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“Producing The Common”: Dak’Art 2014 And Dr. Ugochukwu-Smooth By Toyin Falola

June 5, 2014

“Producing the Common,” the theme of Dak’Art 2014, is a utopian concept that can best be imagined in our contemporary world that is controlled by the levers of capitalism.

It is time to commend our friend and colleague, Smooth, co-curator, and rejoice with him over the overwhelming success of Dak'Art 2014. Smooth and Dak’Art require no introduction, but as I am sending this to thousands of people some of whom do not follow this big event, I plead to art lovers and artists to forgive me for telling them what they already know.

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First, the bigger picture, Dak’Art: Dak’Art was established in 1989 to promote the latest examples of contemporary art in Africa. In the last 24 years, the biennial has served as a significant node between the African and international art worlds. Dak'Art has exhibited a much greater number of African artists and a wider range of contemporary art forms than any other biennial or exhibition in Africa. It is also the most visible symbol of Senegal's international cultural diplomacy in recent times. It follows in a trajectory of grandiose cultural events initiated and executed by the government of Senegal to promote the image of the country as a bastion of modern culture and democracy.  

Dak'Art has pursued its unique cultural politics which Smooth himself has called “pan-African internationalism,” a phrase that should not be contested, I think, but useful as a tool of analysis. To me, this phrase allows Dak'Art to focus on art and artists of Africa and the diaspora. It is a strategy of creating geopolitical integration in the realm of arts and culture based on socio-cultural solidarities.

“Producing the Common,” the theme of Dak’Art 2014, is a utopian concept that can best be imagined in our contemporary world that is controlled by the levers of capitalism. In thinking of the common, it was important for the curators to underscore Senegal's political commitments. As an initiative of the state and the local art community, Dak’Art presents a compelling argument on the role of politics in driving the common in the arena of cultural production and artistic exchange. Smooth and his co-curators conceived of Dak'Art 2014 as a performative site for enacting the common, drawing upon the twentieth century history of black activism for cultural presence on the global stage. Dak'Art is Sengal's gift to the black world. That in itself is a statement of the common.

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It was important for Smooth and his fellow curators, Elise Atangana and Abdelkader Damani, to address the significance and role of Dak'Art in reflecting on the idea of a global Africa common as the basis of the eleventh iteration of the biennial. They assembled a crop of established and emerging artists who actively and constructively engaged notions around the common as it relates to existential conditions and our contemporary reality. These artists sought the connections between politics and aesthetics in instantiating the common.

Now to Dr. Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, whom I have known since his gradate days at Emory. He is an artist, art historian, and curator of African art at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. He holds a B.A. in Fine and Applied Arts from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Nigeria, a postgraduate diploma in Museum and Heritage Studies from the University of Western Cape, South Africa, and a PhD in Art History from Emory University, Atlanta, USA. He has curated exhibitions in Nigeria, South Africa, United States, and Senegal, including, Afrika Heritage Biennial in Nigeria (2002, 2004, and 2007), Transitions: Contemporary South African Works on Paper at the High Museum Atlanta, USA in 2009 and Windows Part 1: New Works by Ndary Lo as part of the fringe exhibitions of the Dak’Art Biennial in 2012. Nzewi is a recipient of several academic fellowships, scholarship, and artists’ awards, among which are, the Smithsonian Institution’s Curatorial Fellowship (2012) and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation Fellowship (2011).  He has published book chapters and catalog essays, as well as articles and exhibition reviews in reputable art journals and magazines. His recent essays include "The Individual and Community: Aesthetics of Blackness in the works of three Black British Artists," Critical Interventions, No. 12 (Fall 2013), “The Contemporary Present and Modernist Past in Postcolonial African Art,” World Art, Issue 3, No. 2 (autumn/fall 2013)," and "Curating Africa, Curating the Contemporary: The Pan-African Model of Dak’Art Biennial,” SAVVY: Journal of contemporary African Art, [special edition on Curating: Expectations and Challenges] No. 4 (November 2012). He is a contributor to Grove Art Online summer 2014 update on African Art and Architecture, Oxford University Press, and co-editor of New Spaces for Negotiating Art (and) Histories (forthcoming), a book on independent art initiatives in Africa.  Nzewi is the curator of Dak’Art Biennial in 2014 with Elise Atangana and Abdelkader Damani.

We rejoice with Senegal over a successful event, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Smooth, Elise, and Abdelkadar for an excellent job.

Onward, 2016!

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