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Dak’Art meets the Arab Spring

By Caroline Rossiter
Posted on Friday, 1 June 2012 13:10

Africa’s premier art biennale brought together artists inspired by the upsurge in people power sparked by the Arab Spring and other citizen-led protests.

In Lost Springs, an installation by Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi, the flags of the 22 states of the Arab League hang at half-mast on the wall. Below the Tunisian and Egyptian flags sit two brooms, representing the demise of the two countries’ presidents, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. It is a subtle gesture. At a glance, the brooms could be mistaken for flagpoles. The flag/broom juxtaposition is a leitmotif in Fatmi’s work, implying a metaphorical cleaning up. In the case of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, it suggests new beginnings and the sweeping away of old values. The domestic infiltrates the official sphere, as people demand their rights. Like much of Fatmi’s work, Lost Springs is aesthetically minimal but laden with meaning.

This year Fatmi is one of 42 artists to participate in Dak’Art 2012, the biennale of contemporary African art, held in Dakar’s Musée Théodore Monod between 11 May and 10 June. Dak’Art is celebrating its 10th edition this year, and its theme ‘Contemporary Creation and Social Dynamics’ is designed to showcase the dialogue between contemporary artists and a social environment in constant movement. “There are forces today that are shaking the world, and call for new positions, new responsibilities both individual and collective,” says Ousseynou Wade, general secretary of the biennale. “In that process, intellectuals and artists have a role.”

The theme – which emerged from the orientations of the invited artists – is large enough to encompass a variety of approaches, from the detailed architectural fantasies of self-taught Senegalese artist Mamadou Cissé to the surreal installations of Zambian-born Victor Mutelekesha, from South African Bridget Baker’s explorations of post-apartheid identity and Lerato Shadi’s expressive performance and video pieces.

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Mutelekesha in particular has a global view that binds Dak’Art to the wider world. A resident of Norway currently living in Beijing, through his work he engages with China’s view of itself, its regions and its relationship with Africa. In its more macabre moments, his oeuvre also looks at the commoditisation of the human body – in particular, Chinese – as immigrants are carted around the world.

Fatmi is also outward-looking, engaging with the contemporary struggle between peoples and oppressors. Lost Springs was censored at Art Dubai in March last year, the same day that Saudi security forces sent out tanks to support the monarchy in Bahrain. Fatmi wasn’t surprised by the censorship, which saw the brooms removed from the installation. “The art world is not innocent, it’s not in its own bubble. Everything might be beautiful, luxurious, but it is also political. An act of censorship can’t be aesthetic or artistic, it can only be political.”

MAKING NOISE

Born and reared in the Moroccan port town of Tangiers, Fatmi now lives and works in Paris and is represented by galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Geneva, London and Johannesburg. His work will also appear in Casablanca’s first international biennale in June, and in a solo show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town in September.

Fatmi does not get too far ahead of the revolutions that have swept the Arab world. “I’m positive about one thing, and that is change. The idea of change in Arab and African countries is already positive. Democracy is like a firearm – you can’t expect to hit the target the first time.”

Another of his installations taking inspiration from the Arab Spring is Oriental Accident. A large Oriental rug is spread out over a palette and loud- speakers protrude from the surface, projecting the sounds of protest. Nails have been added to some of the concave speakers and rattle around, adding a tinny, violent edge to the already piercing sounds. Noise was an important part of the uprisings, which began with people coming together to make their grievances heard. Fatmi also likens the speakers to volcanoes that have erupted after lying dormant for years, spewing out the aural equivalent of molten lava.

Fatmi has chosen to work with the concept of change for his contribution to Dak’Art 2012. His project will take the form of an advertising campaign exploring semantic shifts and ques-tioning ideologies that lend themselves to commercial products (for example, the revolutionary Black Panther Party launching its own brand of hot sauce, or the Muslim alternative to Coca-Cola, Mecca Cola). The project explores the contemporary condition and its relationship to history and is a continuation of a previous project, Out of History, which won the Léopold Sédar Senghor Prize at the 2006 Dakar biennale.

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“Contemporary art has a role to play – by its contemporaneity, it reflects what is happening now,” says Fatmi. “Politicians talk about the future, whereas youth wants answers and discussion now,”he says. He concedes that contemporary art appeals to a fairly limited section of the population (be it in Africa, Europe or the United States) but believes it can still spark debate and can bring to the fore subjects that politicians would rather ignore.

“No self-respecting city doesn’t have a biennale,” Fatmi continues. “Once these things are in place they become another string of the political bow.” Senegal needs Dak’Art to succeed in order to counter the bad taste left by the World Festival of Black Arts, known as FESMAN, which took place in the country’s capital, Dakar in December 2010. The event in the west African country was marred by bad management and overspending. Some of the artists who sent works to the festival are still waiting for their pieces to be returned following a payment dispute with a shipping company.

CORRECTIVE VISION

Unlike other biennales, Dak’Art is limited to African artists and artists from the diaspora. This could be seen as a ghettoisation of African artists, but Dak’Art’s Wade explains the importance of giving contemporary African artists a platform to exhibit. While there may be a received idea of African art outside of Africa, he sees the biennale as a way to correct the “caricatural or nostalgic view of an Africa that we don’t live in anymore”.

Wade says that positioning Africa in the world of contemporary art was the key goal. “But of course, even as we pursue this goal, we are not refusing the opening up of this biennale – and we have artists here that come from all over the world.”

He also highlights the ‘in’ and ‘off’ elements of the event. In addition to the main biennale (the ‘in’), numerous other events and shows will take place (the ‘off’). Three guest artists – Peter Clarke, Goddy Leye and Berni Searle – have been invited to exhibit at the Galerie Nationale, and an exhibition of art and architecture will be held at the Maison de la Culture Douta Seck (in partnership with the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern), while two other exhibitions will pay tribute to Papa Ibra Tall and Joe Ouakam. ●

This article was first published in the June, 2012 edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.

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