In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995

By Delancey, Mark D. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995


Delancey, Mark D., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995. By Elizabeth Harney. Objects/Histories. Critical Perspectives on Art, Material Culture, and Representation, a series edited by Nicholas Thomas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. xxv, 316; 78 black and white illustrations, 14 color plates. $99.95 cloth, $26.95 paper.

This chronologically based work traces the shifting efforts of Senegalese artists to negotiate spaces for artistic expression vis-à-vis the suffocating control of Senghorian negritude, European modernist primitivizing, postmodernist tension between fetishizing difference and globalization, and general neglect under Abdou Diouf's presidency. The major premise is that the contemporary Senegalese artistic milieu cannot be easily pigeonholed, and that the circumstances of this particular "art-culture system" must be considered.1 Artistic practices such as recuperation represent at once a rebellion against the Frenchinspired "high art" practices of the Ecole de Dakar, a reclamation of modernist bricolage from Europe, and a means of connecting with Senegalese society through familiar and locally significant materials.2

The text begins with a summary of the various permutations of negritude, its origins, and its relationship to the visual arts. Senghor's vision of negritude is understood as reclaiming the terms with which Europe denigrated Africa and using these terms as the source of a new national identity for Senegal's heterogeneous population. Hamey suggests that Senghor's reluctance to break ties with France was a result of the specific historical relationship between coastal Senegal and its former colonizer.

The Ecole de Dakar-a school usually defined in terms of a group of artists who produced visual translations of Senghor's philosophy-is reinterpreted in terms of the creation of a new national identity, presenting an aura of political legitimacy to the West, and as a patronage system that was exploited in various ways by Senegalese artists. Harney points out that prominent artists such as Papa Ibra Tall and Iba N'Diaye responded to negritude and European modernism as individuals, rather than blindly following the party line.

The earliest avant-garde movements, such as the Laboratoire Agit-Art and the Village des Arts, rebelled against the Ecole de Dakar in the early 1970s in an effort to carve out spaces in which artists could experiment with new techniques and modes of expression. Harney points out that many of these artists still benefited from the system that they criticized. As negritude of necessity participated in modernist discourse to debunk that very same intellectual structure, so too did the Senegalese avant-garde ulatimately participate in the discourse of Senghorian negritude. It must be said that the material on Laboratoire Agit-Art is much stronger than that on the Village des Arts, although it is assumed that this is simply a result of the fact that Agit-Art existed much longer than the Village. …

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