Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar

Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar

by Joanna Grabski


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253026057
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/10/2017
Series: African Expressive Cultures Series
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Joanna Grabski is Director of the School of Art at Arizona State University. She is editor (with Carol Magee) of African Art, Interviews, Narratives: Bodies of Knowledge at Work. She wrote, directed, and produced the feature-length documentary film Market Imaginary , focused on Dakar’s sprawling Colobane Market.

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Art World City

The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar

By Joanna Grabski

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Joanna Grabski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02622-4


Making The City's Scene

Visibility, Exhibition Culture, and Mediatization

With his trademark beret, small circular glasses, and pipe, Joe Ouakam is an artist who is seen. His presence in Dakar's art scene is both unmistakable and ubiquitous. Ouakam ambles through downtown streets, reads at the café of the Institut Français, and publishes his opinions in Dakar's newspapers. Attending both art events and political debates, Ouakam navigates the city with great finesse, accruing visibility and fashioning his persona as he moves. Ouakam is likely the most visible and widely recognizable artist in Dakar. "Joe is everywhere," an article in summarized aptly. In fact, it is more likely that Dakar's art scene makers and the city's public will see the artist himself rather than a formally organized exhibition of his artworks.

Anyone familiar with the city's art scene knows that a formal exhibition of Ouakam's art in Dakar is a relatively unusual event. His artwork can be seen more regularly in his courtyard studio at 17 Rue Jules Ferry, where the artist lives and works. His courtyard is filled with materials and art objects in various states of progress and ruin: baskets, wires, fishing nets, bottles, cans, clothing, and wood. Some of the objects and materials — wires wrapped around a bundle and sculptures covered partially by cloth — seem to have been worked by human hands while others seem to await an assignment of purpose.

Objects and materials are piled in every corner, propped against the walls, and suspended from clotheslines. Wall niches remaining from the courtyard's former life as a bar and restaurant are filled with stacks of dusty books and newspapers. Located in the heart of downtown Dakar, the address also boasts a somewhat mythic reputation as a gathering place for artists, writers, and musicians. On any given day, art makers and scene makers come and go, hoping to engage the philosophical Ouakam in conversation.

Since Ouakam's previous gallery exhibition in Dakar had been in 1992, it was somewhat unexpected when the artist was featured in two formally organized solo exhibitions in 2010. The first was entitled "Paa Bi: La Cour de Joe Ouakam" and held at Ouakam's courtyard studio (May 6–June 6, 2010), and the second was "Joe Ouakam" at Dakar's Galerie Nationale (December 10–31, 2010). Both exhibitions are analyzed further in this chapter's concluding section. Their vernissages (opening receptions) bustled with art world figures, and the media coverage was extensive. Ouakam himself greeted the throngs of guests. Inside, exhibition-goers milled around, commenting on the events and the displays of art.

At the "Paa Bi" exhibition, Ouakam's courtyard looked much as it usually did except for the paintings and drawings displayed for sale on the walls. Red dot stickers next to many paintings and drawings signaled that they were already sold. The press billed this exhibition as "the largest installation of contemporary art in Dakar." In the context of this particular evening, the "installation" in question — the objects and materials that had accumulated in the artist's courtyard over the years — was transformed into a formal exhibition by the art scene in attendance, the paintings and drawings displayed and sold, and the media's focus on the artist and the event.

Given that Ouakam's artistic persona, wrought in the crucible of the city, was already highly visible and given that his work was already displayed at his courtyard studio, having two shows in one year after not exhibiting in Dakar for so many years presented a conundrum. Why did Ouakam become a formally exhibiting artist when he had successfully fashioned his persona by sidestepping the formally organized exhibitions that are Dakar's dominant modality for art scene visibility? Rumors percolated through the art scene. Were these events driven by financial motives? Was the premium on the city's real estate about to force Ouakam from his downtown studio residence? In light of his age, were these events a tribute to the artist, a gesture to formalize his place in the art scene? Whatever the impetus, their occurrence reveals something significant about exhibition culture in Dakar.

I propose that we read this example as demonstrating the centrality of exhibitions to art scene making and fashioning artistic personas in Dakar. Even with Ouakam's ubiquitous presence in the city, his visible artistic persona, and the accessibility of his art to viewers, artists in Dakar are expected to show their work in formal exhibitions. Ouakam's example illustrates vigorously that being an artist in Dakar means being visible as an artist in the city's art scene. Even when artists associated with Dakar's art scene reside elsewhere or travel internationally for exhibitions and residencies, the expectation is that they exhibit in Dakar.

In this chapter, I assert that the practices of visibility — of seeing and being seen — underwrite Dakar's exhibition culture and make its art scene. The main themes driving this chapter's analysis revolve around how artists make exhibitions, how exhibitions make an art scene, and how art writers narrativize and mediatize this scene. My analysis reads exhibitions as the primary platforms in structuring and animating Dakar's art scene while examining how Dakar's exhibition culture creates the conditions for participation in the city's art scene. Print media related to exhibitions, especially journalistic writing and exhibition essays, figure integrally into this analysis. These media work in tandem with exhibitions to accord visibility and assign narratives of relevance within the art scene. Taken together, they create visibility and make a space for conversation about artists, objects, and events. These are fundamental not just to the inner workings of Dakar's art scene but also to the scene's imagination about itself.

Artist-Led Exhibition Culture and Animation Artistique

In Dakar, exhibitions are invariably spoken of as a form of animation artistique, a rubric encompassing a range of platforms dedicated to showcasing art and gathering artists. Events such as exhibitions, film screenings, debates, and conferences are the main sites for creating conversation about art and cultural life in Dakar. They are also where artists are visible as members of their profession and where together they participate in making an art scene. Although the term "animation artistique" has no true parallel in an Anglophone context, its premise is that artistic projects are animated or enlivened by creating a space for them and a context around them. The term is often partnered in conversation with another notion, mise en valeur (valorization or highlighting). Both terms emphasize the significance of creating visible spaces that valorize cultural producers and cultural production. In this chapter, I urge us to consider animation artistique as inclusive of diverse animating contexts, such as the assembly of art scene makers at an exhibition's vernissage, journalistic writing about exhibitions, and the interpretive essays that accompany exhibitions.

The fact that platforms for animation artistique spring up all over Dakar demonstrates that those in Dakar's art scene organize themselves to make animation happen. In doing so, they populate the city with events that generate a scene. Of the platforms for animation artistique, the most prominent, visible, and plentiful are exhibitions. Exhibitions are integral to structuring Dakar's art scene. At any given moment, Dakar's art scene is animated by solo and collective exhibitions. The city is especially abuzz with activity during the peak season from October to June, when exhibitions and cultural events occur weekly. Even during non-peak season, which corresponds with the rainy season and school vacations, ample art-related events keep the scene lively. I suggest that these exhibitions animate the art scene as much as the art scene animates the city. These events populate the city's art scene with multiple propositions, contributing fundamentally to its characteristic pluralism and incongruity.

While it takes many individuals to make a scene — artists, gallerists, curators, collectors, and art writers of all sorts — Dakar's art scene is indisputably artist-led and artist-centered. It is created by and around artists. In addition to making art, artists themselves also make exhibitions. They organize their own shows and organize shows for one another. Exhibitions in Dakar are most often artist-led initiatives where artists undertake much of the work associated with animation artistique. They typically negotiate the use of an exhibition space and payment for the opening reception. They often prepare and install their own works and occasionally lend a hand to a colleague. They arrange for art writers to contribute an interpretive text to accompany their shows just as they arrange for journalists to cover their exhibitions in the press.

So crucial are exhibitions to artists' professional status that they leverage substantial resources, especially human and financial capital, to make exhibitions happen. Artists rely on a mix of funding sources and personal connections to finance their artistic projects and exhibitions. Some use saved money or reinvest the profits from previous sales. Others seek exhibition sponsorship, with varying degrees of success, from corporate entities in Dakar, such as Sonatel or Eiffage Sénégal, whose logos then appear on the exhibition's publicity materials.

That artists create events and context around their work subverts our expectation that the work of animation artistique, especially exhibition making, would be undertaken primarily by a professional cast of curators, gallerists, and art promoters. Exhibitions in Dakar are only occasionally conceptualized as curatorial propositions underpinned by a thematic, conceptual, or educational premise. Most of the time, exhibitions are more suitably described as venues for artists to display work, to represent artistic personas, and ultimately to make their living. While there are some well-established curators, gallerists, and art promoters in Dakar, their expertise is not widely perceived as essential to exhibition making, sale, or promotion. Curating is often assumed to entail little more than organizing and installing a show. Furthermore, much more art is sold directly by artists than in commercial galleries in Dakar (see chapter 6). Because artists can mount their own exhibitions and sell their own work, curators and gallerists are often viewed as less than urgently needed unless they can facilitate or open up a new opportunity that the artist alone could not.

Although what Michael Brenson has described as "the curator's moment" has yet to emerge in Dakar's art scene, curators from Dakar and elsewhere do participate in the art scene. This is especially true for exhibitions during the Dak'Art Biennale and events associated with foreign cultural centers, such as the Institut Français and the Goethe Institute, as discussed in chapter 2. The conceptual disparity between exhibition culture in Dakar and curated exhibition culture in western art centers is evident in remarks by curators and art world figures from Europe and North America about the bewildering hodgepodge or "buffet-like" character of exhibitions in Dakar. Certainly, Dakar's exhibition culture would shift dramatically were it driven primarily by curators instead of artists and were the intention to make exhibitions as curatorial propositions rather than platforms for display and sale. And one can only speculate on how the scene would transform if wide-scale collaboration took place between the two professional categories.

The emphasis on the artist as an animateur d'art and the dominant conceptualization of exhibitions as sites for display and sale rather than curatorial projects are traceable to the 1980s. The roles assumed by artists as both art makers and exhibition makers can be understood as emerging from the breakdown in the celebrated art culture machine established by the post-independence era president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. As several scholars have discussed, in the two decades following independence in 1960, the state was at once patron, collector, and exhibition maker. The government provided subvention for artists to make and exhibit their art as part of Senghorian cultural politics. The generous government support associated with Senghor's presidency tapered off with his departure from public office in 1980. Such state subvention has not been replicated by his presidential successors, Abdou Diouf, Abdoulaye Wade, and Macky Sall, but a number of new art world sites, sponsors, and players have sprung up in the decades since the heyday of state sponsorship.

Dakar's contemporary artist-led exhibition culture has grown out of artists' initiatives to create new art world sites and practices in the 1980s and 1990s. Artists beginning their careers in the 1980s and 1990s devised alternative practices for exhibition and sale. Without the state buying their work or sponsoring their exhibitions, artists had to find new ways to make their livelihoods in the context of significant infrastructural and practical change. Many of them, such as Fode Camara, Serigne Ndiaye, and El Hadji Sy, cultivated relationships with individuals who would become art collectors and amass significant collections in Dakar (chapter 6).

Likewise, in an effort to make a living and dissociate themselves from the culture of state-identified exhibition venues, artists created alternative sites for exhibition, such as Tenq at the Village des Arts. Speaking of the Tenq exhibitions, artist Serigne Ndiaye explained, "The objective of these exhibitions was not to show propaganda referring to a national identity, but to exhibit works for appreciation by amateurs and admirers." This is not to say that discourse about government support for the arts does not persist. Government rhetoric and art world practices still capitalize to some extent on the legacy of the Senghorian era. For instance, references to the state's support of the arts still reverberate in official speeches made during art events. It is considered proper art world protocol to invite representatives from the Ministry of Culture to exhibitions and other cultural events even though the work of animation artistique is largely unhooked from government funding. The current situation involves multiple players and platforms and, as many recognize, "there is an impressive amount of animation artistique but not under the umbrella of a coherent governmental cultural politic [s]."

The opportunities for animation artistique and scene making draw largely on the scene itself and the resources of Dakar's art world city. The latter paradigm does not seek to posit a totalizing or cohesive force as driving art and culture. It is grounded in an analysis of how individual actors contribute to making a scene. Rather than sketching a top-down paradigm where political agendas and subvention either flow or do not flow from the government, I propose that we examine how artists operate within and generate a scene from their city's particular resources and conditions. My contention is that Dakar's art scene emerges from the circumstances of the city itself. This creative economy is part of the city's economy. From there, artists work and earn their livelihoods.

As venues to showcase artistic propositions, exhibitions are a crucial art world infrastructure that accords visibility, as well as the participation and recognition that implies, to artists and their art. Nowhere is this more obvious than at a vernissage, the moment of greatest visibility for artists and artworks. Artists generate a good amount of hype for their vernissages by hanging posters advertising their events strategically around the city, personally distributing invitation cards, sending email announcements, and making phone calls. At a vernissage, artists shine in the spotlight while art scene makers circulate in their most colorful attire, exchanging a mix of perspectives. Photographers move through the space, taking pictures at the request of the exhibiting artist. Cameras flash as they record art scene makers looking at art or talking with each other. Photographs documenting the event appear in the city's newspapers the following day.

Photographers are essential to the practices of exhibition culture and art scene making. They portray the art scene just as they represent artists at the center of vernissages. In an interview, Abdou Farry Faye, a photographer employed by the French Cultural Center from 1964 to 1991, explained that the work of photographers documenting exhibition openings was expected, instrumental, and urgent. Faye attended countless events at the Musée Dynamique and Galerie 39, formerly the French Cultural Center's art gallery.


Excerpted from Art World City by Joanna Grabski. Copyright © 2017 Joanna Grabski. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. Dakar’s Art World City
1. Making the City’s Scene: Visibility, Exhibition Culture, and Mediatization
2. Mapping the Dak'Art Biennale in Dakar
3. A Place From Which to Speak: Artists’ Studios as Infrastructure of Opportunity
4. From Street to Studio: Sourcing the Materials for Art from Urban Life
5. Picturing the City
6. Market Space and Urban Space: The Business of Selling Art in the City
Epilogue. Reflections on Dakar’s Art World City: Infrastructures, Vision-Oriented Subjectivities, and Implications

What People are Saying About This

author of Playing with Time - Mary Jo Arnoldi

In her fine-grained analysis, Joanna Grabski demonstrates the ways that the urban environment and the sites of art production, exhibition, and sale imbricate one another to constitute Dakar as an Art World City.

author of A Dance of Assassins - Allen F. Roberts

Needless to say, one can find contemporary artists and arts in any African city just as one can anywhere else in the world, but not with the profusion and shared pride of Dakar. Why is this? Engaging tales thereby hang, and the author is a most masterful raconteuse.

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