Delays and Allegations Cool Off Africa’s Hottest Art Event

Artists were putting the final touches to their works. Visitors had bought tickets long in advance. Everyone was counting on a big splash for the 15th edition of the event rapidly becoming Africa’s most prominent cultural gathering — the biennale in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, which had been set to start on May 16.

So when the West African country’s new government postponed Dak’Art at the last minute, saying it wanted to wait to hold it in optimum conditions, the African art world initially responded with dismay. The delay until November would mean less traffic through exhibitions and fewer sales, hurting a crop of up-and-coming African artists, many observers felt.

Just when the artists had regrouped, vowing to plow ahead in May with the smorgasbord of side events and exhibitions known as OFF despite the absence of the official biennale, a Ghanaian artist made accusations of sexual assault against the creator of the city’s biggest show, the American painter Kehinde Wiley. Wiley had been out on the town, opening an exhibition of his portraits of African heads of state at Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations, and showcasing the work of his protégées at his Black Rock art residency. By the time the accusations dropped in an Instagram post on May 19, Wiley had left the scene, having traveled to New York the previous day. He issued a denial, calling the claims “not true and an affront to all victims of sexual abuse.”

The allegations hampered — but did not kill — West African artists’ valiant attempts to keep up momentum around OFF and assure those planning to fly in that, even without the official biennale, there would be plenty to justify a trip to the city, surrounded by the turquoise Atlantic, at Africa’s westernmost tip.

The faithful still came.

Artists hung paintings from trees, converted the walls of stores and restaurants into galleries, and filled some of Dakar’s run-down architectural gems with installations — piles of rubble, pieces of pirogue boats, a tennis court. Visitors zoomed around town in yolk-yellow ramshackle taxis, each one a work of art in itself, and dressed up in their best bazin and pagne tissé — colorful African fabrics — to attend a full program of exhibition launch parties. It helped that the Partcours, a collection of artistic events in galleries around town, kept its programming for mid-May to mid-June, as planned.

On a recent afternoon at Selebe Yoon, an airy gallery space in a quiet street of Dakar’s downtown, Tam Sir, a young man in a tank top that read “Installing Muscles. Please Wait,” was showing a slow stream of visitors around a series of installations by the Senegalese-Mauritanian film director and artist Hamedine Kane.

A video loop of a desolate shore was projected through glistening water-filled beads scattered on a well-worn floor; balanced on the painted boards of a deconstructed wooden boat were dozens of the jerrycans used to carry gas for ocean journeys.

Kane’s theme was the effects of industrial international fishing on local fishing communities, where many risk their lives on rickety boats to Europe as a result in their search for new jobs. Living a few minutes from Dakar’s busiest fishing beach, Sir knew firsthand the devastation and the hard choices his generation had to make, and tried to convey it to viewers, including a party of teens from a local school.

“Here, when you’re young, you carry the hopes of a family,” he said, explaining why, when thousands of Senegalese die at sea each year trying to migrate, his contemporaries still tried to make it. “They’re often pushed to go by considerations of honor.”

Nearby at OH Gallery, another installation — this one by the French artist Emmanuel Tussore — evoked more despair, using ubiquitous Senegalese materials to create a war zone reminiscent of scenes from Gaza, in Dakar’s first “modern” building, a colonial-era bank. Visitors picked their way around body bags fashioned out of cement sacks and rubble; a piano looked as if a bomb had hit it; a round fountain had broken glass for water and bore the circular inscription “foundations are ruins are foundations are ruins.”

A short walk away, at Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, sickly-sweet pink walls clashed intentionally with high-saturation paintings by Na Chainkua Reindorf, dominated by the escapades of a woman’s serpentine braids. In one triptych, figures hid behind two dense curtains of hair, only their bright pink arms and feet showing.

As always with OFF, the offerings were eclectic, and Dakar’s stylish, beachy backdrop was as much an attraction as the works on show. With a new, youthful president, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 44, at the country’s helm, the shows added to the optimism in the Senegalese air.

The absence of the headline exhibitions at the former Palace of Justice was felt, though. The crowds have been thinner, and the whole affair less the nonstop party conjured in previous years, when many combined the biennale with a weekend at the annual jazz festival in the biggest city in Senegal’s north, Saint Louis, known as Ndar in the dominant Wolof language.

But with the official biennale still to come, this month’s shows are, perhaps, a warm-up for the delayed main event in November — when Dakar can do it all again.

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