My birthday month coincided with the start of the Dakar Biennale (Dak’Art) this year. As a gift to myself, I visited Senegal’s seaside capital to experience how the continent’s longest-running art biennale, first launched in the early 1990s, came back to life after a four-year Covid-induced absence.
The eight days I spent in Dakar towards the end of May were just too short. Apart from the official Dak’Art exhibition at the former Palais de Justice there were over 400 events throughout the city and adjacent neighbourhoods as part of the OFF programme (various autonomous events organised around the central biennale).
The opening evening at the former Palais de Justice was the first art event I’d attended since the pandemic and it was overwhelming — in a good way. The well-dressed, tote-bag-carrying art crowd was out in force and the different accents that swirled around as conversations picked up told you that visitors had come from as far as Japan, Martinique, the US, UK, France, and, locally, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and Ethiopia.
A few South African artists were among those showing, including Mzwandile Buthelezi, with a series of paintings called Textures of Silence; Sethembile Msezane, with a video work titled Ukuhlanya; and Mo Laudi, one of whose works was a sound installation that paid tribute to Ernest Mancoba called Motho ke motho ka batho. The tapestries of legendary Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté were among my favourites at the Palais. Having first seen one of these exquisite works in the atrium of the Zeitz Mocaa in Cape Town, it was inspiring to be able to appreciate them up close.
With the vast range of events being held across the city, there was no way to experience everything. The tourist traps — like the seaside restaurants and an outdoor exhibit on Gorée Island — tended to have the more forgettable art. (Gorée Island itself was a pleasure to just wander around on, taking pictures of the multicoloured buildings.) It was the local art galleries back in the city (OH Gallery, Selebe Yoon, Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, and Espace Vema) and art spaces such as RAW Material Company and theMatter Art Project that showed strong work.
It was always warm enough for a walk along the promenade
Espace Vema, which is located just as you arrive at the ferry station for Gorée Island, had a solo show for Fally Sene Sow, whose wall-hung collages (installed beneath glass) explore life in the Dakar neighbourhood of Colobane. Sow vividly brings the neighbourhood to life, with its location near a market and the hardscrabble life of his inhabitants, trying to survive in rundown homes far from the glitz and glamour of Dakar’s posher areas. One afternoon, I visited curator Greer Valley’s show exploring land, belonging, and unbelonging in South Africa (through the works of artists Bronwyn Katz, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja, and Zayaan Khan) at the IFAN Museum.
The most amazing thing about visiting Dakar in May was the weather. It was always warm enough for a walk along the promenade, where a friend and I would check out the art on display (mostly forgettable) or sit outside overlooking the Atlantic Ocean while sipping cocktails or a glass of rosé. We visited the studio of furniture designer Ousmane Mbaye, who makes deceptively light-looking furniture using steel. The designer says his father was a blacksmith, and after spending over a decade as a fridge repairman he began designing furniture. He now has a studio in Dakar, and some of his work is on sale in Paris.
The Radisson Blu had the best vibe for sundowners, but my favourite rooftop was the one at the boutique Hôtel Le Djoloff. The hotel, draped in bougainvillea, is warm and inviting — a bit of a reprieve from the buzzing city centre where it is located. When it came to eating out, the seafood at Noflaye Beach and Oceanium did not disappoint. Our friend and amazing host Koyo also took us to Wagokoro, a Japanese restaurant where everything we ordered was delicious — I don’t think I had a single disappointing food experience in the city.
Dakar in the summer is a dream, and if you go during the biennale you’ll experience an art city like no other — and, like me, will probably be planning your next visit by the time you leave.