The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures -

3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures -

By Joshua Mack

3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, Dakar
10–31 December

From the press release: ‘In 2010, the focus of the world will be Africa. At the heart of sporting news with the recent Football World Cup, the continent is also celebrating fifty years of independence of French-speaking Africa. It is in this context that we present the third World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, an international event which has been entrusted by the African Union to his Excellency Abdoulaye Wade, President of the Republic of Senegal.’

It was a hell of a party: three weeks of free concerts, conferences and exhibitions about literature, cinema, contemporary art, architecture, fashion and crafts from Africa and its diaspora – that is, from communities of African descent in countries such as Britain and France, Brazil (which was a special festival guest) and the US, in which culture has been deeply inflected by African civilisation. Wyclef Jean, who had been contracted for one performance, added an extra two in response to the vibe. Akon, the Senegalese-American rapper, offered a free New Year’s Day concert to close the festival.

On New Year’s Eve, which my friend Daisy and I spent in Dakar because I’d screwed up our plane reservations (there are worse things), Orchestra Baobab, Baaba Maal and Ismaël Lô played successive sets at L’Obélisque, one of the major traffic circles in the center of the city, site of a monument marking Senegal’s independence from France and venue for most of the festival’s daily music events. (There was a secondary programme of events in Saint-Louis, the old French colonial capital about five hours’ drive up the coast.)

The streets were crammed with women in tight skirts and high heels out on dates with equally sharp guys. Vendors selling cold drinks, peanuts and small plastic cups of intensely sweet, frothy Nescafé wandered through the crowd. There were families with children asleep on their fathers’ shoulders, gangs of friends, groups of street kids and a few – very few – foreigners. At midnight, fireworks turned the sky behind the stage into a shimmering mass of gold, as ash fell on the crowd.

Exhibition of books on the African renaissance, 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, Biscuiterie de la Mediana, Dakar

The first World Festival of Black Arts and Culture was hosted in 1966 by Léopold Senghor (1906–2001), the first president of Senegal. As a celebration of all things African, it sought to affirm an African identity in opposition to the assumed supremacy of things European during the recently terminated colonial era. What that shared spirit of Africa might be, or the idea that one might exist, has been under debate since the 1920s, when Senghor, Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) from Martinique and Léon-Gontran Damas (1912–1978) from Guiana met each other in Paris and developed the concept of Négritude, an assertion of black identity and cultural integrity.

As a political tool and stance of resistance, this construct – even if imaginary – led to the idea of a common identity as a counterweight to the negative judgements of the then-contemporary ‘Western” mindset, the racism implicit in colonialism. But it also led, and leads, to grand platitudes; by encompassing everything, it risks meaning nothing, as when the press release for the current festival asserts that the programme ‘conveys a new vision of Africa as free, proud, creative and optimistic’.

New in regard to what? The way Africans perceive their societies? The way they imagine Europeans and North Americans do? New in regard to the organisers’ assumptions of how the festival’s potential audience might view African culture?

Any which way, the equation presupposes a negative value on one side, and leads to a kind of pleasant but rather meaningless feel-good, as when Baaba Maal introduced his numbers with paeans to the youth and women of Africa. Or which comes from Lô’s carefully chosen song list of psalms to Senegal and the African continent. Of course, it’s impossible to question the integrity of, and impossible not to share, Maal’s hopes for a better future; and it’s difficult not to succumb to Lô’s plangent synthesised melodies, rendered all the more hymnlike by my lack of Wolof. But I get the French when he sings, “D'ici ou d'ailleurs nous somm' des enfants d'Afrique”.

From what I saw, the festival’s success was less in defining what it might mean to be a child of Africa and more in offering broad access to a significant pool of art, music and ideas to an audience which is not necessarily plugged in to international circuits of information. An audience, not participants whose work is on the Net and who often participate in ‘international shows’.

This range of content was most evident at the Biscuiterie de Medina, an old bakery complex at which barnlike tin-roofed warehouses have been fixed up and turned into exhibition spaces. One building was set up as a reading room with tables, chairs and a water cooler, essential for lingering in a hot, dry place. Books about the African renaissance, analyses of colonialism and Négritude, the Organization of African Unity and the development of modernity on the continent were installed on shelves made of painted Styrofoam packaging.

On the wall opposite, posters mounted on cardboard offered an A–Z introduction to themes in African literature: ‘E: écrivain, engage’, or ‘F: femmes’, the latter with a brief explanation that contemporary female authors are not necessarily pursuing declarations of feminism per se but claiming the right to be treated as something other than objects. Short introductions to the work of Mariama Bâ, Aminata Sow Fall, Calixthe Beyala and Werewere Liking followed.

Inherently cursory, these texts nevertheless presented an immense amount of information and, more importantly, began to draw distinctions between concepts (such as feminism) as intellectual constructs and their expression in lived reality.

This is a distinction only partially realised in the exhibition Modernités + Résistances/Aux Souffles du Monde in a nearby space. (An explanatory text in the show referred to it as African Traces, but we’ll stick with the published title for the moment.) Hewing closely to Césaire’s concept of African identity as ‘unique, with its deportation of populations, its transfer of people from one continent to another, its distant memories of old beliefs, its fragments of murdered cultures’, the exhibition looked at the African diaspora, and its consequent spread of cultural influence, as globalisation avant la lettre.

Godfried Donkor, Olympians IV, 2003, 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, Biscuiterie de la Mediana, Dakar

Among other instances of migration, forced or voluntary, and cross-cultural pollination, okay, but much in the show – which was organised according to broad themes like slavery, resistance, identity and migration and trade – came off as didactic, too wedded to specific ideas to elucidate meaning beyond obvious tropes. For example Godfried Donkor’s Olympians IV (2003), based on illustrations of nineteenth-century boxers, exposes Western objectification of the black body. But the pieces add nothing new to a now-common genre, in the way that, say, rap video, with its exposure of bare skin and muscled bodies, nails the erotic undercurrent inherent in the white fascination with black men and uses it as a means of assuming power over the viewer. Check out this image of Akon.

Jean-François Boclé’s Boat (2004–9), made of piles of collapsed and bound cardboard cartons arranged in the outline of a skiff, suggests connections between historic exploitation and current patterns of commerce and illegal migration. But placed in a curtained room and illuminated by bare bulbs, it seems too obvious in its references – banana boxes, cement containers – and derivative of the lugubriousness Christian Boltanski has turned into a clichéd shorthand for trauma to have much heft.

In contrast, take Viye Diba’s Naked Mass II (2003–10), made from the tattered clothes North Americans and Europeans donate to thrift stores, which sell them on, by weight, for export to Africa, where they are worn extensively – for example by two street kids I saw wandering through the exhibition. This direct connection between body and object sets up clear and deep relationships between poverty, exploitation of labour and living standards. Lifestyles in the developed world require a supply of cheap manufactured goods. The result is a dynamic whereby those who essentially make our garments wear them when we cast them off. As a trade in human labour, international markets transfer wealth from south to north: Africans are, in essence, sending us the clothes off their backs, which we return to them as unwanted tat.

Sunglass display, 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, Biscuiterie de la Mediana, Dakar

Both Modernités and Création Conceptualisée et Creation Intuitive, a presentation of contemporary design installed in the same space, pose provocative parallels between art, high design and the widespread and highly developed ethos of recycling, reuse and retrofitting. At its best, this use of refuse reveals a clear sense of form, function and economy. Take, for example, the anonymous Styrofoam board wrapped in packing tape of the kind used by street vendors to display sunglasses. It is light, large and portable. The affixed feather duster allows the user to keep his wares clean on dusty streets. Or the coolers, collected in the Dakar fish market, bound in PVC grain and cement sacks, or chairs welded from bent metal. They are all at once beautiful, if simple, objects, and effective and cheap solutions to daily needs.

Ice chests, 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, Biscuiterie de la Mediana, Dakar

Seen in the context of this make-do creativity, Melvin Edwards’s welded sculpture, three of which are included in what I now think should be called African Traces, suggests that the long history of tinkering and invention in American folk art – which Edwards’s work reflects – is highly inflected by African tradition. This link, in turn, deepens the forceful, almost explosive evocation of angrily and proudly endured racial violence and bigotry in the US which Edwards channels.

Welded chairs, 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, Biscuiterie de la Mediana, Dakar

In contrast, the Campana brothers, whose furniture riffs on traditions of creative reuse – as practised in the favelas of Brazil – comes off as forced and formulaic, an aesthetic born of necessity rendered cute for international consumption. Contrast their plastic chair encased in rattan with Abidjan-born Togo resident Kossi Assou’s blue expandable side table. The latter achieves classic formal elegance in its simplicity, while the latter betrays overkill. Encase a broken plastic chair in rattan to salvage it, yes. Encase a fully functional chair? Why?

When the ‘African’ become influential in this broadly international way, or when its influence is increasingly clear, does it remain productive to speak of an essential African spirit, especially in contrast to an opposite rejectionist ethos? Can an essential spirit of Africa be distilled from all of this work (and the significant amount of material I have overlooked in pursuit of a modest brevity)? In the case of African Traces, probably not. The show is too broad – from Shona stone carving to work which looks like it came out of American MFA programmes – to cohere. But who cares? This was a festival, and rather than fixing meaning, its role ideally should be to open and to celebrate it. In its diversity, complexity and contradictions, the various programmes indicated that Africa is as confusing, creative and hard-to-pin-down as any place. And they made for a hell of a good time.