Senegal’s old Palais de Justice sits among some of the most sought-after real estate in the capital Dakar, where it shares a stunning sea view with the nearby French ambassador’s residence.
So, many Senegalese were surprised when 18 months ago President Macky Sall turned the vast modernist building into a museum for fine arts — rarely a priority for African leaders usually more preoccupied with building roads and wooing hotels.
Now, at the latest installment of Africa’s oldest and biggest biennale art exhibition, the curator who lobbied for this space wants African artists to seize the moment as the continent finally starts to enjoy the attention it deserves.
“The global message for the African is, if we don’t catch that train — and the train is leaving now — too bad for us. Tomorrow will be too late,” curator Simon Njami told Reuters at the venue, where more than 75 artists from around the world are exhibiting their work for a month.
The practice of hosting art exhibitions every two years has spread to several African countries, but none has been more successful so far than the Dakar Biennale, founded in the 1990s and also known as Dak’Art.
This year’s displays by African artists at the biennale are as eclectic as those from elsewhere. They include works using materials that have become hallmarks of the continent’s modern art — such as the recycled food packaging and strips of “African print” cloth in Nigerian artist Olanrewaju Tejuoso’s abstract wall piece.
Others — involving lights going on and off, rooms scattered with everyday household objects or projectors beaming images with enigmatic slogans onto walls — wouldn’t look out of a place in a Western conceptual art exhibition.
One by South African artist Frances Goodman seems to conjure up intense rage using an amorphous blob of fake fingernails.
In the past quarter-century, African art has gone from near total obscurity on the world scene to producing stars such as Ghana’s El Anatsui and South Africa’s William Kentridge.
“It’s a whole continent that was ignored. The market is just starting to pick up on it,” said Njami, a Swiss national of Cameroonian descent. “Before, anyone could have bought an El Anatsui. Nowadays if you don’t have $2 million, forget about it.”
In March a portrait of a Nigerian princess that was lost for 40 years and found in London sold for $1.4 million.
Despite successfully lobbying for the Palais, Njami thinks African governments do woefully little to support the arts.
“People say: ‘Why spend money on arts when you can build a road?'” he said. “But we need culture, not just infrastructure.”
Owing to poor support, facilities and a tiny domestic market, many of Africa’s most talented artists predictably end up in Europe or the United States. Those staying at home are often under-resourced.
At the exhibition, Senegalese artist Badara Sarr complained that his spot was underlit, so he had to buy a spot lamp, and then there was no technician available to install it.
“It was a bit deplorable, but we manage as Senegalese. That’s Africa for you,” he told Reuters next to his cloud-like patches of red, blue and green paint. Despite being a bit in the dark, “a lot of people are interested” in his painting.
“I’m honestly happy about the interactions we’re having,” he said.