RAW Material Company, Dakar ©Antoine Tempé 

Art in Dakar 

Issue no1
Feb - March 2021
Diaspora dialogen

‘The visual arts of Senegal are searching in the luminous outline of the mornings of market days. There one discovers that the museums store only on kind of knowledge, whose colours can only be grasped by an apparent immobility. At least in Senegal… one exists in the movement of colour at all moments of the day’[1]

A flat, dusty burnt orange city landscape spread below as the aeroplane descended in to Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport, Dakar – so named after Senegal’s first and much loved president (1960-80). Senghor was a cultural theorist and poet and, as one of the initiators of the Negritude movement, developed good conditions for a thriving national art scene. The 1970’s saw the emergence of the often subversive Laboratoire Agit’Art, which, perhaps ironically, was formed as the antithesis to Senghor’s cultural policy. When undertaking my research I came across many conflicting sources of information about the collective, which is perhaps unsurprising with this type of group activity, but I also found there to be a powerful, possibly intentional, mystique surrounding the group. Although details concerning particulars might be vague, what is sure that Agit’Art was a fluid space for creation and critique amongst avant-garde artists and intellectuals, and has been highly influential within Senegal and internationally.

Dakar City, photo by Alice Ladenburg

The founders included artist Issa Samb (aka Joe Ouakam), filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, painter El Hadji Sy and playwright Youssoupha Dione. Workshops, meetings and performances took place in a variety of public and private locations, including in Village des Arts, an artist studio complex in a squatted former army barracks on Dakar’s seafront from – from where they were evicted in 1983. A new iteration of the village was created in 1996 in an abandoned Chinese labour encampment, where some of the Agit’art artists still work today. The village is located in an oasis of green and quiet just outside of the muddle of Dakar, comprising of dozens of studios, a gallery, and a residency studio for emerging African creative talent.

The home of Issa Samb in the city centre was also an Agit’art base, and arguably became the unassuming heart of the Dakar art scene over the years. Though Agit’art activity became sporadic, his courtyard remained a fertile meeting point for cross-generational artists and intellectuals until very recently. Samb passed away on 25th April, 2017 during my stay in Dakar. It was that clear he was much loved and admired, with his name used as a primary source of inspiration for most of the artists I spoke to. His loss will be keenly felt, particularly as his death came just months after a failed petition to preserve his courtyard as a space of artistic heritage. However, I’ve been assured that the spirit of Agit’Art lives on. Exactly what form this takes feels impossible to grasp from the outside – but it is the foundation of the seemingly mystical art space in Dakar where each new generation of artists dwells.

I found a physical embodiment of this space at L’Espace Médina, which has existed in one form or another since the first Festival of Black Arts, held in Dakar in 1966. Any location in Dakar is challenging to find for locals and foreigners alike, so it took a round-about rattling taxi ride and a confused zig-zag walk through Médina’s sandy streets until I found what I was looking for. At the top of a back staircase I entered a multi-use space with drawing tables, sewing machines and the remnants of an impressive installation by Cheikha Sigil, who was sitting on a much-loved leather couch smoking a rollup and drinking Senegalese tea with a couple of other artists (one of who was lying in a dry bathtub). A true product of the 1st generation artists in Senegal, Sigil dreamily spoke of the importance of essence over form, to be known but not to seek fame, to see problems as potential solutions. Having travelled in Europe, like so many Senegalese who have gone abroad, he happily has found his way home to inhabit the scene that approaches art-making and consumption differently to habitual art-world notions.

I will not attempt to unravel the complex Senegalese politics-culture dynamic here, but it’s worth noting the prevailing feeling that today’s government place little import on the progressive ideologies of initiatives such as Agit’Art and L‘Espace Médina, or on contemporary art practice in general. The National Gallery of Modern Art is housed on the ground floor of an uninspiring building in the city centre where exhibitors submit proposals and, if accepted are expected to pay the equivalent of 40 euros every day that the exhibition is open – an amount of money just under what the average Senegalese earns in a week. The justification of this is that the Ministry of Culture lend their curatorial expertise and handle media communications, but in reality, visitor numbers are low and the chances of selling work are slim.

La Boite à L'Idee

Aka Sy van La Boite à L'Idee

Public inclusion, social responsibility and creative education features highly on the agendas of many Dakar arts initiatives. I visited Kër Thiossane, who promote and facilitate the use of new technologies in local creative business, and la Boite à idée (‘Idea box’), an informal and welcoming base for exhibition, creation and discussion. It was at la Boite à idée that L’arte a L'école was born; an ambitious project that aims to run creative workshops every school in Dakar (nearly all of which currently have no regular art classes). This activity is associated with Whakh’Art, a multi-faceted initiative contributing to and promoting Senegalese culture, taking the form of an online platform which serves as a directory of artists of all genres as well as being the one-stop source of information for events throughout the country.

Kër Thiosanne

Whakh’Art was started in 2011 by Akya Sy (daughter of El Sy). Chatting in the leafy colourful backyard of la Boite à idée, Akya told me that after having studied for four years in Paris she returned to Dakar to be part of the burgeoning cultural scene, a move she said that many Senegalese diaspora are now making. Passionate about the value of the arts in addressing the country’s major political and social issues she is confident that the new generation artists have the potential to make real change.

RAW Material Company, Dakar ©Antoine Tempé 

Installation by Dan Perjovschi at RAW Material Company, May 2016 ©Antoine Tempé

Ministère des reves, a participative installation by RAW Académie fellow Frida Robles Ponce, May 2017

RAW Material Company (est. 2008), have also blown on and brightened the seminal Agit’Art flame. Focusing on art, knowledge and society they run residencies, academies, produce publications and hold regular public events (including Partcours as mentioned in inset). I was in town for a packed out lecture by Senegalese economist and philosopher Felwine Saar, author of Afrotopia (2016), an award winning reflection on Africa’s possible futures. Attendance from young, old, local, national and international cultural thinkers and doers ensured for lively debate and confirmed my impression that something exciting is going on here...

Though the arts scene of Dakar might be hard to pin down, after much rummaging, talking, listening and thinking I’ve seen that, after bubbling away since Senegal’s independence 60 years ago, it is cooking very nicely.


The Dakar Biennale, Dak’Art, is the longest running grand scale African art event that will be entering its 13th year in 2017. Its success and popularity waxes and wanes, mostly according to the continually changing level of government support and external funding, but by and large it has been responsible for showcasing the breadth of what the Dakar art scene (and more recently, also in St. Louis in the north) has to offer. Both local, national and international talents are included, some through invitation and others through submission. 2002 saw the emergence of Dak’Art OFF, the increasingly popular offshoot of the Biennale, where hundreds of studios, cafes, disused spaces opening up to stage exhibitions and events. Running parallel to the Biennale, Parcours gives 19 spaces another opportunity for exposure to new audiences during two weeks of public events. The publication itself is an invaluable resource to for more information about Dakar’s more influential arts initiatives, some of which have an elusive online presence.

[1] Issa Samb, ‘Mediums of Change’ (trans. Clementine Deliss), in Metronome No.0 (Dakar) 1996. The publication also includes the manifesto of the Laboratoire AGIT’art, 1995. 

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2021