Postcolonial Urbanisms in Senegal: Jan 16th – Africulturban

The lecture today focused on art and social movements in Senegal. We read three articles, Elizabeth Harney’s introduction chapter in her book In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, our professor’s article “The Old Man is Dead: Arts of Citizenship of Senegalese Youth” and Allen Robert’s “Contests of Visual Citizenship in Contemporary Senegal”. I really enjoyed Harney’s introduction to her book: learning about ex-president Leopold Senghor’s vision for Senegalese arts and his lasting legacy was really important to understanding the visual landscape of Dakar today and how the arts has flourished in the city. Senghor was the first president to truly have an “African” vision of Senegal; he dreamed of a pan-African alliance of which Senegal would have a prominent place. In order to build up Senegal’s image, he commissioned a giant statue from North Korean architects called the “African Renaissaince”. This statue is the largest one in Africa and literally towers over people along one of the newer highways in Dakar. He also financed l’Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) and encouraged an aesthetic that rejected European influences and trends at that moment in history – that was a “return” to “African” art. Senghor probably didn’t know that the consequence of such a strategy was that today, many traditional forms of African art are considered “primitive” and that contemporary African artists struggle to break out of this category and for their own recognition as artists, simply artists. I certainly noticed in Musée Quai Branly – the museum of “primitive” arts in Paris and the premier one in France – that the African arts they choose to show always fall into a certain pattern of masks, statues, and tribal items. I know that African art can be so much more varied and I am especially interested in contemporary African art – which is why I dream one day of returning to Senegal for the Biennale d’art contemporain. It is the premier contemporary art event in Africa and only happens once every two years in Saint Louis. Rosalind’s article was also very interesting to discuss and resonated a lot with what members of Y’en a marre told us the day before in GHipHop – Senegalese youth mobilized around hip hop and rap recently and changed Senegalese politics indefinitely. Senegalese youth know this today, and they are proud of their mobilization, the growth of their association, and their contribution to Senegalese society and politics. When we visited Africulturban, the “original” hip hop society in Pikine-Guédiawaye, this was evident. The young men (and one woman) who worked there spoke with pride of how they started from nothing (cue Drake – Started From The Bottom) and today, they have a 200,000,000 franc yearly budget culled from a variety of different international sources – USAID, the Danish government, the British Council, etc.

Africulturban’s recording studio was definitely more professional and nicer than that of GHipHop, and I did not expect that they would invite us to sing and record a song. Rachel and Fanta immediately jumped in to sing Drunk With Love, and it was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen. The biggest surprise of the day was Oury rapping in Pular – he had amazing flow and rthym! They could have signed him. Then Ben rapped in Wolof! We were all dying in that recording studio, and the guys had a great time recording us. They actually did make the tracks and I hope that they sent it to Rosalind, Ben or Oury. We went into another room and learned how to DJ for a bit – the guy there was scratching a lot, which seems to have kind of fallen by the wasteside with most electronic DJs and some of us tried our hand at it, it was really quite complicated. Finally, we had another concert in our honor – some of the groups were just amazing and got the entire group going. We were originally seated and by the end of the concert, I had just abandoned my chair and wandered over to groove with some of the other rappers who were taking a rest after their sets.

Questions: 1. Are there Senegalese artists who appreciate Senghor’s artistic legacy in the country? All the money that he used to fund l’Ecole des Beaux Arts and certain artistic projects in the country for example?

2. What is the contemporary art market like in Senegal and in Africa in general? Who are the people buying the art at Biennale d’art contemporain?

3. Africulturban seems to have a fixed budget now and be working on all sorts of projects. Are these “grants” from these government agents on a fixed basis for a certain amount of time? Are they based on performance or output? Hip-hop seems to be having a political “moment” in the sense that it’s very favorable to support hip-hop projects from the vantage point of politicians but when this ends, how will Africulturban support itself? Also, does it create real viable economic opportunities for youth? The young man who gave us a lecture was talking about how many young people in the neighborhood dream of becoming a famous rapper and don’t take their studies seriously, but I am sure that the percentage of people actually gaining recognition and making money from hip-hop is still low, even in Senegal, a country known for its music and amazing musicians.

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