The Urgency of a Clearer Strategic Direction
Aboubacar Bemba Cissokho's opinion piece about this year's Dak'Art...
12. June 2016
In terms of its artistic content, the 12th African Contemporary Art Biennale (Dak’Art, 3 May–2 June 2016) has been a vintage edition. But the questions that have come up over the years relating to its fundamental orientation and status still urgently need addressing as its viability and relevance are at stake.
Dak’Art 2016 will be “an enormous success that is going to change things”. At the press conference held on 26 January to present the list of artists selected for the international exhibition and the broad outlines of the biennale, artistic director Simon Njami put forward a grand vision. His objective was to revitalise an event which he said was “in the process of quietly dying”.
The upcoming reports and appraisals will reveal whether the Cameroonian’s gamble paid off. For the moment, it is interesting to note that the content of this twelfth edition of the biennale measures up to its proclaimed ambitions in terms of programming: an international exhibition with sixty-five artists (including four Senegalese), six special projects with carte blanche given to the artists, and six invited curators from different countries, each staging an exhibition. And with a new secretary general, whose first edition this is.
On the fringes of Dak’Art, Off presented some three hundred shows and interventions, confirming its importance for the biennale. It is there that the dynamism and vitality of the biennale reside, allowing the scene in Dakar to be cast in a unique light – contrary to the contentions of certain cultural actors, who argue that it is a “foreigners’ biennale”.
It also remains to be seen whether it is this new dynamic that has brought a large number of art lovers, curators, gallerists, and collectors to Dakar, although judging from the public who attended the exhibitions, the objective of making the biennale attractive in the eyes of the local population has not been achieved. In this respect Dak’Art retains the image of a “select” environment reserved for an (equally) well-informed “elite”. Hence the question posed by one Senegalese visual artist: “Who is the biennale organised for?”
This notion of a “foreign” and “elitist” public – even if it does not entirely correspond with the reality – has the merit of pinpointing the key question about the direction of the biennale, which has been slow to grant itself a new lease of life after running for more than twenty years. In its twenty-four years of existence, certain lessons have not been learnt and the trust of artists has been eroded by uninsured works being lost or damaged.
Resolving the question of direction must firstly entail proper management of the event’s implementation period. The planning for the twelfth edition of the biennale spanned the period from September 2015 to May 2016. For an event that you would expect to be organised over two years – as its name suggests – the reality is an implementation period of six or seven months. Realistically speaking, it is practically impossible to implement such a huge project in such a short space of time.
Without dwelling on the budget for the biennale – approximately 350 million CFA francs (535,000 euros) per year – the second point that illustrates the absence of a clear direction is that in 2014 the biennale ended up in the red and the commissioners were only paid in December 2015. The budget line for the year 2015 was in essence given over to settling debts. The shipping company froze delivery of the works because it hadn’t been paid. All that has a negative impact on the image and reputation of the biennale and, beyond that, of the country. In the highest echelons of state, the powers that be are not up to the political, cultural, and economic challenges of the biennale.
Three reports were submitted after the last biennales, without any response from the authorities. Non-specialist shippers and forwarding agents always have to be called in. The biennale’s needs are not taken into consideration in the realms of logistics, planning, management, and production (having spaces ready on time with leasing in place, technical teams ready to start, and plane tickets reserved). Prior to confirming an artist as part of the exhibition team, checks should have been made to ensure that the artist’s works could be brought to Dakar and a quote obtained from the shipping company and insurer. The Ivorian artist Watts Ouattara, who lives in New York, was in Dakar – but not his works, which were too expensive to bring over! His drawings could be seen on the walls of the law courts housing the international exhibition.
The jury had to make their evaluations at six in the morning, with four hours to go until the official opening of the biennale – for an international exhibition in which only 60 per cent of the works had been installed. The Dak’Art “brand” needed to be respected, with the prizes presented in front of the head of state. Consequently, there are artists whose work was not seen. There was only one award-winning artist present, who was from Senegal, the other three having received their prizes by proxy. It is the first time that the winning artists have not been present at the opening ceremony.
In future, in order to ensure better organisation of a more human-scale biennale, a smaller, more compact project should be developed, with fewer artists, one commissioner with accompanying teams, and specialists in logistics. For the 2016 edition, it was difficult to find the Off programme; the catalogue, instead of costing 10,000 CFA francs (around 15 euros), cost three times as much, because it was printed in Europe! And not in Senegal …
Senegalese opinion is in a sort of state of denial, refusing to face reality. The view is that every time Dak’Art comes round, it is a global success. But the site of the biennale is almost never up to scratch and regularly changes. In the orientation committee of thirty people (a plethora if ever there was one), there was no more than a single member with experience, a gallery, and a global understanding of the issues at stake.
“The state has primary responsibility because the secretary generals, the scientific committees, etc., have their hands tied if they are not given carte blanche.” This was how artistic director Simon Njami put it at his press conference on 26 January 2016. The fact is that there is a genuine imbalance between the lofty ambitions of the public authorities and the level of officialdom, where functionaries have neither the competence nor the means to live up to these ambitions.
In his opening address for the twelfth edition of the biennale, on 3 May, the Senegalese president Macky Sall “committed” the minister of culture to a process of “profound reflection on the status of the African Contemporary Art Biennale in Dakar” and promised to increase the budget by around 60 per cent. It would be salutary for the results of this work on the future of Dak’Art to integrate a clear vision of the desired direction for the event, because it conveys a particular image of the organising country, Senegal.