C& talks to the curatorial team behind the upcoming Dak’Art 2014, Elise Atangana, Abdelkader Damani and Ugochukwu Smooth Nzewi. The eleventh edition of the continent’s major biennale of contemporary art will take place from May 9th to June 8th, 2014.
You have just been appointed curators of the Dak’Art 2014. You all come from different, very interesting backgrounds within the art world: Is this the first time you are working together as a team?
Yes, it is the first time and very exciting for all of us.
Can you, just in a few words, describe what visitors can expect from Dakar’s next biennale?
Our overall goal is to reposition and strengthen the biennale as the most important venue for contemporary visual culture on the continent. We hope to showcase the works of interesting artists (both emerging and established) who have never been part of the biennale before. We hope visitors will discover the African art world and the Senegalese art scene with interesting artists, so that they have the opportunity to literally lose themselves in contemporary creative work. But we also want to give the audience glimpses into the individual world of every artist: filiation, references … this work of mediation should be paramount in the exhibition. It would be really interesting if we could establish a strong interaction with the public in the display of works as well as with the works themselves. The longevity of the biennale and Dakar’s historical connections give us a really good opportunity to bring together Senegalese and international protagonists in a very professional event.
Launched in 1992, Dak’Art is Africa’s longest running contemporary art Biennale. How much has it changed during those more than 20 years? What are the challenges now, what were they back then?
The biennale has constantly reinvented itself. Its initial configuration was as an international biennial of visual art, meaning that it was modeled after the conventional biennial typology. However, from 1996, it transformed into a pan-African biennale, focusing on contemporary African and African diaspora art and artists. The reason for the change is obvious. It wanted to provide an important platform that would ensure the visibility of contemporary artists of African descent who have had fewer opportunities in the international mainstream in the past, and thus serve as a springboard for them. A lot of African artists are now on the international map and Dak’Art has played a major role in making that happen. The current challenges are really about the continued relevance of Dak’Art’s pan-African model of exhibition-making, which appears to contradict its investment in internationalism. Yet, we can say that a good number of artists in previous Dak’Art exhibitions, though of African descent, are nationals of non-African countries or are dual citizens. Beyond this reality, the battle to ensure the acceptance of African artists at global events is not yet won. The presence of Dak’Art makes sure that we keep faith with the fight and our eyes on the prize. More than anything else, the small number of African artists in the ongoing Venice Biennale’s main exhibition drives home the point about the significance of Dak’Art as a platform for Africa. However, this small number of African artists should not be attributed to the quality of exhibitions in Africa, and even less to the quality of artists’ production. It is due to a lack of critical tools and broadcasts, galleries etc. Hence the importance of Dak’Art that is both a place of exhibition and a space where the history of African art is made. Now we hope that there will be stronger connections between biennales. Babacar Diop, Dak’Art’s secretary general, took the initiative this year by organizing a seminar dedicated to trading of art in June 2013. We are on the right path. Dak’Art must also continually reinvent itself to remain relevant. It remains a platform for exchanges between art professionals and art enthusiasts from Africa and elsewhere.
Angola won the Golden Lion, African artists get nominated for international art prizes, Tate is launching a huge “African Art Programme”… Do you think that current notions and the present atmosphere will influence next year’s biennale? More visitors, more art world dealers, artists, curators, gallerists who are suddenly attending because “Africa is on the map”?
We think it is an exciting time for Africa. Angola’s success is our joy. The biennale expects to grow stronger with every edition. It has weathered a lot of challenges and continues to do so. It is also a critical time for the biennale. Senegal has a new president and Dak’Art a new secretary general. Both are keen to strengthen the biennale and to keep faith with its raison d’être, which has always been to promote contemporary African art and artists at the international level. The notion that African art is now on the “Map” is a little sensationalist. Like previously said, we must not lose sight of the struggle in spite of the obvious progress made.
One aspect will be the idea of diaspora. Can you describe your approach for the biennale? Will it be about the important relationship between the cultural production and producers on the continent and in the diaspora?
Since 1992, emerging and older African diasporan artists have been a fixture at successive Dak’Art biennales. We expect a massive response from diasporan artists and that the response will grow with subsequent editions of the biennale. However, we do not approach diaspora as an idea but as a very complex category. According to Jhumpa Lahiri, “the place to which you feel the strongest attachment isn’t necessarily the country you’re tied to by blood or birth: it’s the place that allows you to become yourself. This place may not lie on any map.” We will be looking at diaspora not necessarily in the literal sense of the word, but bearing Lahiri’s exhortation in mind. This will make for more projects from diverse influences and contexts, and exciting possibilities at the creative level.
Looking back on African art history, African cultural production in order to understand the contemporary production on the continent and in the diaspora is important. Will you refer to festivals such as Festac ‘77 or Fesman and include them in your conceptual thoughts?
The biennale has always fancied itself as a worthy successor of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar in 1966, and by extension, the other pan-African festivals, such as the International Congress for African Culture in Salisbury (now Harare) in 1962, the First Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969 and the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts in Lagos in 1977. However, in the conceptualization of Dak’Art and its exhibitions, there is the understanding that the interpretation of pan-Africanism and the ideological concepts of the earlier events have evolved with time. Our conceptual orientation is to be in touch with the pulse of the contemporary but with a keen sense of history and the antecedents.
Finally, will you leak some names of artists participating for the first time?
Sorry, not yet…!
Elise Atangana is a Cameroonian/French independent producer and curator based in Paris. She also works as a communication officer at SNCF (French railway company) since 2007. She collaborated with Simon Njami on different projects such as Luanda Triennale (2003), Havana Biennale (2006) and the African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2007). At Dak’Art Atangana will be responsible of the selection of Diaspora artists.
Abdelkader Damani (Algeria) develops curatorial practice around the interaction of four ‘players’: the art work, the space, the viewer and the discourse. Trained in architecture at Oran (Algeria), he studied, on his arrival in France in 1993, art history and philosophy at the University Lyon 2 and Lyon 3. After being in charge of art and architecture projects in Cultural meeting Centre of la Tourette, Le Corbusier’s architecture, he led since 2007, the “VEDUTA” platform at “la Biennale de Lyon”. At Dak’Art Damani will be responsible of the selection of North African artists.
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi (Nigeria, lives in USA) is an artist, curator, and art historian. He is a Smithsonian Institution Fellow and was recently appointed the Curator of African Art at the Hood Museum Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. At Dak’Art he will be responsible of the selection of artists from African countries south of Sahara.