At the Dakar Biennale, the city itself is the most colorful canvas

DAKAR, Senegal — It’s FOMO season in the Senegalese capital. Even when you’re at the opening of an exhibition for this year’s Dakar Bie...


DAKAR, Senegal — It’s FOMO season in the Senegalese capital.

Even when you’re at the opening of an exhibition for this year’s Dakar Biennale – ooh and aah at the works of art and envied outfits you see – you’re afraid you’ll miss an even better stage elsewhere. What’s going on — now! — the five other vernissages you could attend, scattered around this seaside capital?

That’s the (pleasant) conundrum facing those lucky enough to be in Senegal for this year’s Biennale, which has become one of the biggest – and certainly the coolest – art events around. contemporary on the African continent.

The Biennialwhich opened last month and will run until June 21, is the zenith of the city’s bubbling cultural calendar, attracting artistscollectors and trendsetters around the world.

But discovering art in Dakar is easy and inspiring, at any time of the year. Art and style are integrated into everyday life here, and those excluded from all the Biennale offerings because of time or money can easily get their art fix just by walking around, in little almost any direction.

The sandy street outside my apartment is a collage or relief, renewed every morning with paw prints, motorbike skids and wandering bougainvillea flowers. A security guard’s rickety chair made from scraps of a worn-out canoe is a still life. Fruit vendors create setups with mangoes and loose umbrellas.

No need for parties to spot beautiful outfits. On any old Friday, spend 10 minutes on any street corner, and you’re guaranteed an array of people wearing edgy sunglasses, pointy slippers or funky heels, and a bow- rainbow of shiny boubous in bazin – dresses in beaten damask cotton.

The art on display at the former Palais de Justice this year is magnificent. But people come as much to stroll through the semi-ruined building itself – its hushed courtrooms, central courtyard and sloping ceilings – as to see the curators’ picks. Here putschists, would-be assassins and opposition politicians stood trial until cracks began to appear in the brutalist concrete walls of the building, raising fears that it might collapse. It was discontinued in the early 1990s.

But it was still standing 24 years later, in 2016, when its doors were finally reopened to become the new home of the Biennale’s main exhibition.

The impression I have of wandering in its corridors is the one I often encounter in Dakar. In particular, it’s a feeling that comes when I’m in a crackling yellow taxi whose radio plays sleepy Sufi chants as it hurtles down the Corniche, Dakar’s seaside boulevard. To the left, through sun-bleached palm fronds, are miles of pale sea; to the right, the call to prayer resounds from mosques near and far.

It’s a feeling of sweet nostalgia for a time I still live in, in a city I still call home.

This city, however, changes every day. The noise of construction machinery, the glare of building lights and the truckloads of cement truckloads ensure Dakar’s transformation, on what sometimes seems like an hourly basis, with groves of flat-roofed buildings that suddenly sprout where groves of palms had only recently stood.

So, the real nostalgics for Dakar are those who have known the city with uninterrupted sight lines on the sea, with much less traffic, pollution and real estate speculation.

The theme of this year’s Biennale — Ĩ’Ndaffa in the Serer language, meaning to forge in English — seems appropriate. Apart from the art galleries, Dakar metallurgists are busy forging a new city from armatures.

A tower of apartments is planned at the entrance to the Plateau, the city center of the city where art deco and neo-Sudanese architecture mingle; the enormous structure will dominate the heart of the city.

A monster of a building made of glass and concrete blocks rises in a small residential suburb of low rise villas where two hills, one topped by a lighthouse and the other by a Soviet-style statue built by North -Koreans, give the neighborhood its name – Mamelles, which means “breasts”.

The changes the city is going through are reflected in the works of the artists who live there. Some of them, like Ousmane Mbayea former refrigerator repairman turned high-end furniture designer, works outside on the street, literally watching the city grow around them.

In the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Ngor, a former street artist, Saadio, is now commercially successful. He showed me his most recent work, canvases that are a joyful riot of scooters and Nescafé and radios and cats and colors, all part of the daily tapestry of Dakar. He waved an arm at one of his most recent paintings, which depicted a police officer arresting a taxi driver.

“It’s traffic and pollution,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t just a part of the painting, but its title, its whole theme – and why he painted the blocky buildings black and white. Grey.

The success of the Biennale and the city’s wider art scene are among the drivers of the building boom and gentrification that is creating the new Dakar.

But it’s a safe bet that the city won’t change beyond recognition. Even covered in gray stains, Saadio’s canvas had many shards of its color and the city’s trademark.

And even with all the changes, the natural boards of Dakar will be difficult to completely erase. We will have the peddlers, weaving between Porsches and horse-drawn carts, with their drivers, steering wheels or reins in hand, reflected in the large gold-framed mirrors being sold.

We will have the imperceptible silver sea from its neighbor above, the sky, especially when the dry, dusty winds of the harmattan season blow. The volcanic rocks of the shore, like giant pumice stones, which gave the artist workspace go nowhere. Kehinde Wiley her name: Black Rock Senegal.

And whatever development we see, what won’t go away is the twisted paper around black-eyed pea sandwiches – the classic city breakfast – sometimes a decades-old newspaper, sometimes the a child’s homework, sometimes a ballot.

I will miss the Biennale party circuit as it moves forward. But then, I will be able to stroll alone again in the Palais de Justice, whimsical of people who have left, for a dose of old Dakar, the one for which we will perhaps all end up having nostalgia.

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Newsrust - US Top News: At the Dakar Biennale, the city itself is the most colorful canvas
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