Exploring the theme City in the Blue Daylight for the 16th Dak’art Biennial for Contemporary African Art

Dakar is a city that juts into the sea. The shoreline is turquoise; the colour of the water deepening as it stretches into infinity. The air is thin and arid. Sahelien sand fills streets in the outskirts of the city; thin granules shift with the ocean breezes. The light has a specific brightness, bouncing off cream and tan apartment blocks. In the downtown plateau, colonial buildings abut tropical modernist gems from the independence era. Contemporary architecture continues the serene conversation with the air, the light and the water.

“I love this city,” says Simon Njami, curator of the 16th Dak’art Biennial for Contemporary African Art. “I like a place where you’re driving and you are surprised by the sea. There is something light here that I like…the city is beautiful.” That love underlies his curation. The biennial in its fullness feels like a love letter to Dakar; in its specificities it feels like a series of distinct love letters from the artists to their own cities across Africa. Love, to Njami, is no frou frou emotion. Here it’s about delving into the nuances of the feeling. “Love is not always smiling and dadada,” he says, in a rhythmic singsong, “you cry, you fight.” You dig, one could add, you discover the mystery, the depths.

Love in the biennial translates to a deep engagement; it treats the city as a place of both ghosts and possibility. Njami’s relationship to history is as a counterargument, a determined evolution and transformation of narratives. “It’s called the Dakar Biennial so the departing point must be the city. What's wrong in the city? What's right in the city? Are there places in the city that are hidden?”

The departing point of Dak’art must be the city. What's wrong in the city? What's right in the city? Are there places in the city that are hidden?

The Ancien Palais de Justice, which houses the central exhibition, had been abandoned wreckage, a decaying behemoth full of garbage and goats situated behind the bus terminus at the very tip of Dakar’s peninsula. “Some said it was haunted, [there were] spirits,” Njami said, admitting, “there were probably some snakes… I wanted to create a mystery or miracle out of something that was there. I didn’t invent it; it was there. And by reopening it, it became a kind of miracle for people passing in front of it.”

The broad tan walls of the entryway change colour as the sun shifts during the day. The title, ‘La Cité dans le jour bleu’ (‘The city in the blue daylight’) is typed in the sky-blue of a quintessentially Dakarois bazin boubou. Just above the gleaming newness hang a few fragmented letters — D,  U and a tilted E — from the sign that used to spell ‘PALAIS DE JUSTICE.’ Reenchantment is a theme of the biennial, and the interplay between past and present on the facade is echoed in the works.

Inside there is a central courtyard open to the sky. Twine is strung between trees, from which hang bright white clothes printed with photographs highlighted in blue and pink. Photographer Mouna Siala shot the images in her late grandparents’ house in southern Tunisia. After their death, “it’s the objects that speak of history. They are full of memories, of stories,” she says. Printing the photographs on clothing is an attempt to resuscitate the past. “When you see laundry hanging it is as if there are people there, someone put them there, there is life with laundry.” Hand washed laundry also evokes domesticity and the quiet intimacy of shared space. Siala first strung her installation inside her grandparent’s home. The town, she says, is decaying. The old architecture is crumbling into history and she wanted to both preserve and transmute it with her work.

A phoenix is an animal that rebirths, that descends into another phoenix, there is non-rupture, continuity and I wanted people to think about that

Against a wall in the central exhibition space, Delio Jasse’ photographs of Luanda similarly explore the tension of urban transformation, though his tone is less whimsical, more fretful. His cyanotype series Terreno Ocupado (occupied territory) is about the intrusion of the new displacing the old in the city. The colour is both an expression of his mood and a way to grab attention, he says. The series is a warning, but a “smooth” one, akin perhaps to a well-intentioned intervention.

Fabrice Monteiro’s installation in a transformed courtroom is an even more glaring critique. In the centre is a bright red and gold throne, a play off of the ostentatious coronation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa in Central African Republic in 1977. Graffiti scrawled on the wall shouts ‘Ceci n’est pas un Phoenix’ (This is not a phoenix). And it’s true: while Bokassa’s original throne was a phoenix, this one is a pigeon. “A phoenix is an animal that rebirths, that descends into another phoenix, there is non-rupture, continuity and I wanted people to think about that,” Monteiro says. Large-scale portraits on the wall, also in bright red, are caricatures of dictators. One wears military fatigues, another a suit, another in Mobutu-esque leopard print, and the last sports a traditional boubou. The piece is a harsh commentary on absolute power. It questions the cycle of domination, asking if it is necessary and interminable. The stinging depiction and the rage of the colouration is reflective of the sharpness of concern that comes with connection. Love is violent, too.

There are dozens more: Heba Amin’s Project Speak2Tweet pairs discomforting video of abandoned half-built buildings with voices of Egyptians personal musings on their country, revolution and love. She collected the audio from a short-lived twitter program that allowed people to phone-in tweets when the authorities shut down the internet during the Arab Spring. Ala Kheir has a beautiful photo series celebrating Khartoum’s angular old architecture.

Dak’art was not isolated to the magnificent Palais, though. A disused old train station was reborn, hosting hipster dance parties, concerts and symposia throughout the opening week. There were 200 OFF exhibitions as well, pushing art into unknown pockets of the city.

A beautiful exhibition of historic photographs of the SICAP-Liberté neighbourhood was displayed in a shack off a roundabout. The national television offices housed an exhibition of 30 artists from Dakar’s impoverished suburbs. A hospital and the Hotel de Ville hosted incredible video mapping installations: graphic, musical projections that danced with the architecture. And the chic Galerie Atiss along the corniche had an inspiring collection of artists working on migration from Oumar Ball’s wire sculptures of birds climbing the walls and flying out of a skylight to Alexis Peskine’s lush video on Africans in Paris.

For something so sprawling and kaleidoscopic, the success was in the connectivity of the diversity: in the end, it’s all love.