Paris, October 31, 2018. Coming out of the symposium Zoë Strother and I organized on Biennale Cultures in Africa at Columbia University in 2015, one student wondered: “So, France and the European Union financially support biennales in Africa. What's wrong with that?” At the time, the question nagged me, as it captured the contradictions of the debate in one straightforward question. The present dialogue will give me the opportunity to tackle an issue so central to the understanding of the diffusion of biennales in Africa, often accused of representing a mere showcase for the West disconnected from local realities and even local artists (Senegalese artists have often complained that they felt dispossessed from a biennale they had contributed to create). If relying on foreign funding does not necessarily mean a loss of artistic and cultural independence, a balance must be found to create an event that would both benefit the local and connect with the global.
Of course, biennales are the sign of a widespread neoliberal model originating in the West and strongly supported by France and other previously colonizing countries. The history of its emergence is telling: Conceived on the model of a universal exhibition, the first artistic biennale was created in Venice, Italy, in 1895 and gathered together different national pavilions that are in part still visible in the Giardini today. African art was first displayed in Venice in 1922, and it was presented (no surprise for the 1920s) as “primitive.” If the model of the biennale as we know it today really began in the 1980s, I would situate the roots of African biennales in the pan-African festivals organized in the 1960s and 1970s: the World Festival of Negro Art (Dakar, 1966), the Panafrican Festival (Algiers, 1969), or the African Festival of Arts and Culture (Lagos, 1977). Conceived as celebrations of independence and platforms for anticolonial positions, these events were meant to foster debates about race and politics, promote the art produced on the continent, increase knowledge, and diffuse it both locally and internationally. They were supported by nation-states and led to profound urban changes in the cities where they took place, as well as to the construction of cultural infrastructures.
The second generation of biennales dates from the mid-1980s/1990s, the most famous and longest lasting one being Dak'art in Senegal (1990), but one should also mention the Bantu biennale that took place for the first time in 1985 as part of the Gabonese presidential project to create a set of events aimed at promoting Bantu cultures. Diverse, eclectic, and heterogeneous, biennales developed according to very different agendas. In the light of such a history, the term “biennale” functions as an empty shell. A common feature nevertheless ties those events together: the fact that they were often organized as a way out of an economic, political, or cultural crisis. Take the first Johannesburg biennale in 1995, for instance. It symbolically celebrated the end of apartheid and was successful in associating local curators and artists with international actors. The second edition (1997) was totally different. The curator, Okwui Enwezor, decided to get rid of national pavilions and to focus on “contact zones” and exchanges, rather than on national specificities and differences. He defended a vision of the global that was perceived (especially in black communities) as intrusive and disconnected from local realities and aesthetics. But to nuance Bouna Medoune Seye's opinion that biennales do not benefit the artists, one has to keep in mind the fact that most biennales from the second and third generation were created by artists themselves (Diba 2018: 150): Dak'art, for instance, was born out of the Senegalese National Association of Artists, which started organizing national “salons” in the musée dynamique in 1985 in order to display the work of local artists at a time when the nation state was withdrawing from cultural affairs. Reacting against the first generation of “salons” and exhibitions organized by L.S. Senghor in the 1970s during which the State was omnipresent and omnipotent, artists-organizers sought to organize exhibitions that would promote local artists connected to local realities, as well as to the public (Sow Huchard, 1989: 75–76).
The third generation of biennales would correspond to the ones created around the year 2000 in the context of an increasing globalization of the international artistic scene. To mention a few: the Lubumbashi Biennale in DRC Congo (since 2005), or the biennale in Benin (2010 and 2012). Whereas the first generation of festivals were supported by the nation-state and had pan-African ambitions, this last generation tends to emanate from private initiatives, whether they be cultural operators or artists, and are often meant to compensate for a lack of infrastructure. As these events seem to have become the new platform through which contemporary art gains recognition, artists who have earned international reputations launch not only their own art centers locally but also biennales. More vulnerable than their predecessors, they tend to disappear after two or three editions. This last point brings us back to the opening question about how important it is for biennales to remain both financially and politically autonomous. Even if biennales “have to be constantly reinvented with new curators,” I would disagree with Pascal Gielen, who states that their ephemerality is a sign of their “superficiality” and “amnesia.” In my opinion, the real risk lies in their institutionalization and “instrumentalization” by those in charge. Dak'art has been directed by the same curator these last two editions, and the Bamako photographic biennale was long the production of the same team managed from Paris. Biennales are an opportunity for the cities that welcome them. Let us hope, with Ugochukwu Smooth Nzewi, that “in time the construction of value for African art could become home-grown” and that biennales will participate in the fostering of a constellation of cultural initiatives that will able local artists to get better known, locally as well as internationally.