Magazine article Artforum International

Near and Far: Robert Storr on Dak'Art 2006

Magazine article Artforum International

Near and Far: Robert Storr on Dak'Art 2006

Article excerpt

JUST OPPOSITE DAKAR, off the coast of Senegal, lies the island of Goree. A rocky mass with a small harbor at one end and high cliffs at the other, it has no natural springs and precious little vegetation. The sun shines hot. Despite these inhospitable conditions it is covered with colonial buildings of undeniable charm. Some are grand but derelict; many more are small but well kept. The majority, it seems, are the property of absentee owners who make seasonal visits. Artists also number among the inhabitants, notably the late Mustapha Dime, the creator of elegantly raw wood and metal sculptures, an example of which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The rest make handicrafts and acrylics for the tourists who swarm to Goree on ferries from the mainland.

Besides its markets, restaurants, and striking landscape, the main attraction is a small compound on the west side of the island. For well over a century countless men, women, and children were delivered to this building by their African and European captors, and from its dismal quarters they were shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery. A small oceanside door in the bowels of this structure was the gateway to exile and servitude. But for the dazzling light that plays on the water below it, looking through that door is akin to looking into the ovens at Auschwitz. Yet thousands flock to the House of Slaves at Goree to do just that, many of them African Americans. This infernal portal, a point of terrible endings and beginnings, and the curved staircases that bracket it are the spool from which a thread that can never be rewound leads into the immense maze of the diaspora.

While there, I was surrounded by a group of black women from the American South, all but one of whom stared with palpable emotion through the opening at the horizon as if imagining the deportation of their ancestors. The woman who looked the other way may have been balking at such prospects, but it seemed that she was not so much turning her gaze away from retrospective horror as toward the commotion of the compound and the vitality of Africa beyond it. Her concentration on what was going on immediately around her made me think that, for Americans black, white, and every mixture between, the difficulty "we" confront in grasping Africa's actuality is in being able, for a moment at least, to look at it from the near rather than the far side of that small aperture--that is to say, without telescoping everything through the optic of Goree's door and the enmeshed legacies of anger and guilt that entangle everyone who has grown up in a New World built on bonded labor. The suggestion that such new perspectives might somehow be possible is not to deny the suffering and shame of "our" past, but rather to encourage attention to other pasts and other presents without filtering everything witnessed through conditions that specifically apply to the Americas.

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Those pasts and presents include many equally terrible things: the winner-take-all wars that stocked the House of Slaves; the long, variably harsh, always soul-eating saga of colonialism; the revolutions and wars of the postcolonial period and the cruel realpolitik of neocolonialism. But they also encompass the rich heritage of great empires and tribal cultures along with their interaction; the rise of Islam and its pervasive influence in North and West Africa; and the multifarious music, dance, design, theater, literature, and visual art that have flourished during modern Africa's "short century," despite scarce resources for their creation, unstable structures for their dissemination, and all-too-frequent repression.

Dak'Art 2006, the seventh installment of the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art--this year's theme was "Africa: Agreements, Allusions, and Misunderstandings"--offered just such a vantage point to anyone willing and able to make the journey. …

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