While eyes turned to the Dak’Art Biennale for this last month’s arts and culture in the capital city of Senegal, one of the most interesting Dak’Art OFF exhibitions could be found in the historic neighborhood of Médina, at the southern west end of Dakar.
Médina, an historic quarter rich with culture and community, this year celebrates its 100th anniversary. As part of the celebration, a group of young artists from Médina came together to present the festival Saxalart. The exhibition takes place inside people’s homes, bringing art into people’s daily spaces, to commemorate Médina’s intellectual and cultural history, and reviving the neighborhood’s spirit of openness and hospitality. The exhibition space encompassed 24 homes and many streets, drawing together about 60 artists.
In advance of the main Saxalart festival taking place December, a group of artists offered a preview as part of Dak’Art OFF program. Robin Riskin (RR) sat down for a conversation with two of the project’s leaders, Director General Abdou Sall (AS), and Artistic Director Babacar Traoré Doli (BTD).
Robin Riskin: Can you tell us a bit about Saxalart?
Abdou Sall: Saxalart is a festival for the hundredth anniversary of Médina. The project pulls together numerous artists with the aim of bringing art inside people’s homes.
The idea is to involve the people so that they become the cultural mediators. They receive the public and present the exhibition to them, as well as the history of [their] houses in which we are exhibiting. Each house has a history, and it is important for us to discover our neighborhood, especially on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.
RR: What kind of activities and works does Saxalart involve?
AS: Since March, we’ve started workshops in video animation, photography, sculpture, and sous-verre (glass painting) with children from the neighborhood. We’ve led tambabanlous photo walks with 20 photographers. Where we’re sitting right now, the artist Khassim Mbaye is in the middle of making a performance with one hundred cards to mark the 100th anniversary of Médina. There will be sculpture exhibitions, photography works, installations, and artistic and musical performances. Many activities and media will be presented up until the end of the year.
RR: What is the significance of the homes in which works are exhibited?
AS: We chose homes that have a history: the first houses that were constructed in the neighborhood, and houses where important personalities from the neighborhood have lived.
The house where we are now is one of the oldest houses in Médina, constructed by El Hadj Amadou Ba Founda. Today, his son Elhadj Amadou Tiléré Ba is a cultural mediator for Khassim Mbaye’s exhibition, receiving people and presenting the exhibition. This house was also the headquarters of the Jaaraf de Dakar, which was one of the great clubs of the city.
This house has received great figures in Senegalese political, cultural, intellectual, and athletic life, and it is a house where tea is free every day from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. Each time someone enters, he is served tea. It is a house of welcome, a house that receives. And this is also the spirit of Médina.
RR: Why the name, “Saxalart”?
AS: The root of Saxala(r)t is “Saxal,” which means to plant or to place. Through this festival, we want to reclaim the values that define Médina and that are in the process of being lost in our community. When we were children, not a single house had a door, and we felt at home wherever we were. Today, all the houses have doors and even doorbells. These are some of the things we are losing.
Médina is known for solidarity and brotherhood amongst its inhabitants. For this reason, we wanted to re-kindle these sentiments with the population with whom we live. We are from the neighborhood, we live in the neighborhood, we grew up in the neighborhood, and we would like to reclaim these values.
RR: How has Médina been an important place for artists?
AS: In 1983, the state of Senegal sent 600 police officers to clear out the first artists from the first Village des Arts. At that time the Village des Arts was on the Corniche, and the artists, having nowhere to go, came and squatted in Médina. They took apartments, they lived on Rue 23, at Espace Médina chez Babacar Traoré (Sr.), and other places in the neighborhood.
Médina was already a cultural neighborhood with Doudou Ndiaye Rose, Lama Bouna Basse, Kré Mbaye, and others. Former President Leopold Sédar Senghor, when he wanted to organise the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, invited Pape Ibra Tall, the artist, and Pierre Lote, the director of Ecole Potto-Potto in Kinshasa, Congo. Pierre Lote, when he arrived in Senegal, lived in Medina at Rue 3. The artists of this time frequented his studio and often came to Médina. After him, there was Paolo Petroni, who lived at Rue 5. Artists like El Hadj Sy, Ismaila Manga, Zulu M’Baye, Modou Niang, and all the great artists that we cite today frequented his studio. The artists of Médina are all in the festival. There are very well known artists, and also artists who are exhibiting for the first time.
RR: What kinds of reactions from the public have you gotten so far?
AS: As people enter inside the houses to experience the exhibitions, it’s very interesting to see the people in the house continue their activities as if nothing is happening, and for the people who come to also see a bit of their environment and daily activities.
RR: Babacar, could you tell us more about why you wanted to exhibit inside people’s homes?
Babacar Traoré Doli: We preferred to exhibit inside the houses, first of all, because these houses are us (ours? belong to us?), and secondly, because we wanted to also share with the people. We don’t usually see people with whom we share our daily life at art exhibitions or cultural events. For the 100th anniversary, we wanted to give them a gift, to bring works of art into their homes. We didn’t choose the elite, we chose our people, these people who inspire us. So when they give us this inspiration, we make a representation of it and give it back to them. Voilà, there is the point.
RR: What are you aiming or hoping for with this project?
BTD: We are hoping for the message to spread. The world should know that art is not only reserved for the elite. Moreover, they should know that our neighborhood is turning one hundred. It’s a party, and everyone is invited to Médina, land of the layman.
Saxala(rt) Festival preview took place from 10-25 May in Médina, Dakar alongside the the Dak’Art Biennale 2014.