On the Fringes of Dak’Art, A Festival for the People

By Robin Riskin

While eyes turn to the Dak’Art Biennale for this month’s arts and culture in the capital city of Senegal, one of the most interesting Dak’Art OFF exhibitions can be found in the historic neighborhood of Médina, at the southern west end of Dakar.

Médina, an historic quarter rich with culture and community, this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. As part of the celebration, a group of young artists from Médina came together to present the festival Saxalart.

The catch? The exhibition takes place inside people’s homes.

At the house of Elhadj Amadou Tiléré Ba, artist Khassim Mbaye makes a performance with 100 cards to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Médina, as part of the Saxalart Festival in Dakar. Image (c) Babacar Traoré Doli

Khassim Mbaye makes a performance with 100 cards to commemorate Médina’s 100th anniversary for the Saxalart Festival in Dakar.
Image (c) Babacar Traoré Doli

The idea? To bring art into people’s daily spaces, to commemorate Médina’s intellectual and cultural history, and to revive the neighborhood’s spirit of openness and hospitality, with one festival, 24 homes and many streets, and about 60 artists.

Which artists are participating? Greats like Babacar Traoré, Viyé Diba, Zulu M’Baye, Ismaila Manga, Fatou Kandé Senghor, Moussa Traoré, Ndoye Douts, Louis Bassène, and more, alongside up-and-coming talents like Babacar Traoré Doli, Pape Diop, Khalil Art, Bira Kasé, and others who are exhibiting for the first time.

From an installation on the subject of street sellers that blends painting and poetry with laundry and electric lines, by Mel-odile and Thierno Seydou Sall; to a project that brings community rituals into public conversation via film, photography, and performance, by Fatou Kandé Senghor; to digital art-photography that plays off words and language of Médina streets, by Babacar Traoré Doli; the works explore daily life and work in Médina with a kind of reverence and pride.

The main Saxalart festival will take place in December. This month, the group offered a tease preview as part of Dak’Art OFF.

I sat down for a conversation with two of the project’s leaders, Director General Abdoul Sall, and Artistic Director Babacar Traoré Doli.

Abdou Sall and Babacar Traoré Doli, Director General and Artistic Director of the Saxalart Festvial in Médina, Dakar. Image (c) Robin Riskin

Abdoul Sall and Babacar Traoré Doli, Director General and Artistic Director of the Saxalart Festvial in Médina, Dakar.
Image (c) Robin Riskin

Question & Answer:

Robin Riskin: Can you tell us a bit about Saxalart?

Abdoul Sall: Saxalart is a festival for the hundredth anniversary of Médina. The project pulls together numerous artists with the aim of bringing art inside people’s homes.

The idea is to involve the people so that they become the cultural mediators. They receive the public and present the exhibition to them, as well as the history of [their] houses in which we are exhibiting. Each house has a history, and it is important for us to discover our neighborhood, especially on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.

RR: What kind of activities and works does Saxalart involve?

AS: Since March, we’ve started workshops in video animation, photography, sculpture, and sous-verre (glass painting) with children from the neighborhood. We’ve led tambabanlous photo walks with 20 photographers. Where we’re sitting right now, the artist Khassim Mbaye is in the middle of making a performance with one hundred cards to mark the 100th anniversary of Médina. There will be sculpture exhibitions, photography works, installations, and artistic and musical performances. Many activities and mediawill be presented up until the end of the year.

Mel-odile and Theirno Seydou Sall's collaborative installation for Saxalart blends painting and poetry with laundry and electric lines, chez Babacar Diouf Rafet. Image (c) Babacar Traoré Doli

Mel-odile and Theirno Seydou Sall’s collaborative installation blends painting and poetry with laundry and electric lines.
Image (c) Babacar Traoré Doli

RR: What is the significance of the homes in which works are exhibited?

AS: We chose homes that have a history: the first houses that were constructed in the neighborhood, and houses where important personalities from the neighborhood have lived.

The house where we are now is one of the oldest houses in Médina, constructed by El Hadj Amadou Ba Founda. Today, his son Elhadj Amadou Tiléré Ba is a cultural mediator for Khassim Mbaye’s exhibition, receiving people and presenting the exhibition. This house was also the headquarters of the Jaaraf de Dakar, which is one of the great clubs of the city.

This house has received great figures in Senegalese political, cultural, intellectual, and athletic life, and it is a house where tea is free every day from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. Each time someone enters, he is served tea. It is a house of welcome, a house that receives. And this is also the spirit of Médina.

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Ibrahim Interrogates Process, Space, and Coal Sacks

By Robin Riskin

On an apparently ordinary Monday in the black-sooted Mallam Atta Market of Accra, Ghana, kayaayoo sellers balance fabrics and fruits on their head, while stacks of coal rest by a metal shed. At right, a large spread of sacks stitched together covers a row of coal piles. Anyone familiar with the market would instantly recognize a disruption.

Ibrahim's installation at Malata Market in Accra, Ghana last month explored the significance of the coal sack as a material.

Ibrahim’s installation at Mallam Atta Market in Accra, Ghana last month explored the significance of the coal sack as a material.

A patchwork of sacks has been stretched over the everyday coal piles by a young man dressed in wax print shorts, followed by two assistants and a cameraman. The installation is part of a project by the artist Ibrahim, the man in wax print, carried out on the last day of 2012, Dec. 31.

Ibrahim uses the coal sacks as a device to explore process, material, value, and meaning. Torn, patched, stamped with “PRODUCT OF GHANA,” and written over with owners’ names, the bags are variously marred, marked, and transformed. Ibrahim traces their passage from India to the Ghana Cocoa Boards, to the cocoa warehouses and out to the harbors, to their transformation into coal sacks used by the sisala (coal burners), and finally to the coal-sellers themselves.

Ibrahim's work is less about the exhibition itself than the process of creating the work and the transformations the material undergoes.

Ibrahim’s work is less about the exhibition itself than the process of creating the work and the transformations the material undergoes.

The coal sack becomes a symbol of the way materials are given meaning as a commodity in relation to community and context. Ibrahim re-presents the work in the same kinds of market spaces where he acquires the materials. The object most often unseen, seamlessly integrated into daily transactions, becomes the focus of the scene, made visible through its undoing.

To obtain the sacks, Ibrahim disguises himself as a coal seller, enters the markets, and negotiates with the women selling. Sometimes the prices are high, sometimes they are given freely. It all depends on the interaction and value of the sack to that individual seller. Once collected, Ibrahim re-stitches the sacks, then mounts the patchwork over coal stacks in markets and coal-selling spaces. His audience is passers-by and the sellers themselves. His work is the process.

In a second installation at Kawukudi Junction, Nima, the middle segment of cloth was covered with Chinese wax print, of the type the coal-sellers themselves would wear. (Photo courtesy of Ibrahim)

In a second installation, the middle segment of cloth was covered with Chinese wax print, of the type the coal-sellers themselves would wear. (Photo courtesy of Ibrahim)

The first installation in Mallam Atta Market was followed by a second in the neighborhood of Nima, Accra on Jan. 15, at two coal-selling locations near the gutter at Kawukudi Junction. This time, the middle segment of the cloth was covered with colorful rectangles of Chinese-imported African wax print, and strips of bright pink rope sewn in loops. The Chinese fabric, of cheaper price than the Dutch but comparable appearance, is the type most coal sellers themselves would wear. The rope is the same the sellers use to tie up the bags. Set against the canvas sacks, the collage of textiles creates a system that channels the realities and desires of the sellers, through the imported materials of their everyday existence.

Ibrahim’s work builds off post-colonial themes engaged in El Anatsui’s expansive bottle-cap patchworks, and Yinka Shonibare’s Dutch wax print installations, and calls to mind Christo’s impressive monument-wrappings. Yet his work stands out in its relevance to the communities where the material is found in Ghana. From his methods of obtaining the sacks to the completion and exhibition of them in the market selling space, he constantly negotiates the item’s social and economic context.

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Pidgin Slang & Politics: Paapa’s Fresh Urban Sound

By Robin Riskin

Kukua, I just got this scholarship

So I’ll be moving to the dollar ship.
I just want my dreams to set sail
Cause if I stay with you they might fail.

From “Write for me,” by Paapa (bit.ly/V3QSeo)

Paapa's new song "Write for me" premiered tonight on YFM with Kobby Graham.

Paapa’s new song “Write for me” premiered tonight on YFM with Kobby Graham.


Amidst a barrage of azonto beats, mindless lyrics, and money-flashing videos in the Ghanaian music scene, Paapa stands out as a thoughtful and serious artist. A self-described “Ghanaian, Musician, Skillionaire, Dreamer, Forgiven sinner” (his Facebook descrip), his fresh, contemporary, faith-inspired sounds refuse to quite fit into any box.

Mixing slang pidgin phrases with complex sociopolitical issues and soulful melodies, Paapa blends musical styles in a compelling cosmopolitan fusion. Think Lecrae or Mali Music’s conscious Christian rap, John Legend’s coffee piano soul, and Osibisa’s street groovy funk. Paapa writes and produces all his own music, often laboring for months over a single song.

Paapa Kwaku hMensa, who goes by the artist name Paapa, was signed four years ago at the age of 17 to Skillions Records, a Ghanaian label known for producing positive indie music, headed up by rap favorite Jayso. Today, Paapa balances his career as a musician with his schoolwork at Reed College in Oregon, US. Having made the most out of his debut album ‘Solar,’ released in July of 2011, he is gearing up for his second album release, ‘Songs for Kukua,’ coming out this March 6, to coincide with the 56th anniversary of Ghana’s independence.

Paapa synthed smooth tunes at Ind!e Fuse with Accra[dot]Alt Dec. 14

Paapa synthed smooth tunes as a headlining artist at Accra[dot]Alt’s Ind!e Fuse last month.

This Sunday night, Paapa treated his fans to a pre-release of the single, “Write for me,” which premiered on YFM Radio with DJ Kobby Graham. The stunner of a song connects his personal experience of leaving Ghana for school in the U.S. to a larger narrative of the brain drain for Ghana and Africa. With soft piano strokes and slow guitar strums, Paapa sings an ode of regret and longing to his homeland Ghana, captured through the metaphorical character of Kukua.

Kukua, the name for Wednesday-borns in Ghanaian Akan traditions, matches Kwaku, Paapa’s own Wednesday day-name. The song plays out as a dialogue between the two, Kwaku telling Kukua he “just got a scholarship” and will be “moving to the dollar ship”; that the “cedi and pesewa” (Ghanaian currency) “cannot afford my dreams.” Kukua sings, “Please don’t l-e-eave me-e,” ending in a low tremor, “If you leave / Please write songs for me / And come back to me…”

Jayso (left) joined Paapa at his Family Reunion Concert Jan. 5. Paapa was signed by Jayso to the Skillions Records team at the age of 17

Jayso (left) joined Paapa at his Family Reunion Concert Jan. 5 at Sytris Cafe. Paapa was signed by Jayso to the Skillions Records team at the age of 17.

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Ibra Thiam’s Seriously Surreal Reality

Ibrahima Thiam’s photographs capture distortions of reality.

By Robin Riskin

The shimmering silhouette of a boy leaping between rocks could almost pass for a painting. But halfway through, the frame splits into a crystal sharp rendition. It becomes apparent that the impressionist-like image is a photograph of reflection set in reverse. What seemed to be strokes of paint are real-life distortions on water.

Ibrahima Thiam’s photographs capture distortions of reality – reflections, shadows, re-anglings – and bring out the surreal of the everyday. He paints with light through the camera lens, documenting his experience of life in his home-country of Senegal while rendering a rich abstraction that ruminates on the state of being. Think Viyé Diba’s textured canvases, mixed with Abdoulaye Konaté’s scenarios stitched on textile, topped with a dash of Malick Sidibé’s reportage and portrait photography.

Thiam often arranges his photographs set against canvas, as if to give a giant “Ha!” to anyone who would deny the status of photography as art.

In the series “Reflets” (“Reflections”), Thiam responds to attitudes he has seen in Senegal that only deem painting and sculpture as ‘art.’ He shows photography as equally abstract, imaginative, and surreal. He literally displays the photographs laid over canvas, as if to lead the viewer to believe that within lies a painting…and to give a giant “Ha!” to anyone who fell for it.

Thiam’s”Thiarakhe” series explores urban space via the ubiquitous thiarakhe plastic sandal.

While Thiam is best known for his work on reflections, his series “Thiarakhe” (cha-ra-kay) explores urban space via the ubiquitous thiarakhe plastic sandal – a white flip flop with straps of blue or green, worn by practically every Senegalese. Thiam photographs the sandal at various locations around Dakar, zooming up close to the shoe so that landmarks are revealed through the curves of its plastic strap. The sandal is at once anonymous and universal, a symbol through which Thiam marks his individual experience as well as the shared experiences of all the passers-by traveling through the same space.

“L’Usure,” Thiam’s first series, explores in-between spaces.

“L’Usure” (“Crack”), Thiam’s earliest series, explores in-between spaces through the depiction of fissures, holes, and crags. Already he was on his way to capturing rich textures and surprising frames through the camera lens.

As a child, Thiam grew up surrounded by photographs. He would pull out his grandmother’s collection from her armoire and rifle through her treasure-trove of Meissa Gaye, Mama Casset, Doudou Diop, and more. As he grew older, Thiam was surprised and disappointed to see the lack of photographs formally on display in exhibitions.

As a child, Thiam used to rifle through his grandmother’s treasure-trove collection of photographs: Meissa Gaye, Mama Casset, Doudou Diop.

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Fatou Kandé Senghor, Guerilla Art Thriller

By Robin Riskin

Fatou Kandé Senghor is a guerrilla art thriller, film award winner, and lady photographer killer.

Fatou Kandé Senghor prefers to exhibit in public spaces not typically perceived as “art” settings – markets, weddings, naming ceremonies, hip hop shows.

Whether she is invading a hip hop show in Pikine, Dakar with photography and film projections, collaborating with Wim Wenders on the short movie, ‘The Invisible,’ or exhibiting photographs at Okwui Enwezor’s “Snap Judgments” at the International Center of Photography, Kandé Senghor is a bold and passionate artist whose work speaks to the human condition. Her projects span film, photography, writing, and public installation, and touch upon issues of politics, economies, and communities. She is coming out with on a book on hip hop and a public project on dance as a form of expression. While galleries and curators seek out her work, she often prefers to exhibit in public spaces not typically perceived as “art” settings – markets, weddings, naming ceremonies, to name a few. She likes to be where the people are.

“I make art that will challenge our expectations, make us accept our mutations, and then open up platforms for dialogue,” she said in an interview at her colorfully painted Waru Studio in Dakar. “I make my point in a way that can’t be avoided, so they’ll have to acknowledge my existence, strength, and power.”

Kandé Senghor: “I make my point in a way that can’t be avoided, so they’ll have to acknowledge my existence, strength, and power.”

Many of Kandé Senghor’s works address issues of gender and women’s position in society. While ultimately she is interested “in people, in the world,” she said, “I am doing women first because gender is linked to everything.”

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Underground Hip Hop Pulses at Wakh’Art Invite, Dakar

By Robin Riskin

While most of Dakar’s artsy intellectuals thronged to the Institut Français (ex-CCF) on Saturday, Nov. 3 for the Danakil and Natty Jean reggae show, the best place to be was practically around the corner for the 8th edition of the Wakh’Art Invite at Le Big Five, featuring S’killaz, Goormak, Belzo-o and more.

(film by Wakh’Art, footage by Framework5)

The killer set of underground hip hop artists transformed the cozy resto-lounge into a pulsing concert venue wild with music and energy. Guests packed around dining tables and piled out the door. Wakh’Art had pulled off another fabulous event, in its efforts to provide platforms for young urban Dakaroises working in arts and culture.

Kicking off the night was Goormak accompanied by Niaxtu, with politically charged songs sending positive messages. They had the crowd singing along to “Complexé,” which urged against inferiority complexes for black skin or African origins. Spitting fast lyrics in Wolof and decked in bright tees emblazoned with their name, they served up smart and heavy rap to a horde of hardcore fans.

Goormak (right) accompanied by Niaxtu spit smart and heavy rap in Wolof.

The lights dimmed and the trio S’killaz mounted the stage. An electronic beat thrummed. Band-member Charly Alves a.k.a. Chazy spun forward, aviators cocked. The group began to sing in combinations of French, Wolof, and English, with coordinated dance moves, humorous scenarios, and unstoppable energy.

The crowd joined in to chant, “Uh, it’s popping, who got it? S’killaz!” in the song “There he go,” and bumped along to “Ngeum Ngeum” (“Faith”), singing, “They don’t understand, no pain no game / If you’re feelin’ the same / Then let me see your hands up / Let me see your hands up (ooh oooh oh oh).”

S’killaz seized the stage with humorous songs and unstoppable energy, riffing off Jay-Z and Kanye while referencing Dakar pop culture.

At one point, the brother of band-member Francis Manel Bassène a.k.a. Manel hopped on stage with his soul-throated wife for an impromptu guest feature by their group I Science. Two young ladies became a part of the action in the song “Put it on my phone,” wherein S’killaz begged for a phone number from audience members of their choice (“Baaaby, you’re so fine / I might go craaazy / If you don’t give me your number (your number)”). Everyone got to join in for the call-and-response, “Gimme that–” “77!” “Put that number–” “On my phone!” referencing the “77” digits that begin most mobile numbers in Senegal.

Rapping on life in Dakar, referencing pop culture, and riffing off well-known American songs, S’killaz offered a globally appealing sound with a distinct local flavor. The group remixed Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Ni**as in Paris” to “Ni**az in DK (Dakar).” They turned the DJ Khaled/Drake-Rick Ross-Lil Wayne song “I’m On One” into their own freestyle commitment to take music seriously.

Belzo-o (right) accompanied by Micaddict served up hip hop infused with a reggae style. It was his debut show back in Dakar after finishing his studies at UKansas.

With most of their choruses in English (Manel sounds straight-up American thanks to much time spent listening to rap, jazz, and soul) and a fair amount of lyrics in French as opposed to Wolof (Ludovic Evora a.k.a. Lou spits fast rhymes en français), S’killaz was especially accessible to a non-Senegalese international audience (ahem, yours truly).

Next up, Rhapsod softened the mood with light guitar strumming and soulful tunes on life, love, and loneliness. Then Papa Belal Ndiaye a.k.a. Belzo-o “you better know” heated up the room with his sidekick Micaddict, singing hip hop songs infused with a reggae style.

Belzo-o sported hipster glasses and a gold chain, and rapped mainly in English. He’s picked up an American edge after four years studying at the University of Kansas, where he gained a considerable following through his song “Hawk Nation,” which became a Jayhawks team anthem. The Wakh’Art Invite was Belzo-o’s first show back in Senegal, and even his mother came out for the debut.

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‘Restless City,’ Urban Ode & Visual Stunner, Snaps Awards at Addis Fest

By Robin Riskin

‘Restless City’ (2011), directed by Andrew Dosunmu, is a visual delight set on the streets of New York City, told through the eyes of a West African immigrant named Djibril (Sy Alassane). The film just snapped up Best Feature (Best Director) and Best Cinematography at the Colours of the Nile International Film Festival in Addis Ababa.

‘Restless City’ is the first feature film by Andrew Dosunmu, whose background lies in fashion photography and music video directing. (restlesscityfilm.com)

An aspiring rapper from Senegal, Djibril sells CDs on Canal Street, traverses the town via red motobike, and returns home to a dusty apartment in Harlem. His daily hustle takes a perilous turn when he encounters the beautiful Trini (Sky Grey) at the brothel of his bootleg CD supplier. Fast days and pulsing nights blur into a smoky haze against bustling sidewalks, dark clubs, and hair salons.

‘Restless City’ snapped up Best Feature (Best Director) and Best Cinematography at the Colours of the Nile Film Festival in Addis Ababa Nov. 7 – 11. (restlesscityfilm.com)

Through a light plot and sparse dialogue emerges a story that explores the consequences of displacement and results of a dream deferred. While the hasty script was written in two weeks (screenwriter Eugene Gussenhoven) and the footage shot in another two, the images and emotions are astounding. Freeze any given instant, and the still could be a photograph ripped from a fashion magazine or hung in an art gallery.

Think Samuel Fosso’s funky studio portraits, Yinka Shonibare’s politically charged Dutch wax print installations, and Chimanada Ngozi Adichie’s transgressive narratives of West Africans in urban America, mix them in a blender, and put it to film. What with the prowess of cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot the critically acclaimed ‘Pariah’) and Dosunmu’s background in fashion photography and music video directing, ‘Restless City’ is a visual stunner.

The film takes us through bustling Manhattan streets to smoky Harlem clubs and brothels. (restlesscityfilm.com)

Behind a guise of chic Afropolitan aesthetics, Djibril is confined to a space where he is surrounded by other West African immigrants and isolated from interaction with White American society. While in one sense, Dosunmu loses an opportunity to explore a young Senegalese man’s negotiations of urban America, in another, he purposely defies what has in many ways become a burden for ‘African’ filmmakers creating stories about ‘Africans’ in the diaspora. He shows Djibril acting within his own community instead of marginalized as an ‘other.’

Dosunmu says that ‘Restless City’ is his letter of advice to young immigrants, and his discourse with governments in Africa. “Why are we letting these people go?” he said in the Q&A at the Colours of the Nile Film Festival. “Two hundred years ago, it was by force. Now, it’s our own will.” Continue reading