The Bare Necessities: Raw Material Company in Dakar (Artreview)

It is safe to say that the geographies of the artworld are expanding, as are the various activities and movements of its multiple constituencies. At once distanced from the traditional centres of monolithic power, the penetration of the Internet accompanied by the proliferation of global biennial culture have brought the art of elsewhere into focus. Now places like Cairo and Kampala find themselves on the international radar, feeding into the frenzied exchange that is today’s interconnected world. This has been evidenced by countless exhibitions testifying to the globalisation of artistic Modernisms, and more recently by the unprecedented rise of cultural centres in places like Douala, Lagos and Dakar. However, we shouldn’t be so shortsighted as to assume that the artistic communities in these regions were without fields of cultural production before centres for contemporary art were instituted. While the first decade of the twenty-first century may have brought about a deterritorialisation of African art, prompted mostly by postcolonial discourses conceived in the West, there has been a clear reclamation of ownership on the part of Africa’s cultural narratives. The aim of these meeting points is not merely one of proclaiming the fact that contemporary art exists. The development, to my understanding, has more to do with the engineering of new spaces for the production, reception and discourse of art within complex societal frameworks.

Raw Material Company, a centre for art, knowledge and society based in Dakar, is perhaps the most resolute example of institution building in Africa. The space is situated within the suburbs of Dakar in a multipurpose building; it runs an average of four exhibitions per year, artist residencies, as well as a restaurant and a reference library of books on contemporary art with an alternative educational and publication programme. Since its inception in 2008, the centre has addressed the antinomies of artistic production and structural development in Africa, while resisting institutionalised cultural schemes that often dampen the political convictions of artistic practice. 

Senegal is marked by a discrepancy between an official national culture and one that is determined by artistic communities and local audiences. It is also a place where art and nationalism are intrinsically linked – after gaining independence from France in 1960, the country was transformed by its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. An accomplished poet and cultural theorist, Senghor is one of few African leaders to have conceived of art as a medium of social and political change. His administration established a cultural system complete with art schools, a national museum and festivals, which fostered a rich visual language under his theories of Negritude. But the government’s ambition to reflect the country’s postcolonial identity through art was met with resistance from a number of artists who resented the government’s use of art for political gain. During the height of Senghor’s patronage system, artists contested the president’s vision and broke away from traditional artistic forms. Among them was Issa Samb, a founding member of the Laboratoire AgitArt, probably the first artist collective in Africa. The collective – composed of writers, actors, artists and thinkers – transformed the nature of artistic practice from a formalist, objectbound sensibility to forms of agitation that resulted in ephemeral experiments.

[Read more: Art Review]

Issa Samb in the exhibition 'WORD! WORD? WORD! Issa Samb and the Undecipherable Form', 2013. Courtesy of Raw Material Company

Issa Samb in the exhibition 'WORD! WORD? WORD! Issa Samb and the Undecipherable Form', 2013. Courtesy of Raw Material Company