society through coming together, through rituals of food and feasts. Valley walks around the table, tenderly adding water to the vessels.
There is a thread of tenderness and care woven throughout Dak’Art 2022, in the way the artists set up their individual work and as I witness them supporting each other while building out their spaces in the days leading up to the opening. Valley tells me that without the help from other guest curators and collectives like the School of Mutants, a Dakar-based collaborative platform for research, art and activism, “it would have been very difficult to have it all up in the required time”. Perhaps it is always like this, or perhaps this tenderness comes in part from the cautious delight these artists feel at being able to be together in person, finally.
This edition of the biennale was delayed for two years because of the pandemic. The theme this year is “Ĩ’Ndaffa”, which in the Serer language means “to forge”. The curators chose the expression “Out of the Fire” to express the alchemy of the act of production, and to highlight the role that artists can play in healing our societies after the pandemic made manifest the deep wounds and inequalities that were already present.
Here in Dakar, a city with art in its DNA (the first president of Senegal, Léopold Senghor, was a poet, among other things) and a dedicated generation of young artists committed to building on its legacy, the biennale fosters a mode of relating to one another that celebrates African unity and favours collaboration over competition. There is, indeed, a kind of forging at work, both in the physical structures being built to support the actual artworks as well as in the artists’ need to draw on collective skills in order to get things done. The brew of creative visions from all over Africa as well as Cuba infuses the space with the spirit of collectivity, and gives permission to dream up new possible futures.
The Dakar Biennale runs until 21 June.
Disclosure: Borland is the writer’s partner.