At Dakar’s Biennale, the City Itself Is the Most Colorful Canvas

DAKAR, Senegal — It’s FOMO season in Senegal’s capital.

Even when you’re at an exhibition opening for this year’s Dakar Biennale — oohing and aahing over the artwork and envying outfits as you people spot — there’s a fear of missing out on an even better scene somewhere else. What’s happening — right now! — at the five other openings you could be attending, scattered across this seaside capital?

This is the (pleasant) conundrum faced by those lucky enough to be in Senegal for this year’s Biennale, which has become one of the biggest — and definitely the coolest — contemporary art events on the African continent.

The Biennale, which opened last month and runs through June 21, is the zenith of the city’s ebullient cultural calendar, drawing in artists, collectors and trendsetters from across the world.

But experiencing art in Dakar is easy, and inspirational, any time of the year. Art and style are embedded in the everyday here, and those shut out of all the Biennale offers because of time or money can easily get their art fix just by taking a walk, in pretty much any direction.

The sandy street outside my apartment is a collage or relief, made new each morning by paw prints, motorcycle skids and stray bougainvillea blooms. A security guard’s rickety chair made of pieces of worn-out canoe is a still life. Fruit vendors create installations with mangoes and baggy umbrellas.

You don’t need parties to spot beautiful outfits. On any old Friday, spend 10 minutes on any street corner, and you’re guaranteed a tableau of people wearing avant-garde sunglasses, pointy slippers or funky heels, and a rainbow of shiny bazin boubous — beaten damask cotton robes.

The art on display at the former Palais de Justice this year is magnificent. But people come as much to wander around the half-ruin of the building itself — its hushed courtrooms, central courtyard and falling ceilings — as to see the curators’ picks. Here, coup plotters, would-be assassins and opposition politicians were tried until cracks began appearing in the building’s Brutalist concrete walls, raising fears that it would collapse. It was abandoned in the early 1990s.

But it was still standing 24 years later, in 2016, when its doors were finally reopened to become the new home of the Biennale’s main exhibition.

The feeling I get meandering its halls is one I often encounter in Dakar. Particularly, it’s a feeling that comes when I’m in a spluttering yellow taxi whose radio is playing lulling Sufi chants as it barrels down the Corniche, Dakar’s seaside boulevard. On the left, through sun-bleached palm fronds, are miles of pale sea; on the right, the call to prayer is echoing from near and distant mosques.

It’s a feeling of sweet nostalgia for a time I’m still living through, in a city I still call home.

That city, though, is changing every day. The clang of construction machinery, the glare of building lights, and the truckloads upon truckloads of cement all ensure the transformation of Dakar, on what sometimes seems like an hourly basis, with groves of flat-roofed apartment buildings suddenly sprouting where groves of palm trees had only recently stood.

So the people really entitled to feel nostalgic about Dakar are those who knew the city with uninterrupted sight lines to the sea, with far less traffic, pollution and property speculation.

The theme of this year’s Biennale — Ĩ’Ndaffa in the Serer language, meaning to forge in English — seems apt. Outside the art galleries, Dakar’s metalworkers are busy forging a new city out of rebar.

An apartment tower is planned at the entrance to Plateau, the city’s downtown where Art Deco and neo-Sudanese architecture mingle; the huge structure will dominate the heart of the city.

A monster of a blocky glass-and-concrete building is going up in a small residential suburb of low villas where two hills, one topped by a lighthouse, and the other by a Soviet-style statue built by North Koreans, give the area its name — Mamelles, which means “breasts.”

The changes the city is going through are reflected in the works of the artists who live here. Some of them, like Ousmane Mbaye, a former refrigerator repairman turned upscale furniture designer, work outside in the street, literally watching the city grow around them.

In the rapidly gentrifying area of Ngor, a former street artist, Saadio, is now enjoying commercial success. He showed me his most recent work, canvases that are a joyous riot of scooters and Nescafé and radios and cats and color, all part of the daily Dakar tapestry. He waved an arm at one of his most recent paintings, which depicted a policeman stopping a taxi driver.

“That’s traffic and pollution,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize that this wasn’t just part of the painting, but its title, its whole theme — and the reason he’d painted the blocky buildings in blacks and grays.

The success of the Biennale and the city’s broader art scene is part of what’s driving the construction and gentrification boom that is creating the new Dakar.

But it’s a safe bet that the city won’t change beyond recognition. Even covered in gray smudge, Saadio’s canvas had many flashes of his, and the city’s, trademark color.

And even with all the changes, Dakar’s natural tableaux will be hard to expunge completely. We’ll have the street hawkers, weaving between Porsches and horse-carts, with their drivers, steering wheels or reins in hand, reflected in the large gold-framed mirrors being sold.

We’ll have the silvery sea that is imperceptible from its upstairs neighbor, the sky — especially when the dry, dusty winds of the harmattan season are blowing. Also not going anywhere are the shore’s volcanic rocks, like giant pumice stones, that gave the work space of the artist Kehinde Wiley its name: Black Rock Senegal.

And however much development we see, what won’t disappear is the paper twisted around black-eyed pea sandwiches — the city’s classic breakfast food — sometimes a newspaper decades old, sometimes a child’s homework, sometimes a voting ballot.

I’ll miss the Biennale party circuit when it moves on. But then I’ll be able to again wander around the Palais de Justice by myself, fancy people gone, for a dose of old Dakar, the one we may all eventually be feeling nostalgic for.

Leave a Reply