Random Exhibitions

Around the corner from my flat is CICES, a giant exhibition area. Every city’s got one – think of the RAI complex if you’re from Amsterdam.

CICES plays host to a series of conferences on cities, architecture and, as I found out by accident, cinema. All part of the massively disorganised shambles known as the Global Festival for the Black Arts, FESMAN being the French acronym. The Black Arts deserve a lot better than this presidential glorification party but I’ll stop boring you to tears with that…

So: last Monday, I went looking for the conference on cities, which finally took place – on Wednesday. I walked around the exhibition area…building site more like…when I was called. “Kai lekk!”, which means come and eat.

So instead of listening to some drone from academia discuss asymmetrical parallels (no, none of us knows what that means) or conceptual processes, deconstructivism (all in the conference program)…I was having thieboudien with Momar Thiam and his younger colleague, Mr Kassé. Thieboudien: – look that up, it’s among the top ten best dishes on the planet.

They were setting up an exhibition about the history of Senegalese cinema. Also intended to be a strong argument for a national museum of the national cinema. They don’t have to look far; Mr Thiam, himself a film director, keeps all the historical billboards, artefacts, press clippings and everything else…in his own home.

The caretaker of national cinema - and his private collection

Come last Saturday, five days after my first visit – and Mr Thiam’s exhibition is ready. The adjacent one on architecture still reverberates to the sounds of hammers pounding nails. There are very few visitors. Which he finds, quite naturally, disappointing. But he soldiers through with the interviews (first me, for Radio Netherlands, then a colleague for TV5) and still hopes that after years of non-committa promises, he will finally get his museum. I hope so too. But instead of a new home for Mr Thiam’s wonderful collection, we’re more likely to get this:

another monument that will dwarf another landmark...

This is from the architecture exhibition, featuring some work on traditional abodes in Benin, dwellings in Mauritania, a completely random set of new buildings and cityscapes in Ouagadougou, Accra, Dakar  and Bamako – and designs. Lots and lots of designs.

Like the one above.

This is not a copy of the “sail” building in Dubai. Nor is it the locally planned equivalent of a section of the Sydney Opera House. No. It’s…a Monument, a Memorial. We don’t nearly have enough of these in Dakar. It will sit off the historical island of Gorée, which over centuries of Portuguese, Dutch, French and English rule acted as a transit port for spices, hides, gold, gum arabic and most notoriously, slaves. Gorée’s role, though, has been much exaggerated; the main centre of the slave trade in Senegal was the old capital, St. Louis.

If this ever gets built, it will dwarf everything on this tiny island – just 900 metres long and a few hundred metres wide. It’s estimated to cost something of the order of €35m – that’s more than that other Monument. No-one will like it but the president wants it and what the president wants, happens.

Back to the lives of lesser mortals. On my way out of the CICES complex I ran into two young men from Pikine, miles and miles away. ‘We’re not connected to FESMAN…’ Well, that makes you part of the vast majority of Senegalese…

‘This is our marketing: walking around with our arts.’ Would I come and visit them? Definitely, as they gave away glimpses of their lives in the few minutes we spoke: failed overseas migration, life in one of Dakar’s poorest areas, struggling to make money through arts and not being shy about wandering into a party to which they were obviously not invited.

Moral of the story? Ignore official programs. Always accept an invitation to eat. Talk to everyone who does not carry an official badge.

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