Exposure to an international art encounter like the Dakar Art Biennale, or Dak’Art, had a galvanic impact on young Nigerian artists, who were sponsored by El Anatsui under the auspices of Life in My City Art Festival, writes Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Sometimes, it’s hard to allay this lurking sense of unease. And that is stoked by the mind-whirling aesthetic canons upheld by platforms such as the Dakar Art Biennale, tagged Dak’Art, which seem designed to signpost the future of art practice. With the collusion of the critics, who are not less mired by the allure of the zeitgeist, impressionable younger generations of artists are often corralled into desired thought patterns. How then, under such circumstances, would a first-time participant at the event, which is in its 14th edition, be able to resist the urge to do some soul-searching afterwards and go back to the drawing board?
That said, it would be uncharitable to downplay the fact that exposure to the biennale would remain a needful turning-point experience for the 18 Nigerian artists sent by the Life in My City Art Festival, which is more often referred to by its acronym LIMCAF. Speaking of the artists, who have since returned to Nigeria on Saturday, May 28, they were in Dakar as the recent past winners of the annual LIMCAF, courtesy of the world-renowned Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui. Anatsui, now an emeritus professor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department, had similarly sponsored LIMCAF’s 2017 top four winners for the 2018 edition of the biennale. He would later extend the gesture to the top six winners of the 2018 and 2019 editions, hoping that they would attend the next Dak’Art, which was to be held in 2020. But then, since COVID-19 happened and both LIMCAF and Dak’Art could not be held in 2020, the inclusion of the 2021 winners swelled the number of the beneficiaries to 18.
Thus, with the best of intentions for the artists, Anatsui hoped the Dak’Art exposure would launch their careers to the next level. Indeed, participation in such international art encounters not only elevated them beyond their “local champions” mindset but also helped open up opportunities for further cross-fertilisation of ideas with other artists from diverse cultural backgrounds.
The LIMCAF 18, accompanied by two officials—the LIMCAF artistic director, Dr Ayo Adewunmi and a LIMCAF LOC member, Dr Ngozi Agujobi Odoh—, had arrived in the Senegalese capital, just in time for the biennale’s official opening and awards ceremony at Dakar’s Grand National Theatre Doudou Ndiaye Coumba Rose on Thursday, May 19. Their subsequent programme was, according to Dr Adewunmi, structured in such a way as to help the artists derive the maximum possible benefit from their biennale experience.
Shortly after the opening ceremony, during which the Senegalese president, Macky Sall, extolled the economic value and growth potentials of art, the young Nigerian artists were shepherded to the old Palais de Justice, where the official opening of the Dak’Art main exhibition would be held later that day in the evening. “[The] LIMCAF team spent quality time going through the exhibition and interacting with artists and art enthusiasts who came from around the world,” Adewunmi narrated. “There were a few artworks that attracted a lot of attention. One of such works is the Tea Cup installation by Ngozi Omeje who won the Overall LIMCAF Prize in 2015.”
Omeje, as one of the Nigerian artists represented at the event, apparently caused quite a stir with this installation work. Emmanuel Dare, one of the 18 LIMCAF artists, said he was so enthralled by it that he believed it would win the biennale’s main prize, known as the Le Grand Prix Leopold Sedar Senghor Prize, which was awarded to the Ethiopian artist Tegene Kunbi.
Meanwhile, assailed by a tumult of impressions, the visiting Nigerian artists had gushed their way through the various exhibition venues dotting the capital city. Swooning from the sheer novelty of the experience, each drew his conclusions according to his nature. To most of them, the effect was simply galvanic. “This Dakar trip has boosted my creativity to unimaginable heights,” said Abuja-based David Paul Enyi, vowing that he was parting ways with producing art for art’s sake.
After seeing the overall winning work, his Ondo-based colleague Emmanuel Dare concluded that there can be neither ugly nor perfect artwork. “I walked past that work several times while touring the exhibition with no idea that it was actually the overall winner.”
Perhaps, the artists’ participation in a group off-exhibition in collaboration with the Pan African Circle of Artists (PACA) at the Daniel Sorano Theatre should be listed among the experiential high points of their programme. The works for the exhibition, according to Dr Adewunmi, were installed on Friday, May 20. “The exhibition was PACA’s sixth show at the Dakar Art Biennale,” he explained. “PACA was gracious enough to accommodate the LIMCA 18 in the exhibition at the Daniel Sorano National Theatre.”
Credit goes to the renowned Senegalese artist, Mor Faye, who is also the president of his country’s chapter of PACA, for not only curating the exhibition but also for hosting both the PACA and LIMCAF teams. Thanks to his solicitude, the stay in Dakar was made both “enjoyable and seamless” for the Nigerian visitors.
When the exhibition officially opened on Saturday, May 21, it drew a large throng of enthusiasts from not only Senegal and Nigeria, but also from Denmark, Hungary, Morocco, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Gambia, South Africa, Guinea Bissau, and Slovenia. In all, it featured the works of 41 PACA artists and 18 LIMCAF artists, which for an “Off” exhibition was one of the highest in terms of participation figures in Dak’Art 2022. With such distinguished guests as Mor Faye, Senegalese artist Zulu Mbaye, Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Sene Absa and Nigerian PACA chapter representative Kent Onah in attendance, it was declared open by the Daniel Sorano National Theatre’s director Abdoulaye Koundoul.
Of course, there was also the attendance at the opening ceremony of one of the Dak’Art “In” exhibitions, Le Marché International des Arts de Dakar, at the imposing Monument de Renaissance site, which had a steep learning curve for the artists. And this would be because the young artists would have been inspired that the work of a Nigerian artist, Ibe Ananaba, was among those featured at that exhibition. A tour of the iconic site was an icing to the exhibition experience for the visitors.
Among other highlights of the programme were visits to the Musée des Civilisations Noires on Monday, May 23 to see an exhibition of some of Picasso’s works and a tour of the National Gallery, where the Senegalese artist Soly Cissé’s solo exhibition was held, the next day. There was also a visit to the Artists’ Village in Dakar’s Yoff neighbourhood, participation in a PACA conference in collaboration with a newly-opened gallery and art centre, Les Arts du Soleil, in Yoff, and attendance at a joint exhibition featuring the works of Mor Faye and Zulu Mbaye on Wednesday, May 25. Then, there were a meeting and interaction with the Nigerian-born curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, Smooth Ugochukwu Nzewi, on Friday, May 27. This was after the latter had seen the PACA/LIMCAF exhibition.
Sightseeing tours, which included a visit to the fish market beach at Yoff Tongo and a taste of the Senegalese rice dish, thieboudienne, courtesy of Mor Faye’s wife, were the inevitable icing on this visit.