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Unmissable art from the Senegal Biennale: Sugar sculptures, paintings of old postcards

Outside, the afternoon heat has given way to the cool evening air. Bats swirl among palm trees and towering baobabs on the lawn of the Douta Seck Cultural Center in the bustling Medina district, just north of downtown Dakar. Inside, in the exhibition rooms, there are humans twirling around, waltzing from one work to another, lingering in front of a painting here, a tapestry there.

They are there for the Dakar Biennale, the largest international contemporary art festival in West Africa, which takes over the Senegalese capital every two years. Concerts, gallery openings, lectures, dance performances and films premiere across the city almost daily from mid-May to mid-June.

/ Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

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Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

You might think that sugar is just a sweetener. Congolese artist Hilary Balu makes art out of it. His sculpture presented above represents the tombs of the kings of Congo and is called “Kongo, Banza”. Balu uses sugar to refer to the past slavery of Africans to work in the sugar cane plantations. He won’t reveal how he turns sugar into art!

Your sculptures are made of… what?

Upon reaching the beige sculptures of Hilary Balu, patron after patron of the center pause to ponder the intricate and ancient-looking artwork – a replica of a sword and helmet, sculptures of a lion and a monkey – all carved in . .. of what, exactly?

“What is it made of? several people wonder aloud.

Sweet !” launches Balu, who mingles with the crowd.

Sugar.

Most of the statues depict goods made or traded by the Portuguese during their 15th and 16th century expeditions to the Kingdom of Kongo, located in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, before the colonization of Africa.

A view of the sugar tombs sculpted by Congolese artist Hilary Balu.

/ Carmen Abd Ali

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Carmen Abd Ali

A view of the sugar tombs sculpted by Congolese artist Hilary Balu.

Kongo quickly adopted Christianity during this period. Balu’s replica of a tomb for the Kongolese king, adorned with crosses, shows how the two cultures blended as they engaged in trade and diplomacy. But the arrival of the Europeans proved disastrous for Kongo. Their quest at this time for trade, slaves, and ultimately colonial rule led to the demise of the Kongo Kingdom.

And why make statues out of something that could be destroyed by a wandering teacup? Balu, a visual artist from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, chose the medium carefully. He explains that slaves were sent to work on sugar cane plantations in the Portuguese colonies and beyond and helped build the grandiose wealth of European empires. The legacy of that era lives on in the economic inequality between north and south today, he points out.

The objects he sculpted “represent the trajectories that these people [taken from Central Africa] taken to end up being slaves in Brazil,” Balu says. “[Enslaved people] were used as tools, as an instrument, for the exploitation of sugar.”

When he bought sugar from the supermarket in Kinshasa to make the statues, he bought local sugar, but also found sugar imported from Brazil. When forming the sculptures – in a secret method he won’t divulge – he blended the two products together, like “the story of the two countries”.

A detail of "Kongo, Banza" by Congolese artist Hilary Balu.  The statue is made of sugar.

/ Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

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Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

A detail from “Kongo, Banza” by Congolese artist Hilary Balu. The statue is made of sugar.

Balu is one of hundreds of artists from around the world to feature at the biennale, which is expected to attract some 250,000 visitors. Originally scheduled for 2020 but sidelined by the pandemic, this year’s festival marks the 14th edition of the fair, which has its roots in a literary festival launched in Dakar in 1990.

“For this Biennale, it’s an invitation to create new forms, new models, new relationships.” said Elhadji Malick Ndiaye, the artistic director. The theme of this year’s festival is “Ĩ Ndaffa”, a word in the local Serer language which means “to forge” or “to come out of the fire”. It is the artist’s job, Ndiaye said, to come up with “new ways of seeing the world”.

Documenting how we hunt fish

For Belgian artist Pierre Vanneste, who divides his time between Brussels and Dakar, the Biennale offered a chance to show his exhibition of photographs and videos documenting the commercial fishing industry, a project that spanned Brittany in the north-west of France in Senegal.

His intimate black and white photos show Senegalese men fishing in the Atlantic from the country’s famous wooden canoes, often brightly painted. Vanneste also took pictures aboard huge commercial fishing boats – the kind favored by European and Asian companies often accused of overfishing which, along with climate change, is sinking West African fish stocks.

A fishing stall in Dakar.  Overfishing has threatened local fish stocks.

/ Pierre Vanneste for NPR

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Pierre Vanneste for NPR

A fishing stall in Dakar. Overfishing has threatened local fish stocks.

“Fish is the last wild resource that man hunts industrially, to then be commercialized industrially,” explains Vanneste, whose photographic work focuses on the relationship between man and nature. He hopes viewers will begin to question the environmental toll of large-scale fishing and fish consumption, and the role that European and Asian trawlers – but also the Senegalese fishing industry, which -even begins to develop and modernize – play it.

Senegalese artist Alioune Diagne wanted to capture the life of his homeland in the past.  He found a treasure trove of old postcards in France that show the colonial era live and created paintings based on the cards.

/ Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

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Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

Senegalese artist Alioune Diagne wanted to capture the life of his homeland in the past. He found a treasure trove of old postcards in France that show the colonial era live and created paintings based on the cards.

Bringing classic village houses and colonial-era postcards to life

A few streets away, at the Grand Théâtre National, a wall of dried millet stalks welcomes visitors coming to see the show by Senegalese painter Alioune Diagne entitled “Ëttu Ker – Inner courtyard”. Crossing the open threshold of the wall, on the sand covering the floors, they are transported from the theater adorned with ornate chandeliers into a space resembling a typical Senegalese complex in the countryside. The rods fence off a sandy, open yard, a type of house design that still dominates in rural areas today.

“I have a cold heart,” says Baye Gora Mbaye, using a local Wolof expression to express happiness. He works in Dakar as an artistic talent manager but grew up in a small village a few hours away and passes through the exhibit on his way to a lecture about his profession. “I’m back in the village,” he told Diagne.

The paintings created by Alioune Diagne are inspired by old postcards and photographs of Senegal taken by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  This is Diagne's way of capturing images that have disappeared from the past.

/ Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

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Carmen Abd Ali for NPR

The paintings created by Alioune Diagne are inspired by old postcards and photographs of Senegal taken by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is Diagne’s way of capturing images that have disappeared from the past.

Inside Diagne’s carefully constructed replica – complete with cooking utensils, rugs and traditional wooden bowls filled with millet and corn to add an authentic touch – hang bright paintings inspired by a treasure trove of postcards from the colonial era depicting life in Senegal in the 1800s and 1900s. found on a visit to France.

“In Senegal, the story was [mostly] done orally,” says Diagne. “We don’t have a lot of images, so I said to myself, I wanted to try to make this collection on the memory of Senegal, and bring it back to the source.

His paintings recreate these postcards, transforming them from small pieces of paper into large pastel-colored canvases. The full history of the country, Diagne says, is important to young Senegalese – including how people ate, dressed and lived in the past.

This painting by Alioune Diagne shows a hairdresser working in the street.

/ Kem Photography

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Photograph by Kem

This painting by Alioune Diagne shows a hairdresser working in the street.

“If we try to think back to this history, it can give us an idea today of how we can live again in solidarity and how we can also keep our values,” he says, noting that as the country is becoming urbanized, communal courtyards are being replaced by private houses and apartments. “Because values ​​start to disappear over time, people become more and more selfish, people become more and more individualistic.”

And in its own way, the biennale itself is a way to capture a sense of intimate community: inside the galleries, the sprawling city of more than 3 million people suddenly shrinks as strangers gather around art. Back in Douta Seck, an international crowd mingle with paintings, sculptures and photos. A performance by Nigerian rapper Teni bleeds into the night, giving patrons only a brief respite before they resume tomorrow with more gallery openings to visit than can possibly be attended.

Nick Roll is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.

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