Dak'Art 7th Biennale of African Contemporary Art

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Dak'Art 7th Biennale of African Contemporary Art Various venues Dakar May 5 to June 5

If Africa remains the least visited continent for much of the British population, its French- and Portuguese-speaking nations are perhaps even more remote from the British consciousness. And French-speaking Africa, as exemplified in Dakar, turns out to be a very different proposition from the Anglophone cultures of the African continent. This is a city with a thriving and vibrant music scene, a highly developed cuisine (including French patisseries as good as any one would find in France), and an energetic cultural focus supported by the writings of the poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, author of the concept of negritude, and the nation's first president.

Launched in 1992 as a biennale for art and literature, the Dakar Biennale for Art re-emerged in 1996 as Dak'Art, an event dedicated to the plastic arts. With its specific focus on contemporary African art--art made by artists in Africa or by artists of the African diaspora--Dak'Art occupies a special place in the global landscape of large-scale international exhibitions. It is directed as much towards showing African art to African audiences, and to opening up intra-African internationality, as it is towards a non-African audience--proudly asserting its role within the African continent, while also quietly courting the art circuits of the northern hemisphere.

For this seventh edition, Dak'Art has more than doubled in size (from 33 artists from 15 African countries in 2004, to 87 artists from 27 countries this year) and the administration of the biennale has responded in some part to the stinging criticisms levelled at the 2004 exhibition. Two years ago, at a seminar held at the time of the opening, Okwui Enwezor led a party of African-American curators and artists who focused on the biennale's organisational weaknesses, its postponements and delays, its inadequate technical support, and the poor quality of its exhibition spaces and facilities. But this group also criticised the process of selection from an open submission and argued strongly for the introduction of a curatorial approach, to enable a more professional and concise representation of African art.

For the 2006 edition Dak'Art has introduced what it describes as a 'college of curators' to determine the selection and to set the conditions for a 'balanced representation' of the various areas of the continent. As Commissaire General, Yacouba Konate leads a team of seven curators (five from Africa, one from Germany, one from the USA), each responsible for researching work from a different African region (the seventh region being the diaspora), and the selection process has also been modified so that now, in addition to the traditional approach of inviting artists to submit dossiers, individual curators can propose artists for consideration. The curators have also invited more established practitioners--so-called 'landmark artists' such as Frederick Bruly Bouabre, El Anatsui, Soly Cisse, Abdoulaye Konate and Dilomprizulike--whose work is internationally known. Wisely, they have integrated all these elements into one show, so that there is no sense of separate categories or regional sections as one moves around the exhibition.

The exhibition is spread over four venues, all on a fairly easy parcours that takes one through the city's thronged streets, running the gauntlet of street traders who may be carrying anything from a selection of trainers to an armful of potted plants, from caged birds to ironing boards. …