The title of the 12th edition of the Dak'Art Biennale, “The City in the Blue Daylight,” comes from a line in one of Léopld Sédar Senghor's poems. Curator Simon Njami's deft borrowing signaled an investment in pushing artistic practices forward while drawing on the deep wells of an existing poetic heritage. The selection of twelve videos or video-based installations—accounting for about one-fifth of the artworks presented in the international competition, “Reenchantments”—may have been part of this investment in younger art forms that nevertheless transpose previous literary, filmic, and visual oeuvres into their creations.
To accommodate the time-based media, a long hallway of offices on the north side of the former Palais de Justice was converted into a series of white-cube viewing rooms with additional rooms on the upper level of the south side. This layout allowed for private viewing experiences, but isolated the videos from the rest of the exhibition. In addition, hasty remodeling resulted in some oversights—a lack of electrical outlets, for example, or improperly installed equipment—that meant some videos were not viewable until several days after the opening.
The only interpretive material provided was an introductory panel at the venue's entrance and some of the oeuvres received identifying labels only a few days later. If a clear-cut curatorial vision was not articulated through the installation of the pieces, the selection was nevertheless rich enough to invite a bevy of imaginative resonances between the oeuvres. In fact, taking up the lens of the human body in or as a site of displacement, a coherence emerged out of the twelve video installations and the dialogues of interior and exterior, labor and leisure, memory and material history.
One of the most compelling uses of displacement as not only subject matter but as filmic method was seen in Julien Creuzet's two 90-minute videos. These filmic meditations embody Aimé Césaire's journey in Return to My Native Land but displace the poem's vantage point. Projected on adjoining walls, Creuzet's installation of Standard and Poor's, These Eyes, Césaire and Standard and Poor's, These Eyes, Césaire, At the End of Dawn1 created a hypnotic dialogue of landlocked displacement (Fig. 2). Rather than gazing at Martinique from another shore, the films trace the route between Césaire's family home in Fort-de-France in the west to his birthplace in the east of the island, from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn.
Filmed inside a car driven by Marcel Mitram—Césaire's chauffeur for seventeen years—the camera is either held from the backseat or placed on the dashboard. In both cases it faces relentlessly forward, always in the direction of the car's movement. The island's interior landscape, no ocean in sight, pivots around Mitram's hand on the steering wheel (Fig. 1). For over an hour the landscape and the driver's body sway as one, enveloping the screen in a slow intimacy. We hear Mitram's voice, but never see his face; it is as if the lifestory he narrates comes out of the land like the birdsongs and the wind that we also hear. Philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina calls Creuzet's filmic installation a “landscape portrait,” as they imbue Martinique's topography with a psychological interiority Instead of focusing on the ocean that separates France and Martinique, the images invest in the built and natural interior landscape. Creuzet's filmic dialogue thus reterritorializes the island, displacing an exterior gaze.
Likewise, Simon Gush's filmic essay Lazy Nigel explores the question of movement and labor by tracing bodily displacement within the interior geography of his country, rather than defining economic displacement as something always already oriented toward a (European or North American) exterior. In black and white, Gush films Nigel, an industrial commuter town on the outskirts of Johannesburg that completely empties out over the weekend (Fig. 3). The still, wide-angle shots of vacant streets alternate with a text written by Gush interrogating the idea of leisure and labor as moral imperatives. By imposing stillness on what is normally a site of industriousness, the images move in contre-sens, against the flow of traffic between Johannesburg and Nigel—against a bodily movement that is organized through the logic of productivity—in order to make space for leisure.
If Gush's video displaces contemporary conversations about labor migration to an underexplored site, Alexis Peskine's installation The Raft of the Medusa2 reworks this much-travelled terrain. His complex installation—the only one not quarantined in a viewing room—included a five-minute video, three acupainting3 sculptures, and four large format photographic stills (Fig. 5). The highly stylized video pans three landscapes: the streets of Dakar; a body-strewn raft floating in the ocean; a fog-laced Paris, dominated by the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower.
The visual tropes Peskine employs, particularly in the video, are predictable, though rendered in a disconcerting beauty (Fig. 4). However, the critical force that rescues The Raft of the Medusa is how it situates tourism and immigration as intersecting trajectories of bodily displacement. In the Paris scenes, one of the young women seen on the raft now wears wax print dress and holds a white infant on her lap. She sits at the foot of a monument with low-relief sculptures at the Palais Chaillot, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. The relief depicts France's conquest of overseas colonies and the riches brought back from these exploited lands. Meanwhile, the young man seen on the raft wanders the street wearing a boubou made out of the plaid patterned plastic of the “sacs immigrés“4 (Fig. 6). He is crowned with a wreath made of miniature Eiffel Towers painted gold, the kind often hawked to tourists by unaccounted-for workers. The material objects associated with migration and those associated with tourism are conflated on the site of the young man's body. The City of Light in this video functions as an illusion that is only reachable—if ever—through the past and present exploitation of overseas labor.
Moataz Nasr's The Echo and Heba Y. Amin's Tweet2Speak Project use the absence and presence of bodies as a site of historical interrogation in the context of political and social revolution. Nasr projected an excerpt from Youssef Chahine's 1969 film The Land (itself a book adaptation) about the 1933 agricultural revolution in Egypt. In the excerpt, the protagonist urges his peers to take action, criticizing them for behaving like women. On an adjoining wall, Nsar projected a video recording of a young woman performing the same monologue, but in a downtown Cairo café, to an unsuspecting audience of men who steadily avert their eyes at the impertinence of a woman engaging in political speech (Fig. 7). And yet the shame is double-sided. The words strike a chord because the situation of oppression that they describe seventy years earlier is not dissimilar from Egypt in 2003. Displacing the monologue across time and to a differently gendered body highlights the fleeting potency of revolutionary moments, and suggests that failure is partially due to the failure to recognize women as fellow citizens.
Of an even more profoundly heartbreaking pertinence is Amin's Tweet2Speak Project. In January 2011, when the Egyptian government cut internet access to control mass protests, a platform called Tweet2Speak allowed Egyptians to post on Twitter via voicemail. The result was a flood of lengthy messages voicing the hopes that nourished the revolution. Amin mines these anonymous archives and sets the monologues against footage of abandoned buildings in Cairo. Projected on three walls, the buildings immerse the viewer (Fig. 8). The body is noticeably absent, as the recorded voices are the only trace of human organs that invest the urban landscape (Fig. 9). These are temporally divergent echoes: they speak to a future that did not come to pass.
Perhaps the blue daylight of Njami's biennale illuminates precisely that: the space between the future-present and the future-past5 of African art. What were the hopes that animated Dak'art—and Dakar—in 2014, and how does 2016 both diverge from and echo these? Njami's video selection doesn't ask us to forget the divergences and echoes but rather locates the body within the gaps to enchant the present. Yo-Yo Gonthier's oniric A Sunny Spell exquisitely captures this. An eight-meter-long helium “cloud” was built with the participation of over 200 residents of Saint-Denis6 (Fig. 10). In the film, the cloud is “captured,” promenaded through the neighborhood, and sent off on a celestial voyage with a pilot that tentatively balances on a tightrope mid-air (Fig. 11). It is a meditation not on displacement with a destination, but rather on the imaginative practices that help us better inhabit the present by locating the fantastic in the everyday. This echoes Simon Njami's vision of the Biennale: as he states, it is a site for “Reviving desire, for this alone can be the vector of transformation” (2016:40).
Creuzet's title refers to Standard and Poor's LLC, an American financial services company that publishes comparative local (i.e., US) and foreign currency analysis and determines credit ratings for nations.
The title alludes to Theodore Géricault's painting of a French naval shipwreck in 1816. Of the 147 people that boarded a makeshift raft, only 15 survived long enough to be rescued, some by resorting to cannibalism. The painting hangs at the Louvre in Paris.
Acupainting is what Peskine calls his signature technique of creating images by inserting nails of different widths and heights on wood surfaces.
Large square plastic bags, seen all over sub-Saharan Africa, that are used in long voyages, either to bring supplies to and from a city and a home village or to and from Europe.
Reinhart Koselleck defines the future-past as the outcome that once appeared would be possible in the present but didn't come to be, and the future-present as the denouement that currently appears to be possible in the future. The experience of the present is mediated by these two kinds of futures.
Saint-Denis, on the northern periphery of Paris, is one of the most densely populated and racially diverse communes in France, and is known as one with the highest crime rates.