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The Dak’Art Biennial and Contemporary African Art since the 1990s

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2013
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Curator of African Art

In 1989, the Dak’Art Biennial was officially created by the government of Senegal as the first art biennial in sub-Saharan Africa. Its mandate was to promote the latest examples of contemporary African art and facilitate the discourse of artistic contemporaneity from an African perspective. I focus on the Dak’Art Biennial as an important context to explore the shift in contemporary African art since the 1990s. The bases of the shift, which resulted in new forms of creative engagement and aesthetic production, were the re-conceptualization of artistic identity, the mobility of African artists, and the expansion of cultural and aesthetic references. The impact of new technologies of communication on visual practices, neoliberal ideas with regard to the market values of art objects, and processes of globalization that increased cultural interactions on a grand scale (though not an equal basis) all helped to catalyze this shift in the production, reception, and circulation of contemporary African art.

In the last twenty years, Dak’Art has served as an important nexus between the African and international art worlds. Its growth in the 1990s coincided with the expansion of the international mainstream beyond the Western hemisphere, a key indicator of which was the proliferation of art biennials. From fewer than thirty in 1990, biennials have grown to over 155 in a space of twenty years. This upsurge brought about a more heterogeneous, complex, and global sense of contemporary art. However, Dak’Art is an example of a geographically and ethnically delimited venue. Although it shares certain common attributes with other international biennials, such as nomadic artists, roving curators, and a cosmopolitan audience, its significance as an international platform is rooted in its geopolitical commitments. It deploys pan-Africanism as a mobilizing tool for the promotion of contemporary African art and artists. Such an approach aligns with the neoliberal multiculturalism of the international art world, which celebrates the mixing of cultures but also diversity and difference.

Dak’Art’s pan-African identity, which is parochial, would seem to clash with its global aspirations. But for the biennial, pan-Africanism is more than a convenient means of following international trends or being different. Before the creation of Dak’Art, the structure of the international art world largely excluded non-Western artists. Dak’Art was created specifically to address this problem, in this case by focusing on artists of African descent. It articulated an alternative framework for the reception of contemporary art from Africa. It also pursued a new vision of making and seeing biennials as global exhibitions that are regional in scope, a vision that I call pan-African internationalism. Two key questions thus orient my approach to Dak’Art. First, how can we understand the shift in contemporary art and discourse in Africa in the last twenty years via Dak’Art, given the importance of art biennials as trendsetters? And second, what is the relevance of pan-Africanism, which is an ideology of political and cultural solidarity, in a contemporary biennial with global aspirations? I look forward to addressing these questions further in my lecture on October 18.

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