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					exhibition review




Dak’Art 2008
 musée de l’Institut Fondamen-
 tal d’Afrique Noire and Galerie
 Nationale, Bamako
 may 9–June 9, 2008
 Dakar, senegal


     First Impressions
   Kinsey Katchka
   The 2008 Dak’Art Biennale of Contempo-           physical violence inflicted on one or both col-       these should be cultivated in successive edi-
rary African Arts marked the eighth edition         ors alludes to the fate of all peoples involved       tions. Is it appropriate for Senegalese artists,
of this important event on the continent, one       in the racial tensions that underlie many             as members of the host country, to have a spe-
that has been a critical launching point for        world histories, including that of apartheid in       cial presence within this continental frame-
many artists from Africa into a more global         the artist’s South African homeland. In each          work? In a nation where the government has
forum. Alongside the Biennale’s main art exhi-      case, these artists’ works represent thought-         a long history of supporting modern/contem-
bitions at the Musée de l’Institut Fondamen-        ful reflection on self and society, speaking to       porary art and artists, and with the Biennale
tal d’Afrique Noire at Place Soweto and the         their multifaceted identities as artists, citizens,   being a primary forum for contemporary art
Galerie Nationale on the other side of down-        humans, and Africans.                                 organized by the national government, it is
town, the Salon de Design, a fashion show,             While thirty-six artists from thirteen African     understandable that some artists have a sense
colloquium and, in recent years, an expanding       and three diasporic countries were represented,       of entitlement in this event as other sources of
“OFF” program have provided ample discur-           Senegal exhibited ten artists, which many par-        support have dwindled over time.
sive grounds and alternative spaces through-        ticipants perceived as disproportionate. This has        Where experience is concerned, should this
out the city for engaging with contemporary         occurred frequently in the past and has been          be approached as a forum for celebrating the
art forms from Africa and elsewhere.                the subject of recurrent criticism, especially        most accomplished artists on the continent,
   From a curatorial perspective, I found this      since many of the same Senegalese artists have        or for exhibiting and launching promising art-
edition to be more limited than in the past,        been consistently represented. It would perhaps       ists who may not yet have had the opportu-
though the work of a number of compelling           not have been striking to those visitors new to       nity to attain visibility and expand professional
emerging artists selected for the main exhibi-      the festival, but was decidedly apparent and          networks, an aspect in keeping with the Bien-
tions stood out. Achille Komguem’s (dit Achil-      frequently discussed among those that follow          nale’s asserted objectives for cultural develop-
lèka) video “Precarité” captures the constant       contemporary African arts and attend Dak’Art          ment? Perhaps some balanced and more clearly
movement and precarious traffic patterns            regularly. Repeat attendees also often made           defined combination addressing the various
of Douala’s urban environment while meta-           comparisons to the ambitious tour-de-force of         stakeholders merits careful consideration at this
phorically evoking the touch-and-go nature of       the 2006 Dak’Art, at times lamenting the back-        juncture. While Biennale objectives have been
urban life. Nandipha Mntambo’s digital print        wards step in a Biennale that has been seen as        articulated in the past, the declarations have
series “Silent Embrace” (Fig. 1) is at once vis-    “improving” over time. However, perhaps it is         been in broad language that has been difficult
ceral and pristine; the large-scale prints’ cot-    difficult to speak in terms of qualitative “prog-     to implement and realize.
ton rag paper texturizes the imagery of animal      ress” with such a forum, where circumstances             This review is, of course, subjective, as peo-
hides that read as if they are stretched over       surrounding the planning, administration, and         ple experience events of this scale in very dif-
a voluptuous female body. Were they mod-            budget are so much in flux.                           ferent ways. To this end, instead of one review,
eled by someone whose human form was                   Indeed, even if many people did not find           the editor invited several writers to respond
digitally extracted, or is it a trick of the eye?   the 2008 Biennale particularly exciting, it did       the 2008 Dak’Art Biennale and to reflect on
Zakaria Ramhani’s haunting portrait mirages         demonstrate the complex, ongoing politics             its many facets, nuances, challenges, and great
in “Visage de ton autre 3,” composed of script      at play, including the ever-present tension           possibilities.
from which faces clearly emerge, challenge          between Senegalese artists—many of whom
the notion of self and other in an age marked       are of the opinion that they merit special rep-       Kinsey Katchka is associate curator of mod-
by global terrorism and interrogate the role        resentation in what they consider a domes-            ern and contemporary art at North Carolina
of language in the formation of (in)distinct        tic art event—and the broader continental             Museum of Art and adjunct professor at Univer-
identities and stereotypes. Johann van der          purview that underlies the Biennale mission.          sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. kkatchka@
Schijff ’s seemingly playful kinetic sculptures     This gets at the heart of matters that, through-      gmail.com
invite viewer engagement, such as a leather         out the years, have threatened to destabilize
punching bag in the form of a head, one half        the Biennale. Inevitably one must revisit this
dark brown-black, the other ivory (Fig. 2). The     forum’s key purpose and objectives, and how


84   |   african arts summer 2009
                                                     (opposite)
  A View from the south                              1    Nandipha Mntambo
                                                     Silent Embrace (2007)
   Carol Brown                                       Digital prints on cotton rag paper;
   It is ironic that, just as the Dak’Art Biennale   173cm x 91cm (68" x 36")
was opening, further south on the continent,         Edition of 5 + 2AP
in South Africa, there was a wave of xenopho-        Photo: toNy MEiNtjEs, courtEsy of
                                                     MichAEl stEvENsoN, cAPE towN
bic hatred which led to countless attacks and
murders. These were symbolized by the now            (this page)
famous “Burning Man” photo, beamed across            2 johann can der schijff
the world, of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhumuave, a           Slaansak / Punch Bag (2005)
35-year-old immigrant from Mozambique who            Galvanized and painted mild steel,
                                                     stainless steel, aluminium, brass,
was burnt alive in Johannesburg on Sunday,           tanned leather, rubber; 152cm x
May 18, 2008, in a wave of xenophobic attacks.       160cm x 90cm (60" x 63" x 35½")
This outrage had been brewing for some time,         Photo: GEoff GruNDliNGh, coPyriGht

as many South Africans have felt that their          johANN vAN DEr schijff 2005

jobs and resources are being taken by refugees
from neighboring countries such as DRC and
Zimbabwe. Even more ironic, many of those
countries had provided shelter and sanctuary
for anti-apartheid activists in earlier years.
   While politicians fail in their initiatives to
unite the African continent and to realize Presi-    artists and one European museum curator.                         tions to these problems. It could be the power-
dent Mbeki’s dream of an African Renaissance,        The previous Dak’Art had a lead, African cura-                   house of contemporary African art and become
maybe artists can play a larger role. It would be    tor assisted by seven others based throughout                    a dynamic space attracting the world. Dakar
idealistic to believe that art events could solve    Africa, Europe, and the United States, each                      is ideally placed to do so and hopefully a wave
these problems but it is possible that they could    concentrating on a particular geographic area;                   of renewed vigour will sweep through the city
provide liminal spaces where people from differ-     hence, the result was a stronger selection, with                 before the next Dak’Art.
ent areas could come together in an atmosphere       eighty-five artists from twenty-eight coun-
of sharing and mutual understanding. Just pos-       tries, including the diaspora. This year’s selec-                Carol Brown is a South African independent
sibly such encounters could reduce the level of      tion yielded only thirty-six artists from sixteen                curator and writer, part-time curator of the Con-
suspicion between people from different coun-        countries. Small pickings from a continent of                    stitutional Hill art collection, and the KwaZulu-
tries on the continent.                              fifty-three countries.                                           Natal editor of the website www.artthrob.co.za.
   If strategic advantage means anything, then           The theme of this year’s biennale was “Africa:               cbrown.durban@gmail.com
Dakar is the perfect place for a pan-African         Mirror?” which is appropriate because it invited
biennale. Situated on the westernmost tip of         the continent to look at its failures and suc-
Africa, it is halfway between Johannesburg           cesses. Many African countries have celebrated                     major Themes
and New York and is also one of the easier           or are about to celebrate their fiftieth anniver-                   Ferdinand de Jong
African cities to access and negotiate in terms      saries of independence from colonial rule. This                     At the latest Dak’Art Biennale, artists
of infrastructure. Given these drawcards, as         year alone, the list includes Burkina Faso, Cen-                 addressed a wide range of themes, but one
a South African I was surprised by the small         tral African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea,                    received exceptionally wide coverage, namely
number of visitors from my country present           Mali, and Niger. More than ever, Dak’Art needs                   the international migration of Africans to
at the Biennale. South African art followers,        to undergo a period of self-reflection, one that                 Europe, which was dealt with by artists of vari-
curators, and artists flock to Venice, Kassel,       will hopefully help it to consolidate its position               ous nationalities and in a variety of media.
Basel, and the other 240 or so biennales every       as the largest and longest-running platform for                  This migration has become increasingly prob-
year, but not many go to Dakar. We do not            contemporary African art. Responding to critic                   lematic, not least as a result of the chang-
participate in any meaningful way, and rather        Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of the                    ing immigration policies which have turned
than consolidating our resources in Africa, we       group exhibition “Flow,” art historian Sylvester                 Europe into a fortress, forcing migrants to
still look to Europe and America for artistic        Ogbechie posed on his blog a question related                    adopt increasingly desperate methods to arrive
approval. It is true that the exhibition standard    to the context of contemporary African art.                      at their destination. This has led migrants to
at Dakar varies with each edition and that year                                                                       embark on hazardous journeys in fishermen’s
after year we hear the refrain that the Biennale       If this context is truly global, why are curators not exhib-   vessels that sail from beaches on the West
cannot survive. But somehow it does, and it is         iting the works of African artists who live and work in        African coast to the Spanish Canary Islands.
now the most sustainable biennale on the con-          Africa, to enunciate their particular aesthetic and politi-    In spite of their capable crews, these pirogues
tinent. Nonetheless, it is still a problem that it     cal orientation or at least get their viewpoint about how      regularly shipwreck, and the aspiring migrants
receives insufficient financial support and suf-       they see themselves in relation to the global context? Do      often drown in the ocean. Every year, thou-
fers from an inadequate infrastructure.                African artists always have to wait to be “discovered”         sands are estimated to die in this undignified
   There is no doubt that this event has enor-         by Western curators or discourses before they and their        fashion. As rising levels of unemployment on
mous potential in bringing local and other             contexts of practice assume global importance? (http://        the African continent leave aspiring young
African artists to a wider audience. But, apart        aachronym.blogspot.com, April 2008).                           men with no other option than to risk their
from the problem of infrastructure, another                                                                           luck in Europe, the Senegalese have encapsu-
important issue to consider is that of curato-          I add to that by commenting that Africa                       lated the predicament in the apt phrase Barça
rial input. The overall head of the curatorial       should not only be exhibiting its own artists but                ou Barsakh (‘Barcelona or death’).
committee this year was Maguèye Kassé, a             creating more infrastructure in which to do so.                     The “In” program (official selection) of the
professor of German, assisted by two African         The context of the Biennale is able to offer solu-               2008 Biennale featured at least four African art-


                                                                                                                                           summer 2009 african arts
                                                                                                                                                                      | 85
                                    ists who addressed this theme. The installation       try. Human figures do not appear in any of
                                    by the Togolese artist Sokey Edorh comprised          these rooms. Empty couches suggest that the
                                    nine canvases that depicted various scenes            migrants have not truly arrived at their desti-
                                    inspired by migration. Pictures of boats and          nation. Open doors and empty corners signal
                                    black swimming/drowning bodies against an             absence. In fact, these migrants seem to live a
                                    otherwise translucent background set in pastel        life of ghosts. Striking in these works is the sen-
                                    colors stirred one’s imagination. The contra-         sitivity with which Quax visualises the predica-
                                    diction between the hope of the migrants and          ment of the migrants (Fig. 4).
                                    the risk of failing to reaching their destina-            Less ethereal and more direct was a docu-
                                    tion was captured in the work’s beautiful title,      mentary film shown in the studio of the late
                                    Les Naufragés de l’espoir (‘Hopes shipwrecked’;       Moustapha Dimé at Gorée Island, A Journey
                                    Fig. 3). The impossibility for migrants to real-      through Hell. Made by the American artist Dan-
                                    ize their aspirations is, of course, directly         iel Grand-Clement, it showed the harrowing
                                    related to Europe’s exclusionary politics. In the     journey that Ethiopians embark on to get across
                                    National Gallery, the Cameroon artist Blaise          the Red Sea to the state of Yemen. We learn
                                    Bang explored this theme further. His instal-         how these people travel with barely any means
                                    lation consisted of shoes, some of which were         to the Eritrean coast and how they are selected
                                    bound in metal strings, and set in front of a         by the transporters, in spite of the instruction
                                    closed door. Its title, Egalité, clearly suggested    provided by European NGOs to deter them
                                    the opposite. Exclusion is also addressed by the      from travelling. The worst part of the journey
                                    Senegalese Soly Cissé. In the video European          is undoubtedly the crossing of the Red Sea in
                                    Union the stars of the European flag are “liber-      barges full of human cargo. Any discontent
                                    ated” and set on a life of their own.                 aboard the barge is immediately suppressed by
                                       While the blame is thus put on the European        the crew, who do not refrain from using their
                                    Union, the work by the Senegalese artist Baba-        belts as whips. In this context, the crossing
                                    car Niang calls for an evaluation of the context      of the Red Sea refers both to the “Flight from
                                    in which migration is seen as the only viable         Egypt” and, perhaps more acutely, to the slave
                                    option at all. His Émigration clandestine: le         trade. As a participant, the photographer has
3 sokey Erdoh (b. 1955, togo)       grand débat is a collage of newspaper clippings       simply witnessed the horrors of this journey
Les naufragés de l’espoir (2007)    which called for an examination of the root           and relays them to the public that faces the task
Paint, silkscreen
                                    causes of international migration. His open-          of digesting its scandalous nature. This docu-
Photo: NAtioNAl MusEuM of MAli
                                    ended approach does not exclude the possibility       mentary raises questions regarding art as moral
4 judith Quax (Netherlands)         that the causes of migration lie in part within       and political engagement.
Ils partent                         Senegalese society. Another call for reflection is        In short, the theme of migration is
Photograph                          attempted in Abdoulaye Mane’s work, exhibited         addressed in politicizing, moralizing, and
Photo: courtEsy of juDith QuAx
                                    in the “Off ” program. His twenty-four paint-         empathizing ways. However, the predica-
                                    ings constitute a series that narrates the chro-      ments of migrants are portrayed in realist or
                                    nology of migration in a rather pedagogical           metaphorical representations, light or dark
                                    fashion, suggesting that a return to agriculture      ways. It is clear that international migration is
                                    would offer a panacea to the desperate situa-         now both the most conspicuous result of the
                                                      tion that forces many to opt for    despair Africa’s youth faces on the continent
                                                      migration. This suggestion is in    as well as a central metaphor for the place of
                                                      keeping with President Wade’s       Africa in the world.
                                                      proposition to counter illegal
                                                      migration, however impractical      Ferdinand de Jong is lecturer in anthropology
                                                      such a proposition may sound        at the School of World Art Studies and Museol-
                                                      to the Africa’s urban youth.        ogy of the University of East Anglia, where he
                                                         While these artists addressed    teaches the anthropology of art, material cul-
                                                      international migration in a        ture, and heritage. He is currently working on a
                                                      way that “politicizes” migra-       monograph provisionally titled Remembering
                                                      tion, others “immersed” them-       the Nation: Heritage/Memory in Postcolonial
                                                      selves as witnesses. The Dutch      Senegal. F.Jong@uea.ac.uk
                                                      artist Judith Quax presented
                                                      a series of photographs that
                                                      depict the rooms that Sen-
                                                      egalese migrants had lived in
                                                      before they left their country,
                                                      as well as the rooms that they
                                                      occupy in their destination city.
                                                      Bare Senegalese rooms alter-
                                                      nate with well-furnished rooms
                                                      in Amsterdam, decorated with
                                                      memorabilia reminding the
                                                      migrants of their African ances-


86   |   african arts summer 2009
5 A close-up of Signes Prémonitoires
by fatou Kandé senghor at the “off                      of “identity-in-construction” outside of home-    subtly raises the question of the meaning of
limits” exhibition, May 9–19, 2008.
                                                        land and from the perspective of gender. The      practice in expatriation when the source of
Photo: uGochuKwu-sMooth NzEwi
                                                        multilayered nature of identity remains a cen-    creative fodder is the place of birth. His figu-
6 Atelier ceramique Almadies, May                       tral issue, and the construction of both cul-     rative paintings—a mélange of texts, charcoal
12–25, 2008. showing the works of                       tural and artistic identities continues to be     drawings with small dabs of brown color, and
samba fall (paintings and drawings),                    interrogated in successive Dak’art editions.      a marque piece of a male head on a motorized
filippo Brancoli Pantera (photography),
Maurice and Emma Petroni (ceramics),
                                                           In Signes Prémonitoires, a compelling series   device attached to one of the panels—con-
was organized by Mauro Petroni.                         of six black-and-white photographs of mul-        vey a sensitivity that is recuperable if we con-
Photo: uGochuKwu-sMooth NzEwi                           tiple faces of Muslim women wearing hijabs        sider the works as the artist’s internal dialogue
                                                        (Fig. 5), Kandé Senghor explores the failure      with himself, and with man as a universal
                                                        of local and international political leadership   subject. Pantera, the New York-based Ital-
                                                        from the perspective of Muslim women. At the      ian photojournalist, exhibited a large body of
                                                        same time, the strikingly sad eyes of women       photographs that offered a mapping of Dakar
  The 2008 Dak’Art Offs                                 peering out of the veils implicate the viewer     through the visual documentation of the dif-
   Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi                               in the many ways a Muslim woman’s iden-           ferent “Off ” locations during Dak’Art 2006. In
   The richness of the Dak’Art enterprise came          tity is constructed today. While location has     the photographs, the multitude of fringe exhi-
out in bold relief in the “Off ” exhibitions, which     become a contested marker of global citizen-      bitions are reduced to visual signs, typified by
have increasingly become a very important com-          ship, Udemba, who lives in Berlin, examines       the ubiquitous blazing red, black, and white
ponent of the Biennale. With more than 100              the myriad forms black identity takes in the      “Off ” banners hanging from the many public
“Off ” events spread across the entire Dakar land-      social and political imaginary of urban Paris     and private buildings that hosted the exhibi-
scape, hordes of both international and local visi-     in a twelve-panel photography series titled       tions. Memory and history become tangible,
tors ventured out to radically diverse venues such      Vigiles. In Société des Ambianceurs et des Per-   and the photographs are reflective of the art-
as private residences, restaurants, artists’ studios,   sonnes Elégantes, the identity of the Congolese   ist’s idea of space, time and location.
night clubs, and cultural centers to view an eclec-     is examined in a photography installation by          Unlike “Off Limits,” it was hard to grasp a
tic harvest of works and visual performances.           the Paris-based Mouanda. In mirroring the         sense of curatorial direction in the exhibition
The exhibitions, organized by a range of cultural       impetuous sartorial presence of the Congo-        organized by Petroni. There was no visible the-
agents and institutions, foregrounded the con-          lese in expatriation, Mouanda locates contem-     matic framework in the exhibition. However,
vergence of the socio-cultural, economic, and           porary identity at the interstices of place of    the exhibition made up for this lack in the
political fabric of Dakar—advanced under the            birth and place of residence. The gallery space   integrative way the works seemed to engage
rubric of cultural tourism—which has become             allowed for easy flow of movement for viewers     with one another. Finally, the two exhibitions
one of the chief strategies through which Senegal       to engage with the works. However, the cura-      found a common ground by illuminating the
partakes in globalization processes.                    tor could have translated the large text panels   intersection between identity, location, and
   Some of these fringe exhibitions clearly             for the benefit of non-French speakers.           practice in the employment of a self-reflexive
illustrated this interaction between the global            This engagement with identity and spatial-     strategy by the exhibiting artists and in the
and the local. One such example was “Off                ity found a close parallel in the small and big   exhibitions’ designs. Yet the two exhibitions
Limits” (May 9–19), held in a converted gal-            painted panels by Samba Fall and the pho-         could have stressed further the dynamic of
lery space and curated by the French galler-            tographs by Filippo Brancoli Pantera that         self-imagining, particularly in relation to artis-
ist Aude Minart. The exhibition stimulated a            were exhibited as part of a group exhibition      tic identity and cultural identity. These are two
dialogue on notions of location and identity            (May 12–25). The show, that was organized by      disparate constructs that either coalesce or do
through the photography of five women art-              Mauro Petroni in his private ceramic work-        not coalesce as it affects time and space in the
ists: Fatou Kandé Senghor (Senegal), Emeka              shop (Fig. 6) and supported by Eiffage Sen-       contemporary artist’s imaginary
Udemba (Nigerian living in Berlin), Baudoin             egal, also included Petroni’s ceramic vases and
Mouanda (DRC) and Poppy Wechsberg (US),                 ceramic plates produced by Emma Petroni.          Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi is a PhD stu-
in addition to an installation by Hélène Lau-           For Fall, who is Senegalese but currently         dent in art history at Emory University, Atlanta.
nois (France). These works focused on ideas             resides in Norway, this series of paintings       unzewi@emory.edu



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