The Red Hour: In Conversation With Simon Njami, Curator Of The 13th Dakar Biennale

Dakar Biennale, African Artists, Dak'Art, Simon Njami, Rebecca Anne Proctor
Photography by Aida Muluneh
Simon Njami
Cameroonian writer and art critic Simon Njami is at the helm for the second time at the Dakar Biennale. He discusses the importance of a local African art scene and why artists should never be satisfied

It is the Red Hour. It is a time of awakening; a time of reckoning; of feelings lost and now found. It is a time of nostalgia, justice and miracles. A red house, made of flimsy red fabric, flaps freely in the wind. It is not anchored to the ground like your typical house, grounded to a specific place and culture. Instead, Marcos Lora Read’s installation The Red House at the Dakar Biennale is a house in transition; it may fly away or it may soon be firmly rooted to the ground. Situated just outside of the Palais de Justice in Dakar, the site of the international exhibition of the 13th edition of the biennale, the house sways gently and carefree in the breeze, metaphorically in tune with the theme of this year’s Dak’Art. Titled The Red Hour, a concept borrowed from the 1958 play And the Dogs Went Silent by Aimé Césaire, one of the founding of fathers of Négritude, this installment of the biennale is about cultural emancipation. “The Red Hour is about metaphormosis and transformation,” says Simon Njami, second-time Dak’Art curator. “It is the coming of age. It is the moment when one emancipates oneself from what has been by transforming it and giving it a new strength.”

Simon Njami

Marcos Lora Read. The Red House. 2018. Photography by Rebecca Anne Proctor

At long last, Africa is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Dak’Art signifies a coming together and unification of African artists and intellectuals across the continent and internationally to champion the African cause. “Art can bring the continent together,” says Njami. “I often tell the politicians here [Dakar] that we are doing more to bring people together. Every two years we unite here. Africa needs to be known on its own terms. There are very few Africans who have been around Africa.”

Senegal’s old Palais de Justice, located amidst some of the capital’s most sought-after real estate, is a vast modernist building with a stunning sea view. Just 18 months ago President Macky Sall turned the edifice into a museum for fine arts—an action that Njami championed when he became artistic director of Dak’Art in 2016. “The ancient courthouse had been locked for 30 years—people said it was haunted, but I opened it,” he says, referencing how the last contemporary art show the courthouse saw was in 1966. “Artists here have been complaining that they didn’t have a space,” adds Njami. “The president finally signed a decree giving it to the minister of culture and we were in.” The building’s large open plan, numerous rooms and corridors are like a vast canvas on which to create. “This space doesn’t allow for any type of laziness; it forces you to do things in a certain way,” says Njami.

Simon Njami

Congolese artist Paul Alden Mvoutoukoulou’s Urgence. 2017. Mixed media installation.

The first work one encounters is a large installation by Haitian artist Pascale Monnin. Parts of blue doors have been propped up in a line on several long cords and held in air from the bottom of a tree so that it seems as if they are being blown away—akin to the experience the artist underwent during Hurricane Katrina. “Her house was completely blown away,” says Njami. “She told me how everything was flying around. Through her installation in Dakar she wanted to express a feeling of helplessness. All of a sudden your life gets blown away—here the doors are blowing away and it is very emotional.” The work also serves as a metaphor for Africans and African Americans. “They either sit down and cry or they say they will sit down and build their house in another way,” states Njami.  “We must have our own destiny and there is no one we can blame anymore but ourselves.”

The artworks at Dak’Art struggle for freedom. They are on the brink of resolution. “A powerful artist will be able to negotiate through their art,” says Njami. And negotiation means at times negotiating with not only one’s oppression and limitations, but negotiating with oneself—making sense of the past and moving on to embrace the future—what Njami would term “the hour of awakening.” Walking around the international exhibition, aptly titled A New Humanity, one feels a moment of transition. “When you are doing a biennale—you need to present good works in a great exhibition format,” says Njami. “I needed to propose works that didn’t compete with the space but danced with the space.” Movement, struggle, nostalgia and resolution are themes to be reckoned with in many works made from the everyday objects that have become signature elements of the continent’s contemporary art: African fabric, food packaging, and found metallic objects.

Simon Njami

Godfried Donkor. Olympians XIIII. 2018. Mixed media collage. Courtesy of Gallery 1957, Accra

There’s Congolese artist Geraldine Tobe’s powerful surrealist figures made with smoke on canvas that seem to be in search of something; and Ghanaian Godfried Donkor’s collage series Olympians, made after a six-week residency in Dakar, reveal representations of the Senegalese national sport of traditional wrestling, enacting a desire to never give up against all the odds. South African Ledelle Moe’s Exploded Geography depicts pieces of concrete placed haphazardly on several long steel poles, seeming as if the concrete itself has exploded only to be caught in midair, where the viewer feels a responsibility to pick up the pieces. Adjacent to Marcos Lora Read’s ethereal Red House is an installation of fabric sails made by Egyptian artist Ibrahim Ahmed entitled Only Dreamers Leave. They serve as metaphors for departure, migration and immigration. It’s a work about people who dream of a better life, says the artist, who lives in Ardellewa, an informal neighbourhood in north-west Cairo, home to many refugees and immigrants. The textiles used are associated with domestic and labour work. There is no clear way to walk through the flags; one easily becomes entangled, lost and at times even frustrated along the journey. The sails obstruct one’s path. It’s a work dedicated to those who dream of a better future but don’t know what is in store for them, says the artist. “The sails refer to the dysfunctionality of these systems that keep people from moving forward—to attaining their dreams,” says Ahmed.

Nearby is a work by Havana-based Cuban artist Glenda León - Tiempo Perdido (Wasted Time II), a giant mountain of sand topped by a small hourglass symbolising the constant flow of time whose content has overflowed and formed the mountain that one sees in the space. Life is fleeting, León seems to say through her work, better not to waste time. The work of BBC photojournalist Laeïla Adjovi, the winner of Leopold-Sédar-Senghor Grand Prix, has much to say about freedom. The artwork in the series she displayed tells the story of a fictional character named Malaïka Dotou Sankofa. She was given an androgynous look in order to show how not everyone should fit in with “the costume of western modernity,” said the artist to the BBC. “My name is Malaïka Dotou Sankofa. I don’t know how long I have been kept here. I was told it was for my own good. To never try to escape. That the skies would be all gloom. Storm, squalls and night. So I stayed. But now. Freedom feels just a dream away,” writes the artist near her photographs.

Simon Njami

Visitors admire a work by El Anatsui at the Palais de Justice in au Palais de Justice

All eyes are on Africa. Is the contemporary art world just getting its fix of something new? Njami despises such fetishism—if it is that. “Africa should never become an object of desire—a fashion and never become an object of desire—a fashion and created outside of Africa and that can fall any time,” he says. “Africa needs to build on something more concrete and more organic. Education and democracy are greatly needed.” In many ways, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. It’s the last frontier. “People are talking about the booming of the African art market but it is not booming here,” he continues. “It is not booming inside but booming outside. A few years later it could be booming in Montenegro. What we don’t want is this ‘phenomenon that was created outside’ to dictate what happens inside.” Njami talks about the dearth of African collectors. The past 12 months have witnessed the opening of MACAAL: Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden in Marrakech; the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town; as well as the first edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair on African soil in Marrakech. It’s a start but there is much to do still. An education of Africans on the importance of art and culture and the beauty of collecting still needs to be done. “The desire to be seen needs to start at home, that’s what happens,” adds Njami. “There are very few Africans who are buying African art. The ‘booming’ of African art is an illusion. I am urging the Africans to take action.”

African artists, says Njami, need to be known at home. “How can you build a community and a consciousness if you can’t find it at home? If in a few years we need to go to The Tate or Beaubourg to see an El Anatsui and our other artists, then we have failed,” states Njami. The other question often heard is: why have art when you first need to have food and water? This is an appropriate question for Africa, where access to clean water is still amongst the lowest percentages worldwide. “How can you construct a society just on food and water?” asks Njami. “What level of consciousness does it bring? And these are our problems? If you look at all the nations that call them important—culture is always a defining factor. Just look at Italy and France that have artists and philosophers that the world has studied for centuries.”

Simon Njami

An abstract wall installation by Nigerian artist Olanrewaju Tejuoso

What more can be done? “African governments need to be more serious about what they want for Africa,” says Njami. “I don’t see what they want and I don’t understand what they want and this is the real urgency to solve and this will come only by reflection.” It is the artists who often hold the emotional pulse of a beating nation—they are the ones who can predict the zeitgeist of a moment through their art. Part of Njami’s initiative during Dak’Art has been to bring more students and young people to the biennale to expose them to art. “It’s not the most important to just do a nice show in Dakar, but organise the schools, other people from Dakar, to see the artwork—people who don’t necessarily know about art,” he says. “I am always making sure that people have the greatest access. Art is about creating the largest possible audience so that the debate can remain public.”

Vibrant, powerful, in your face and daring—the works in Dak’Art desire to be seen for what they are—just as Africa desires to be recognised for what it is. And while the art world is lured by these visually powerful works, one must remember that they are the result of an unsatisfied mind. “We can produce powerful art in the Middle East and Africa because we are not satisfied and that’s what we can do,” says Njami. “An artist should be never satisfied.” The thirst continues until there is more to add to the table. And let’s hope that Africa continues to be the host.  
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Dakar Biennale, African Artists, Dak'Art, Simon Njami, Rebecca Anne Proctor
Photography by Aida Muluneh
Simon Njami