Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 30, 2019
Joanna Grabski Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar African Expressive Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. 328 pp.; 57 color ills. Paper $20.00 (9780253026057)

Art World City is a beautiful book. The photographs, most of which are by the author, are stunning, and all are in color thanks to support from the CAA Millard Meiss Publication Fund. In a book whose purpose is to situate a major international city and its artists into a complex and interdependent relationship, the quality of the images alone makes the argument for the symbiotic relationship between artists, the cityscape, and the visual consumption of culture in Dakar, Senegal.

Each of the six chapters stands alone as a succinct inquiry into an aspect that author Joanna Grabski identifies on how the city and its artists imprint themselves onto one another. She begins chapter 1 discussing how integrated art spaces are into the fabric of the city. Unlike in the urban centers of New York, London, or Hong Kong, art spaces are more freely found across Dakar and are less regulated by institutions, galleries, or dealers. Grabski’s data prove that the artists themselves animate the art scene of Dakar. Chapter 3 focuses on the space of the artist’s studio and the multivalent activities it houses. Being an artist in Dakar’s art world is not for the introverted, for even the purportedly private space of the artist’s studio is never confined to the practice of simply producing art. Artists use their studios as archives, centers for workshops, educational destinations, reception halls, galleries, libraries, sales centers, and scholarly salons, whether impromptu or planned. From these studios, artists fan out across the city, drumming up exhibitions, art gatherings, animations, all while placing, producing, and installing their works in the public eye. Murals, public art, outdoor exhibitions, performances, and installations usurp almost every neighborhood in this sprawling city, an extraordinary testament to the respect Dakar residents accord the painters and plasticiens (sculptors/installation artists) who activate the visual culture of the city.

Chapter 2 introduces Grabski’s platform for discussing the extraordinary success of Dakar as an internationally connected art world city, and she expands upon this in the subsequent chapters as well. The Dak’Art Biennales, reincarnated in 1991/2 in the model of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s 1966 Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, are the largest repeated offering of international African art on the continent, despite the South African attempts in the 1990s at getting biennials up and running in that country. That Dakar would have one ongoing biennial is impressive enough for a country of only sixteen million people, but it produces multiple exhibitions in the biennial model. Festigraff, the Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, the Salon National des Arts Visuels du Sénégal, and the Festival International du Film du Quartier, all in Dakar, are further supplemented by the renowned biennials and festivals hosted in Saint Louis, Senegal (Festival International de Jazz, Les Fanals), along with countless regularly recurring art, fashion, film, dance, and music festivals across the country. Grabski’s analysis allows the reader to realize that Dakar is supporting as much international art as cities five times its size. She is careful with comparisons, however, lest we drift into a same-same or center-other model of comparing Dakar’s art power with that of London or Tokyo, for example. She educates her readers on how to follow the Dakar art scene from within Dakarois cultural systems, while pointing out that tourists who come to seek the African equivalent of a Documenta or a Venice experience will inevitably come away disappointed and confused. In Venice you have the Giardini and Arsenale exhibition spaces; for the Armory show in New York, you have the restricted space of Piers 90–94; at Documenta you go to Kassel’s art institutions. In Dakar, however, you go everywhere: bakeries, hair salons, private homes, sidewalks, bars, IT schools, artist studios, street corners, underpasses, elementary schools, architecture studios, international embassies, and yes, even museums, culture centers, and art galleries. If you miss a booth or two at the Armory show, you’ll survive. In Dakar, you could miss an entire neighborhood, or the one tiny exhibition at a former swimming pool complex that everyone is talking about. At Dak’Art, the FOMO is real, and missing out is the fault of the viewer—you didn’t look hard or long enough to find everything. Not all art worlds operate like New York’s or London’s, and Dakar’s is absolutely thrilling.

In chapters 4–6, Grabski negotiates the spaces from studio to exhibition, starting with a strong focus on récupération, Dakar’s signature contemporary style of found object art making. Beginning with the assertion that the city’s materials are the artist’s materials, a point she made previously in her film Market Imaginary (2012), Grabski asserts that “production cannot be separated from the conditions of its making.” Departing from previous understandings of récupération, however, she refutes that the conditions of art making in Dakar are steeped in poverty, making do, and self-taught craft. Rather, object reuse, assemblage, and installations of market or cast-off goods are the tools used by artists in Dakar since the 1960s to make political and conceptual statements. The talent of an artist to see a material—a plastic doll, a transistor radio, or broken mortar—and transform, improvise, or mutate it until it becomes a statement about political incompetence, social interdependence, or environmentalism is rooted in an understanding of the audiences for whom the artists work. As I have noted in my own research, audiences in Dakar are used to consuming their visual culture outdoors, in public spaces, not in art galleries or museums. As a result, artists frequently choose materials with which the general public will be familiar in one context—say the flip-flops they bought from a vendor with a fancy market stall display—and convert that familiarity into something uncanny. The ubiquitous plastic soda-bottle cap, when collected by the thousands and strung from the rafters of a cookie factory or else “bottled” into five-gallon water jugs, allows for any Dakar inhabitant to reach the conclusion that colorful soda caps are strangling ocean habitats, infecting Dakar’s water supply, and generating pollution in human spaces and food chains that surpasses our capacities to do anything about it. Thank Ndary Lô for hiring so many folks to run around and collect bottle caps for him so that something good could come from this debacle of plastic drowning Dakar.

Grabski’s book suffers but one flaw, and it is a critique common to those of us who write about Senegalese art: we have been largely focused on male artists. I commend Grabski for generously sharing her own narrative authority on many of the artists she interviewed, placing their words alongside her own in shaping the vision of Dakar as an art world city. Yet Grabski’s excellent descriptions of how three generations of artists—from Joe Ouakam, Viyé Diba, Ousmane Sow, El Hadji Sy, Mansour Ciss, Fodé Camara, Cheikhou Bâ, and Cheikh Ndiaye to Ndary Lô, among others—built the contemporary art scene in Dakar defines only one of Dakar’s many art worlds. Grabski is not alone in her struggle to find female artists, as not enough research has been done by francophone or anglophone authors to document and validate the female and nonbinary artists, animatrices (influencers), gallerists, networkers, and art advocates who collaborate in, and in fact control some of, Dakar’s multivalent art scenes.

In my own research on Senegalese sculptor Moustapha Dimé (1952–1998), I interviewed his colleagues, mentors, and students, as well as younger artists: all men. The only women I worked with were his female family members. Dimé’s art world seemed male to me, yet he pointedly, and repeatedly, acknowledged the work of women as being as inspirational to him as the subjects in his own work. He regularly thanked his female relatives, who supported and sustained him, and when asked about his favorite artists, he always highlighted Louise Bourgeois. In 2008 Ndary Lô, who features significantly in Grabski’s analysis, left a conversation with me to jump on a plane to Paris to go see “my girl Louise” (Bourgeois) and her watershed solo exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. When male artists, who move in predominantly male artist circles, are citing feminist artists and working for years with female art historians, it is clear that women are an important part of the art world city in which they live and move.

Grabski’s book opens many doors for future research, and the art world city of women is one of them. Grabski’s work represents a moment when we can lead ourselves and the next generation of art historians into directions that previously were not possible. Recall that Picasso’s first solo retrospective was held in 1913 at Moderne Galerie in Munich, when he was thirty-two. Bourgeois had to wait until she was seventy-two for her first retrospective, held in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art. There was a time when only male artists counted in art history, and it was the same time when African artists were considered “primitive.” We’re past that now. When I finished Art World City, I felt energized, remotivated, and excited about next steps for scholarship on this dynamic city and its artists. There is better, stronger work we can now do. Along with our excitement over the 2018 opening of the enormous Musée des Civilisations Noires and Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Senegal artist residency initiative, both in Dakar, let’s also turn our attention to the spaces these women, and many others, have created for themselves in their art world cities:

Fatou Kiné Aw

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Rokhaya Camara

Seyni Awa Camara

Félicité Codjo

Delphine Diallo

Kadiatou Diallo

Anne Marie Diam

Racky Dianka

Aïssa Dione

Arlette Diop

Lina El Makki

Aissatou Germaine Anta Gaye

Lalya Gaye

Penda Gueye

Sabel Guissé

Awa Ndiaye

Seynabou Sakho

Fatou Seck

Fatou Kandé Senghor

Madeleine D. Senghor

Marianne Senghor

Younousse Seye

Dieynaba Sidibé

Khadidiatou Sow

Magatte Touré

Susan Kart
Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa; Art, Architecture and Design Department; Africana Studies Program, Lehigh University