For nearly two decades, we have witnessed a sea change in the global discourse about Africa. It is marked by the transition from the crisis and emergency rhetoric which had been predominant since the late 1970s, to something which began to take the form of a growing optimism. Africa is no longer presented as “a continent without hope,” threatening us with a rocket launcher from the cover of “The Economist,” but rather as a rapidly growing economic and demographic power regaining control over its own image after years of pessimism. [1]

The positive changes have been evidenced by an economic growth at a decade-high, a revival of the middle class, as well as a number of international investments driven by the still insatiable desire for raw materials. It is in a sense the optimism of globalization which, by combining everyone and everything, updates and accomplishes what the idea of Pan-Africanism failed to implement. However, the processes of globalization, not devoid of defects, stimulate a change in the approach and neutralize the two main pessimistic narratives about Africa: the one condemning colonialism and the one condemning what happened in Africa after colonialism – both patronize Africans as unable to make their own decisions. With the shrinking of the world, the debate on Africa has been transformed and numerous global advocates of the decolonized way of thinking suggest the possibility of a third way for Africa. This third way is located outside isolation and imitation, oriented more on the positive side rather than on what Africa lacks.

Examples of such an approach can be found in discussions about urban planning. As it is well-known, rapidly growing African cities are the main medium of economic and demographic changes on the continent. The normative approaches have typically classified them as incomplete or even hostile to the inhabitants. Without forgetting the paradoxes of development and the African reality, the new way of thinking about the city began to extend beyond the architecture itself, focusing at the same time on the positive aspects, and not revealing deficiencies when compared to the West. This simple change of perspective has shed a different light on African cities for only approximately two decades now – as a structure based on participation and negotiation, and not as normatively controlled processes and urban policy. [2] From this perspective, a city that is constantly undergoing transformation is created by architecture to the same extent as by creative practices of different, yet often excluded, social groups – who express themselves through culture, political involvement or alternative economics. As AbdouMaliq Simone, one of this promoters of the positive perspective aptly noted: “people are the infrastructure of the city.” [3]

The Senegalese artist, El Hadji Sy, who was presented at the exhibition at Warsaw’s CCA Ujazdowski Castle, thinks about the urban dynamics in much the same way. Dakar is the first Afropolis which has found its place in the globalized world, [4] where culture, as a medium of democratization, has been applied to the scale of the city. Thanks to the revolutionary policy and non-orthodox approach to Pan-Africanism, Dakar has become the continent’s informal capital of culture. From today’s perspective, we can say that the history of an independent Dakar is one of the first few examples which had an ideological effect on the positive change of the current point of view of Africa. The vision of Senegal’s capital understood in such a way, as presented in the works of El Hadji Sy, one of the African pioneers of performative action within the city – is the main theme of the first issue of Obieg’s new formula.

Dakar is the westernmost city on the Atlantic coast of Africa. In the past, it was a settlement of the Lebou tribe, then the transatlantic center of human trafficking, and in the colonial era it became the capital and strategic port of French West Africa. Dakar at that time was literally incorporated into the French territory and referred to as the Paris of Africa, which even today delineates a strong division between the city and the hinterland. The interior of the colony was an area under the control of Islamic religious brotherhoods which, to this day, have an undeniable impact on the stability of Senegal. In 1960, Senegal, with its capital in Dakar, gained independence. Dakar, making good use of the already tested advantages of its location and the nature of the trading post [économie de comptoir], after gaining independence, began to promote the ideas of Pan-Africanism and the philosophy of négritude to the entire world; and in the long term, it used the cultural practices as the basis of democracy. This status was maintained throughout the first globalizing changes of the 1980s and 1990s. Currently, Dakar is a city of three million inhabitants, vibrant with life, the seat of many international institutions and NGOs, and, within the perspective of the continent – one of the leading examples of how to wisely use one’s own resources.

The republic’s first president was a Catholic intellectual, politician and poet Léopold Sédar Senghor who, from the beginning of his long mandate (1960-1980), put culture and art in the center of his program. It is difficult to imagine that Senegal was a country which allocated 25% of its budget to the Ministry of Culture and which, under the patronage of the president and poet, consistently and peacefully implemented the ideas of a new national identity. Senghor, during his term of office, turned négritude into a movement of intellectual revival of black identity which he had co-founded 30 years prior – an official tool and one of the two main political agendas of the decolonizing continent. Senghor’s version of Pan-Africanism focused on defining a black man’s place in the world, emphasizing and celebrating the African cultural heritage, creating a completely new visual language and Negro-African aesthetics [esthétique négro-africaine] which was meant to express the ideals of the future African Renaissance. An attempt to define this peculiar aesthetics was to rely on a combination of European techniques with Pan-African iconography – a mixture of traditional West African music, dance, spoken word and visual culture with contemporary European modernist ideas. Various artists, these “beloved children” [chers enfants], as Senghor affectionately called them, were designated to build a bridge between Africa and Europe in the form of a new African subjectivity, by designing education and building great infrastructure in Dakar, in the form of projects such as, for example, the Dynamic Museum, the Senegalese National School of Fine Arts and the tour de force in the form of the World Festival of Black Arts under the slogan of ‘The sum total of black values’ (1966). [5]

Following Senghor’s abdication and the coming to power of his successor, Abdou Diouf, artists contesting the Negro-African aesthetics [esthétique négro-africaine] had to revisit the question of the meaning of artistic independence. The new President’s program, referred to as the National Step Forward [Le Sursaut national], replaced the priority of culture with a technocratic approach. Most of the progressive initiatives taken by the previous government were shut down as a pre-emptive measure, such as the Dynamic Museum, crucial to Senghor’s modernism, as well as the Village des Arts (an art squat run by El Sy), the most subversive of its form; also a large part of the generous subsidies for cultural activities were cut off. Subsequent governments, however, did not turn their back entirely on culture; they have been cultivating it practically to this day in the spirit of négritude aesthetics, though in a more pragmatic manner. Diouf’s new policy was the result of a shift of emphasis in Senghor’s idea; it sought to highlight African diversity rather than to further develop the concept of an alleged universality of the African experience. This triggered the emergence of such institutions as the National Gallery of Fine Arts (1983) and the Biennale of Arts and Letters (1990) which, in 1992, integrated the visual arts within the scope of its interests, in order to transform it in 1996 into Dak’Art: Biennale of Contemporary African Art. These reforms did not manage, however, to stop the processes of globalization, which elevated Dakar to the position of not only Pan-African, but also a world capital of art. From then on, El Sy began to promote the art of Senegal in the UK, Germany, Brazil and Poland, while the city of Dakar itself, as Joanna Grabski quite accurately pointed out, has become a global city of culture.

We have invited various specialists: artists, scholars and curators associated with the African continent or with the city of Dakar itself to contribute to the first issue of Obieg magazine. The leitmotif of this issue of Obieg magazine is the capital of Senegal, seen through the works of El Sy and in different contexts: Senghor’s cultural revolution, the Dak’Art Biennale or the contemporary scene combining hip hop with politics.

The different texts, written by the invited authors, vary in form, volume and dynamics; they are all linked, however, by the reflection on the cultural and political changes taking place in Dakar. These issues appear in the statements made by Fatou Kandé Senghor, artist and director, by Nicolas Sawalo Cissé, architect and director, by Malyka Diagana Zayda, photographer, as well as by Joanna Grabski, an acknowledged specialist in the recent history of Senegalese art who writes about ‘turning toward the city’ based on the example of an artistic initiative of Village des Arts. Apart from artists and Dakar art historians, two cultural critics: Frieda Ekotto and Mélissa Gelinas explore the activities taking place in the city, considering the decolonizing aspects of El Sy’s performative activities. The anthropological perspective of El Sy’s residence in Warsaw last year is presented in the text by Karolina Marcinkowska, and the complexity of El Sy’s artistic personality is brought to light in the interview conducted with him in Dakar by Małgorzata Ludwisiak.

The issue of Dakar becoming globalized through culture and art, the process initiated by the first edition of the World Festival of Black Arts and continued by the first African Biennale of Arts and Letters – Dak’Art, constitutes a parallel theme of this issue of Obieg magazine. The role and the scale of this event have been discussed by the curators of Dak’Art’s two most recent editions: Simon Njami, in an interview on this year’s edition of Dak’Art, and Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi who analyzes the impact of Dak’Art’s ideological foundations. An in-depth essay and manifesto by Denis Ekpo alludes to these two approaches, presenting a new interpretation, not devoid of controversy, of Senghor’s philosophy and Dak’Art’s globalizing role from the perspective of Post-Africanism promoted by Senghor.

The most recent summary and commentary on the cultural transformations taking place in Dakar are featured in the films: 100% Dakar by Sandra Krampelhuber and Market Imaginary by Joanna Grabski which present the dynamics of the city in the wake of generational changes with hip hop and rap music coming to the fore. The artists of these two genres began to manage, in their own way, the imagination of Senegal, accurately illustrates the observations made by Mamadou Diouf or AbdouMaliq Simone that the city’s infrastructure is determined by the people and their cultural activities. On the back of the Arab Spring of 2012, the art scene united under the ‘Y’en a Marre’ banner (in Wolof language: ‘We’ve had Enough’) made a stand against the President Abdoulaye Wade’s corrupt rule (2000-2012); the artists, through numerous happenings, texts and activities that took place within the city limits led to changes in public opinion and to the President’s defeat in democratic elections. At the risk of oversimplification, one could say that it was the intervention of the hip-hop scene and its consequences which brought Wade’s government down. One could see in this the continuation of the ‘turning toward the city’ attitude in African art and the collective urban actions undertaken by El Hadji Sy and groups such as the Laboratoire Agit’ Art.

I would like to express here my thanks to the authors, to Koyo Kouoh (Raw Material Company, Dakar) for support in putting this issue together and to Piotr Rypson - who was creator and first editor of this magazine - for historical remarks.

Krzysztof Gutfrański

Translation from the Polish by Monika Fryszkowska


Krzysztof Gutfrański is an editor-in-chief of Obieg quarterly. Gutfrański has worked in the curatorial departments of various institutions as CoCA in Torun, National Gallery of Art "Zacheta" and as researcher/editor for leading Polish and Brazilian nonprofits. His curated projects include "Game of States" in Piktogram/BLA, Warsaw (2013), presented subsequently in Palais de Tokio, Paris (2015) and public programme for Studio+Kitchen – experience & learning space for the CoCA, Torun (2011-2009). Gutfranski’s practice involves extensive work in editorial-research focused on using book in the Era of Information under-load. Between 2015-2010 he was chief editor of Alternativa Festival for Wyspa Art Institute in Gdansk. And since 2011 he has started participating in various forms of research-in action focused on developing economies. Between 2015- 2011 he took part in several research trips and art residencies in India, Brazil, Chile, Georgia and the US, funded by such institutions as the Getty, CIMAM, Funarte, Fundçãao Clovis Salgado, Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Polish Institutes.

Widok Dakaru z Orbity Ziemskiej, źródło: wikicommons

*Cover photo: Dakar view from the Atlantic. Photo credits and copyright: Joanna Grabski.

1. Apart from a wide-ranging discussion on the topic, it is worth taking a closer look at the publication (soon to be released) of Célestin Monga, Vice President and Chief Economist of the African Development Bank, Nihilism and Négritude. Ways of Living in Africa (Harvard University Press, 2016), as well as at numerous public statements made by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe.

2. We can enumerate here one of the pioneering collections, edited by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttal, Johannesburg – Elusive Metropolis, “Public Culture”, Duke University Press Books (October 24, 2008), as well as previous studies of the authors such as Abdou Maliq Simone, Mamadou Diouf, Dominique Malaquais, Edgar Pietrese, Jennifer Robinson or the magazine entitled “Chimurenga” (cf.. literature in “The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities Infrastructures and Spaces of Belonging”, ed. Mamadou Diouf and Rosalind Fredericks, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2014).

3. AbdouMaliq Simone, People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg, in: Johannesburg – Elusive Metropolis, op. cit. Available at: (Accessed: 3 June 2016).

4. The term Afropolis was proposed by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttal in Johannesburg – Elusive Metropolis, op. cit.

5. From the rich literature on the topic of Senghor’s cultural policy, we can mention here Elizabeth Harney’s work, “In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960–1995,” Duke University Press, 2004; Joanna Grabski’s work and her most recent publication summarizing her extensive research: “Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar” (Indiana University Press, 2016), as well as Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s work, “Léopold Sédar Senghor: l’art africain comme philosophie” Riveneuve Editions, Paris, 2007.

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