Twin track Dakar

31st May, 2012

Ker Thiossane

Flying off to Dakar, Senegal, just as we begin to install We Face Forward is not the sanest scheduling but the opening of Dak’ Art, the longest running biennale in Africa, was an unmissable event.

Travelling via Paris to Dakar, with Mary Griffiths, Curator of Modern Art at the Whitworth Art Gallery, we arrived at the Hotel Djollof, unofficial art hotel for Dak’Art, at 10pm to find Scandinavian, French and English visitors all gathering in the rooftop bar and swapping tips about what was on, what has changed and how we were going to navigate the huge range of openings and exhibitions. The buzz about art was palpable.

The following morning set us on a twin track that characterised the whole of our flying visit – and gives me the theme for this blog post. I set out for the Theatre Nationale, where the official opening ceremony was fronted by the President of Senegal and, to my great excitement, Youssou N’Dour, musician superstar and newly created Minster of Culture. With more than 1000 delegates in the theatre, in fabulous formal dress that defied both the hot weather and the early start, it was an inspiring and at times bewildering occasion. Winners of the various prizes were announced, including Cameroonian artist Em’Kal, whose work we were hoping to see and include in We Face Forward, but the artists couldn’t be found to accept their prizes. No matter, as everyone then piled outside to see a dance troupe performing in the sunshine and mob Youssou N’Dour with good wishes.

I was delighted to see all the good Dakar folks who have been working with us on We Face Forward; Koyu Kouoh from Raw Material Company, Suzanna from Ker Thiossane, Christine Eyene, one of the Dak’Art curators – all of whom have put together exhibitions either for the ON or the OFF parts of the festival, as, like Edinburgh, Dak’Art is a festival that has spawned a fringe even more dynamic than its official manifestation. Hanging out with the local art in-crowd proved to be the right thing to do, as Youssou N’Dour paused to greet us and, of course, well-connected Koyu is an old friend. So I got to meet the Culture Minister and thrust an invitation to We Face Forward into his hand. We can hope…!

Meanwhile, at the other end of town, Mary was having a considerably less glamorous time. Marie-Hélène, the project manager who was due to fly to Manchester in the last week of May to help us create an outpost of Raw Material Company at Whitworth Art Gallery for the duration of We Face Forward, had heard that her visa application had been refused because she had ticked the ‘Entertainer’ box on the form as the reason for visit. This was following instructions from us, as we have ‘Permit free festival status’ being part of the London 2012 Olympic festival. Marie-Hélène also had a letter of invitation from us and supporting information that made it clear she was a vital part of the Olympic cultural celebrations. None of this had cut any ice with the British Embassy in Accra, Ghana, which is where visas are issued for Senegalese citizens. Mary and Marie-Helene then spent the best part of the day chasing round Dakar in taxis, trying to contact the right people to challenge the decision, fighting automated phone systems and the ‘it’s not my department’ refusals. As I write, following a second application and as much political pressure we have been able to apply, Marie-Helene has got her visa, but hasn’t got her passport back. Another Malian artist, Amadou Sanogo, has had an outright refusal – after a 36 hour bus journey to deliver his visa application and passport to Accra, and Abdoulaye Konate, one of the most respected and best known of Malian artists, is still awaiting a visa.

So the twin-track of Dakar was that while we were able to hop on a plane without a visa and encounter the incredible excitement of an international African art gathering, we were forcibly reminded that this is a European luxury and a right our country does not extend to many of the African artists we are working with. I find this dispiriting and embarrassing and it makes a mockery of the Olympic ideals about promoting understanding and tolerance between cultures that we are trying to foster through We Face Forward. The Senegalese football team are playing Team GB in Manchester in the first Olympic football match. I wonder if they are having problems with their visas?

But back to the art. Throwing ourselves into crazy arguments in (my bad) French with taxi drivers about fares and locations, Mary and I managed to get round the hectic roster of openings. We saw ten exhibitions over two days and only managed to scratch the surface of this diverse and extraordinary celebration. Highlights included Em’Kal and Piniang in the main exhibition, curated by Christine Eyene, both of whom will be shown in We Face Forward. We discovered Yassine Balbizioui, a Moroccan performance and installation artist, whose hilarious and energetic bird man performance at Ker Thiossane evoked the anarchic spirit of Bedwyr Williams, yoked to a subtle and powerful critique of Western pastoral aesthetics. We met him, we loved his energy, we hope we might see him in Manchester one day. We were also blown away by the film projections on to the sides of buildings, showing films which Ker Thiossane helped create, training artists in the use of digital video, as well as documenting cities that have been ravaged by war. Standing in the dark on the waste ground beside the buildings, watching the glowing, flickering outlines of other cities across the world was probably our most extraordinary experience during our few days there.

Burundian artists, Serge Alain Nitegeka, installed a sculptural response to the beautiful vaulted gallery Le Menage, part of the Institut Francais. It was one of the most powerful installations either of us have seen – simple but so carefully realised, it pushed you to rethink the relationship between body, space and artwork even as you clambered in and around the black planks that obstructed your movement through the space. It forced you to take time to move and therefore to think.

We managed to talk to Piniang and make arrangements to include his wonderful claymation film of a day in Dakar into the show. Likewise, Em’Kal’s multiple-screen cycling man is already installed at the Whitworth, less than two weeks after we saw it in Dakar. This is not how we usually make exhibitions, but the speed and responsiveness is incredibly liberating and it feels really important to have something in our Manchester show that has come directly from Dak’Art, honouring the role it has played in promoting and celebrating West African artists and the cultural scene of Dakar.

I’ve visited Dakar three times in the last year and I now know my way to its important art spaces better than most of the taxi drivers. We have made friends and been welcomed by so many artists and cultural activists there and seeing their city and their spaces during their biennale just confirmed for me what important cultural work they are doing and how privileged we are to be working with so many of them. I’m looking forward now to making them welcome in Manchester and I hope they think We Face Forward does the art and the artists justice.

It is only distressing to me that the climate of fear around immigration and terrorism means that we won’t be able to offer that welcome to everyone that has so enthusiastically supported We Face Forward. Their works will speak powerfully, but it is not right that they won’t be able to speak alongside them.

Dr Maria Balshaw
Director of Manchester City Galleries and the Whitworth Art Gallery


Martin Barlow, curator of the exhibition Moving Into Space at the National Football Museum talks about the exhibition.

Barthélémy Toguo, Lucy Azubuike and Nnenna Okore, three of the exhibited artists, talk about their work and their interest in using materials which reflect the lifestyle and experience of the people of West Africa.

Twitter (#wefaceforward)

Creative Tourist


Nine countries show off their talent as five city venues link up for a summer celebration. Helen Nugent in the Guardian

Street life, dazzling dress, social commentary and a riot of sensuous colour interweave in a rich assembly of West African art, writes Charles Gore in the Times Higher Education