Published in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art
no. 9 (fall/winter 1998), Duke University Press
There are no necessary links between the cosmopolitanism of Western art discourse and the practical participation of non-Western art epistemologies. This is not because the worldly aspirations of Western art discourse represent little more than empty rhetoric but because its language was never meant to be aimed beyond the imagination of the Western ego. Many have criticized modern art’s primitivist impulses and the appropriation of African objects and motifs by artists such as Picasso, and rightly so—yet these tendencies can also be understood as logical and inevitable within the egocentric development of Western art’s self-conception. In Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955), chthonian beings—emanating from the netherworld beneath the terra (i.e., creatures from the earth)—are monsters that have to be destroyed because of their differences from Western cosmology. In Levi-Strauss’s reading of Oedipus, these creatures are a metonymy for the violence of Western discourse toward all other discourses that refuse to deny humanity’s earthly origins. Over and over again, the development of Western art is predicated on claiming non-Western art forms for itself.
Perhaps this has changed somewhat, as anxieties in the West about the virtue of its own thought no longer produces only indifference (or something worse) to the welfare of the Other but also produces the recognition of greater cultural interdependence. Still, a visit to Dakar, Senegal, on the occasion of Dak’Art—one of only two biennials of contemporary art in Africa, and the largest and most important—is a reminder of the multiplicity of modernities in the world, not just a singular one. In this instance, it is a modernity that expresses the continuing struggle to break free from Senegal’s neo-colonial relationship with France. Taking in Dak’Art underlined, to my mind at least, the utterly oppressive role that the West continues to play in much of the non-Western world today.
Dak’Art was officially opened by the Senegalese President Abdou Diouf in a theatre that has seen a lot of wear and tear since the halcyon days of the Festival Mondial des Arts Nègre of 1966 for which it was built. Rather than Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Aimé Césaire, Josephine Baker, and other luminaries from the world’s African diaspora, Dak’Art 96’s opening ceremonies included an audience of officials from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, UNESCO, various curators of “African Art,” mostly from America, and the men and women who make up Senegal’s international ambassadorial corporates. Other than notable exceptions like the curator from London’s excellent Institute of Contemporary Art and the independent American curator Mary Jane Jacob, there were very few of the Western art world personages one would encounter at the opening of events such as Documenta or the Venice Biennale.
This would not necessarily be a bad thing, as the world is in dire need of alternative models for not only art but art systems, but Dak’Art’s political influence is remote, weak, and a highly contained one. What was on view consisted almost entirely of paintings, invariably scaled for the easel. To be fair, this is in large part a reflection of the real economy, very poor and politically unstable, in which West African artists must work. Mere canvas and paints are expensive, nevermind the luxury of computers and video equipment for elaborate video art installations. A look at the content of the paintings, however, was another matter. There was very little in the way of political content, at least in the manner in which it is familiar in the West. Ironically, at least to me, the most politically engaging art to be found at Dak’Art was by diasporic artists such as Carrie Mae Weems. Also interesting were artists from South Africa like Willie Bester, for whom an entirely different set of circumstances affects their works.
Paintings tended to be historical homages to l’École de Dakar, the post–World War II art movement that was brought up in conversation by many of the artists with whom I spoke. Dialogues about art were generally closeted to this single French art movement which corresponded, not coincidentally, with the completion of West Africa’s decolonization process. The École de Dakar, a group of painters who exhibited in the 1966 Festival, is now regarded as Senegal’s most important declaration of artistic autonomy. That this école was never really an école, but named as such by André Malraux as he toured the festival, is just one more irony that one encounters in Dakar.
Perhaps I am showing my chauvinism, in demanding of the art that I saw a political concern that could not possibly be there in the way that I would recognize. I was told by an artist from Togo that I would have to fully discard all of my Western conceptions about art in order to begin the process of understanding his work. Only then would I start to see the political vitality of his paintings, which were, by and large, abstract to my eyes. Another artist mentioned to me that the conflation of art and life is a reality in Africa, not some theoretical carrot as it is often considered in the West. Perhaps they are right.
The reality I experienced at Dak’Art was a biennale that seemed rather purposeless, aside from dredging up the utopian ghosts of 1966. Yet, for all my criticism, which undoubtedly must reveal my prejudices, I did come away from Senegal with a deeper understanding of art, something which I seldom experience in the world of Chelsea galleries. I departed Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport thinking about Dak’Art’s potential as a politically and culturally significant voice in a world where the presence of contemporary art is becoming more pervasive. The potential is overwhelmingly there but the question of whether it can ever be realized is another matter entirely.