With brighter mobility perspectives looming on the horizon, art lovers are probably looking at possibilities to embark on a trip to noteworthy art manifestations. Biennales, Triennale’s, Encounters, you name it, have constituted an unmissable rendezvous’ for those hungry for new trends and seminal creative processes in contemporary art. When the long-standing and established Venice Biennale has increasingly dedicated pavilions to African countries, continental art events/manifestations have contributed to the actual burgeoning of contemporary African art. Some have long been established, such as the Dak’Art Biennale or Les Rencontres de Bamako, when others are a few years old. They do not subscribe to the logic of country representation – as it is the case for the Venice Biennale – and propose new formats of exhibition and artistic exchange, especially in these times which call for alternative gathering frameworks and display models. These events and their multiplicity contribute to the decentring of legitimizing hubs of contemporary art practices.
Two Forerunners and a New Actor in West Africa
Let us map these continental possibilities and art hotspots for you – without the pretention to be exhaustive and taking into account the readjustments that most art and cultural events have had to operate. West Africa, with Senegal and Mali ahead, has been the host of two major and well-established art events, namely Dak’Art (Biennale de Dakar) and Les Rencontres de Bamako (Bamako Encounters – African Photography Biennale). For its 13th Edition, taking place from the 20th of November 2021 to the 20th of January 2022, this African Biennial of Photography will honour the medium and its contemporary artistic usages under the theme ‘On Multiplicity, Difference, Becoming, and Heritage’.
Image retrieved from biennialfoundation.org
As for Dak’Art, arguably the oldest Biennale in Africa, its 30th Anniversary Edition, initially planned last year, has been postponed to a later – and not known yet – date due to the pandemic. The programme of that Edition was in its closing when the global situation decided otherwise. In any case, this contemporary art manifestation, which aligns with Senegal’s touristic assets, will count a new venue that is in itself worth the visit: Le Musée des Civilisations Noires (The Museum of Black Civilisations). Inaugurated in December 2018, its ultramodern facility responds to the vision of a museum that would account for black civilisations everywhere (and) throughout time, and that has been at the forefront of the repatriation debate.
Image retrieved from biennalededakar
These two events naturally start this review, considering their establishment within the global artworld and their influence on the emergence and understanding of contemporary African art forms and expressions. Both have enjoyed considerable state support (via their respective Ministry of Culture), which is unfortunately far to be the norm elsewhere on the continent.
Sculpture lovers can rejoice. The 2nd Edition of the BISO (Biennale Internationale de Sculpture de Ouagadougou) will take place from the 8th October to the 8th November 2021 in Burkina Faso. Dedicated to contemporary expressions of the medium, this year Edition will give us to think about the ambiguous nature of the relation between indigenous spirituality and liberal western ideas, paying tribute to the emblematic book (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961) written by the Senegalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane.
Image retrieved from BISO-Biennale
Up north, Morocco has seen its contemporary art scene booming over the past years/decade, with notably the opening of the MACAAL (Musée d’Art Contemporain Africain Al-Maaden) in 2018, or the Montresso* Art Foundation’s dynamic spaces and projects. This month was initially supposed to be the kick-off of the 5th Edition of the Biennale Internationale de Casablanca Biennale under the artistic direction of Christine Eyene. The new proposed dates are from the 22nd of September to the 5thof November 2022. In these times of restricted mobility and social distancing, cultural manifestations have (naturally) had to take the decision to postpone their happening and adapt their format as to keep a momentum in their fulfilment. As a matter of fact, the Biennale Internationale de Casablanca is planning a first set of artists residencies at IFITRY residency in the region of Essaouira, followed by exhibitions in summer and autumn 2021.
Finally, the 3rd Edition of Les Rencontres de la Photographie de Marrakech has been announced and should take place from the 11th to the 17th October 2021 in the stately Palais El Badi. The setting speaks for itself. This one might well deliver a convivial and demonstrative event around local and late developments in photography practice.
Image retrieved from rpmarrakech
Nigeria is no stranger to late developments in the field of contemporary art in Africa. With the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos and the African Artists’ Foundation leading the way, Lagos is the host of LagosPhoto and The Lagos Biennial. LagosPhoto has celebrated contemporary photography since 2010 and proposed an innovative and engaging online restitution platform for its latest Edition in 2020 as a response to the pandemic situation. Ingenious. The 3rd Edition of the Lagos Biennial launched this year under the theme ‘Refuge’, will be a two-years conceptual, designing and eventful journey leading to the main exhibitions in October 2023 at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos.
Tafawa Balewa Square is situated in the heart of Lagos island. It is surrounded by impressive buildings and memorial sites, and is in constant use for a variety of celebrations and official functions. Courtesy Lagos Biennial.
Congo’s Creative Pulse
At this point, you may wonder whether you will actually be able to vibrate on the pulses of an exciting contemporary art gathering or happening this year on the African continent or not. You may have to head more central, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, that will host no less than two biennales at the end of the year. First, the Yango Biennale – initiated around the late artist Kiripi Katembo – will resume with a much-awaited 2nd Edition after some years of reorganisation. The Biennale makes a univocal statement with its title: ‘We won’t await tomorrow’ when the most enthusiasts will have to wait the 5th of November of this year to see how Kinshasa’s artistic energy can deploy. For those planning or willing to head to the DRC’s capital city, it will be two for the price of one at that time of the year. In fact, the Congo Biennale, set up by the Kin ArtStudio, is currently preparing its 2nd Edition after a conclusive inaugural one in 2019. Titled ‘The Breath of the Ancestors’, its programme will be curated by Armelle Dakouo and Fahamu Pecou and on view from the 10th of September to the 24th of October. A couple of thousands of kilometres down south, the Lubumbashi Biennale has been a platform where the image and artistic propositions enter in dialogue with the urban and industrial realities of the region. Initially scheduled for this year, the next Edition will most probably take place towards the end of next year. Stay tuned.
© Yango Biennale promotional poster, 2014.
This review does certainly not do justice to the myriad of art events taking place on the African continent nor the multidisciplinary festivals where the visual art meets (the) performative ones such as The Chale Wote Street Art Festival (Accra/Ghana), The Harare International Festival of the Arts (Zimbabwe), or the National Arts Festival (Makhanda/South Africa). For those into photography, keep an eye on the 6th Edition of the Addis Foto Fest scheduled for December 2021. We will here also mention the two Kampala (Uganda) based initiatives KLA ART & Kampala Art Biennale, and The Stellenbosch Triennale.
As far as this year summer is concerned, Les Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles – a long-established and prominent international festival of photography – is definitely worth a visit. It takes place every year throughout the summer in southern France. From the 5th of July to the 26th of September, you will be able to enjoy several shows including The New Black Vanguard, curated by Antwaun Sargent and including the work of Delphine Diallo.
Tyler Mitchell, Untitled, (Hijab Couture), New York, 2019 Credit: © Tyler Mitchel
It is clear that many of the aforementioned biennales and rendezvous have had to reconsider their happening and format due to the restrictions caused by the pandemic, which asks relevant and timely questions around the becoming of international art events on the African continent and beyond. The ‘biennialisation’ effect – i.e. the emergence of biennials or the like in southern contexts observed from late 20th century onwards – has also revealed its shortcomings. Many of these cultural events were short-lived or indefinitely interrupted, such as the Johannesburg Biennial or the OFF Biennale Cairo. The art world ecosystem is showing signs of adaptation and resilience, confronting us to our apprehension, understanding and appreciation of contemporary practices and global exhibitions. Let us reduce our carbon footprint another half a year before the sky progressively reopens its routes.