Dakar in Senegal is one of the African continent's premier contemporary art metropolises. The city's history as an art world center dates to the 1960s when President Leopold Sedar Senghor established a number of cultural institutions in Dakar linking modernist artistic production to Senegal's post-independence nationalist project. Whereas rich scholarship has dealt with art, independence, and nation building, this article addresses the relationship between visual production and Dakar's urban environment by positing artistic projects in Dakar as necessarily urban projects productive and expressive of the city's resources, possibilities, and connections. (1) Just as visual producers sourcing the city abound in Dakar, beaux-arts practices and their exhibition are mediated and constructed by their relationship to the processes and networks constituting their city.
Two institutions orient my analysis of the relationship between visual production and Dakar's urban matrix: Dakar's Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) and the Dak'Art Biennale (Biennale of Contemporary African Art). Specifically, this article explicates how art practice by Dakar's beaux-arts practitioners signifies the remaking of artistic projects as urban projects by claiming new discursive spaces and visual sources. Along similar lines, I consider how the Dak' Art Biennale's so-called in and off sites use the city's institutional, visual, and social spaces to make Dak'Art a collective urban proposition. Both cases afford analysis of Dakar's art world institutions emerging from and engaging with the city, thereby substantiating the assertion that Dakar's art world and its city construct, inscribe, and call on each other in the making of an art world city. (2) In so positioning Dakar, this approach attends to art world dynamics within the interpretive frames of urban location and city networks. The implications of this research extend to other sites for art making, especially urban sites, by suggesting a paradigm for thinking about how artists engage with their visual and social spaces and how they work within and across formal and informal, local and international. Analysis of Dakar as an art world city further posits a shift in the metanarrative emphasizing Senegalese national politics in relation to visual production and art institutions.
While creative practices associated with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Dak' Art unfold in the context of the distinctive local realities in which they are embedded, they also intersect with international practices and dynamics. In turn, such practices inscribe Dakar's art world city with local and international flows. In recognition of the fraught nature of these themes in both scholarship and practical usage, I consider these terms as inflections, dynamics, and negotiations much like Arjun Appadurai's conceptualization of "scapes" and Ulf Hannerz's discussion of "flows." (3) My analysis considers how such flows and interconnections are rendered visible in Dakar's art world city and, in turn, how they contribute to its construction. If the local and international function as relational notions that stream into and out of each other, engage and contest each other, and push and pull toward often dynamic ends, attempts to parse where one begins and the other ends only challenge definitions, underscoring their entanglement. They are both sited and unbounded within Dakar's urban space and art world. Like Dakar's neighborhoods, notions of local and international stretch, spill, and imagine.
Recuperation and Rethinking Art Practice at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts
Of the abundant artistic propositions in Dakar, one of the most ubiquitous forms involves recuperation, a category of expressive production relying on materials culled from the urban environment. Recuperation renders visible the relationship between artistic practice and the city, for the materials of recuperation are the city's materials--discarded metal fragments, washed-out driftwood, shattered wind shield glass, plastic jugs, the worn soles of rubber flip-flop sandals, and metal reinforcement bar (rebar) from buildings that seem to be perpetually under construction. Like many artworks referencing the city, recuperation gained momentum among artists associated with Dakar's Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the late 1980s and 1990s. It was, in fact, the forme du jour in the mid-1990s. Scholars often interpret the use of salvaged materials, whether in art or in life more broadly, as signifying a collective ethos of making-do in the global South. The art critic Simon Njami put it like this: "In African cities, the art of survival, of wangling, is a daily necessity that is found at every rung of the social ladder. Nothing is thrown away. Everything is transformable. Everything is transformed." (4) But in Dakar, recuperation among beaux-arts practitioners emerges less from the impulse of necessity than from the interlacing of visual production at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with the broader urban landscape. Further sustaining recuperation as a trend is the legitimizing machinery of art world brokers who frame the strategy within narratives privileging the local. The critic Michael Brenson writes of the complexity of the local and the international in constructing and legitimizing each other: "While perceiving the local's desire and claim for international recognition, international and transnational communities are not only pressured into focusing attention on the local, they are also given evidence of their own authority by recognizing the power of their legitimizing machinery in the local's eyes." (5) For many critics and curators based in and beyond Dakar, recuperation signifies not just a locally specific discursive field; it is also positioned as "the new African installation" admired for its "authentic" interpretation of African artistic traditions in which incorporative sculpture and the accumulation of objects were common visual strategies. (6)
In the period leading up to recuperation's apex of popularity in the mid-1990s, the legitimizing narratives of art world brokers dovetailed with and supported transformations in art practice prompted by shifts in faculty and curricular restructuring occurring at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the mid-1980s. At the center of the transformation was a matrix of ideas privileging research, visual experience, urban subjectivity, and formal training across media. This set of ideas replaced and even overturned hitherto institutionalized notions about art practice that characterized the school since its founding in 1960. For much of the school's history, pedagogy entailed what artists refer to as a laissez-faire model, whereby students received little formal direction because their "intuition as Africans and artists" guided their production. (7) Deploying mostly two-dimensional media, such visual production expounded themes and styles associated with Senghorian cultural politics of Negritude and its promotion in post-independence years. More than two decades later, the new curriculum intended to disassociate art practice from primitivizing, modernist tropes and recalibrate art practice to concomitant international approaches; it adapted elements of contemporary normative practices from art academies in Western Europe and especially France. Theoretical and practical elements were drawn from this framework and combined with the opportunities and constraints of Dakar's on-the-ground reality. …