After four days of Dak’Art I can’t deny it any longer: the African biennial is outdated, it passed it’s importance, it misses urgency, it needs a thorough revision. The sooner the better.

Dak’Art started in 1990 as a literary event. Four years later it was changed into a meeting place for contemporary African artists and other African art professionals such as art critics, philosophers etc. The participants – only African artists, living and working on the continent or abroad – were selected out of the hundreds of applications by so called commissioners. There was no artistic director who was responsible for the quality of the selected works and for the way they were installed and presented to the public. Dak’Art was not independent, it was a state event. Clerks at the Ministry of Culture had more influence than anybody else.
At that time contemporary African art was hardly visible and a child in its development. There was not much theory about it. African art critics and other art professionals were rare. Therefore it is understandable that this ambivalent and controversial concept was chosen. You have to start somewhere, somehow.
Especially after the year 2000 contemporary African art made its way over the world through biennials and a few big exhibitions (such as ‘Africa Remix’). The visibility grew fast. Perhaps there are still a lot of people – viewers and professionals – who have trouble to accept the very existence of it and to get over their prejudices, there is however a broad recognition of the quality and the importance of contemporary African art. Many articles and books are published about it. Several museums hired African curators. Especially through the professionalized infrastructure of South- Africa, many artists ‘made it’ internationally (William Kentridge, Guy Tillem, Veleko, Malick Sidibe, Tracey Rose, Youssef Nabil, Zwelethu Mthethwa among others).
Dak’Art seems to be blind for all this. Concept and organization are still the same. The government is using the same script as 20 years ago. The result is a rather small, poor, loveless installed exhibition in a building that had far better times. Of course it is nice to dedicate an extra show to three known ‘invite’s’ (Peter Clarke, Goddy Leye and Berni Searle), as it is nice to present a show with the work of female architects (though only in a two dimensional, photographic version), a female photographer and a female sculptor, but these extra’s hardly change my opinion about Dak’Art as a whole.
The OFF program made at least part of my viewing days. On more than a hundred locations solo shows, group shows, performances and other events were organized. Good and bad. Predictable and surprising. Sometimes the location was more interesting than the show. Outright amazing was the exhibition curated by the Institut Francais. Le Manege was ‘taken over’ by an installation of Serge Alain Nitegeka, called ‘Obstacle 1’. Black painted planks barricaded the whole space and made it into a kind of claustrophobic prison. On the other hand the structure looked far from solid, vulnerable even. Escape seemed possible. In the garden, on the walls of an artificial photo studio, hung a selection of the portraits Antoine Tempe shot of more or less known people out of the world of art and culture. Glamorous, decadent, personal, sometimes moving.
‘Africa: See You, See Me. L’Influence Africaine sur la Photographie Contemporaine’ was to be seen at The Goethe Institut. Although the space was too small, most works survived that problem easily. Absolutely stunning were the portraits of Patrizia Maimouna Guerresi. Technical perfection, irony and a refined mixture of tradition and modernity.

The next Dak’Art needs to be accessible for Africans and non-Africans. Confrontation is necessary for a healthy development. There has to be an artistic director who makes artistic quality his priority and who fights outdated ‘nationalism’. And, very important, Dak’Art needs to be independent from the government. The new Minister of Culture, the singer Youssou N’Dour, knows how successful it can be to run your own business independently.

Rob Perree
Dakar, May 2012.

(gepubliceerd op het blog van het Jeu de Paumes in Parijs)