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The epic of the "School of Dakar"

Exhibition about the "School of Dakar" movement
"L'Ecole de Dakar / The School of Dakar" (Museum of Black Civilizations), Dakar

To mark its first anniversary, the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar organised a major retrospective entitled "The School of Dakar" at the beginning of the year, in partnership with the Eiffage Foundation, which holds the Jean-Henry Barbier collection of over 250 artworks.

Part of the collection of the Frenchman resident in Senegal between 1948 and 2009 was presented: more than 170 unpublished paintings by 18 artists were exhibited.

This is an opportunity for us to retrace the history of this movement that has marked the contemporary history of art in Senegal!

Painting by Amadou Seck of the Dakar School
Amadou Seck, " Transhumance", 123x118 cm

Brief history of the context of the birth of this school

In 1960, at the dawn of independence, Leopold Sedar Senghor became President of Senegal.

He was an atypical president: a historian, poet and man of culture at the head of the state.

Those who know Senghor and his career know nothing of the negritude movement of the 1930s and 1940s, founded around students at the Sorbonne in Paris, of which he was one of the initiators, along with Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas... In simple terms, negritude was the affirmation of black culture and its identity. They asserted their "negro" part in Europe, taking on the racist connotations of the word. Yes, the black man had a history and was "civilised"!

Once he became President, Senghor decided to create a new art in Senegal, an institutionalised art.

In 1960, the School of Arts was created to replace the House of Arts of Mali (after the dissolution of the Federation of Mali, which included Senegal and Mali).

Prominent personalities and cultural and political ideology of the Dakar School

Senghor first called on Iba N'Diaye, the first Senegalese graduate in plastic arts in France, to direct the Dakar School before entrusting it to Pierre Lods.

From Iba N'diaye to Pierre Lods...

Iba N'Diaye was the first precursor of the very idea of codified arts in Senegal.

Senghor called upon him in 1959 to come and direct both the new School of Arts and the new section of Negro plastic arts that it housed at the same time in 1964.

His rigour and theoretical sense of art clashed with Senghor's ideology. For the latter, the African had an innate sense of culture and did not need to follow codes, as evidenced by his famous quote "emotion is negro, reason is Hellenic".

Omar Katta Diallo, sans titre (untitled), 62x76 cm
Omar Katta Diallo, untitled, 62x76 cm

Not sharing this vision, Iba N'diaye ended up resigning in 1967.

He kept telling his students to always continue to do research in order to learn, to be very rigorous in their work. For him, artistic training was the basis. He never shared the idea of spontaneity in creation.

Although he shortened his time at the head of the School, his influence in the Senegalese art world is not negligible. In 7 years, he trained a whole generation of artists whose mastery of technique greatly influenced the following ones.

Among his former students, we can mention: Abdoulaye N'diaye Thiossane, Oumar Katta Diallo, Mamadou Wade, M'ballo Kébé, Khalifa Guèye, Boubacar Goudiaby, etc.

In 1961, Senghor called on Pierre Lods

Compared to other professors, he enjoyed certain privileges and favours. His ideology corresponded to that of Senghor, and he had access to the Palace of the Republic.

When he arrived in Dakar, Lods had already founded the Poto Poto school in Zaire in 1951 with a proven method. It was based on the pedagogy of freedom, i.e. to give free rein to one's ideas, creativity and inspirations without following any codes. The only prohibition was to avoid copying or reproducing!

While giving courses at the School of Arts, Lods created his own house-studio and recruited his disciples both at the School of Arts and in the Medina district, where he met young self-taught painters.

His house became an experimental laboratory for a number of talents including Mouhammadou M'baye alias Kré Mbaye, Ousseynou Mbaye his brother alias Zulu Mbaye, Yéro Ba...

He allows this young generation to create without constraints with important means at their disposal in his workshop house located at Point E in Dakar (materials, paintings, financial aid...).

Pierre Lods also succeeded in integrating some of his self-taught disciples into the School of Arts to follow courses in plastic arts.

He became the mentor of many artists from 1963 to 1988 until his departure from Senegal and never stopped supporting them.

Painting of Khalifa Gueye from "The School of Dakar"d exhibited at Black Civilization Museum
Khalifa Gueye, "Back to the mosque, 67x61 cm, oil on canvas, 1992

Some of the recognised artists are: Ibou Diouf, Seydou Barry, Amadou Sow, Omar Katta Diallo, Théodore Diouf, Khalifa Gueye, Phillipe Sène, Ousseynou Ly, Amadou Yéro Ba, Oumane Faye, Bocar Pathé Diongue, Ansoumana Diedhiou, Diatta Seck.

Papa Ibra Tall spent a short time at the Dakar School of Arts. He joined the school in 1960 and created the "black plastic research" section, which included an experimental tapestry workshop in 1964.

Four of his students who graduated in painting were sent to the Gobelins manufactures in France to learn the techniques of the weaving looms.

Following the creation of the National Tapestry in 1966 in Thiès, he left the School of Arts to take over the management of this new unit called MSAD: the famous Senegalese Manufacture of Decorative Arts of Thiès, a public establishment of a commercial and industrial nature.

Painting by Ibou Diouf from the Dakar School exhibited at the Museum of Black Civilizations
Ibou Diouf, untitled, 75x62 cm,1974

The ambition supported by Senghor was to give birth to a new Senegalese art in the image of ancient Negro art: a modern tapestry rivaling the greatest names in international tapestry!

MSAD has been the flagship of contemporary tapestry in Senegal, a place to visit and a provider of sumptuous gifts for distinguished guests of the Senegalese Republic.

Its monumental works adorn many royal and presidential palaces and prestigious institutions around the world such as the UN headquarters.

In Senegal, one can find "Les Nuits de Thierno Almamy" whose tapestry decorates the banqueting hall of the Palace of the Republic as well as "Royal meeting" from the Senghor collection, "The Signaars", "Day and night", "Blue Legend", "Nocturnal, Bewitching Face" and "The 4 Breaths".

André Seck in charge of the sculpture section from 1963

The artist André Seck, a professor of sculpture trained in Belgium, was called by Senghor to join the School of Arts.

The development of sculpture, however, came up against, on the one hand, the Senegalese culture reserving it in our traditions for a community called the caste of the Laobés among the Al Pulaar and Teugg (blacksmith among the Wolofs) and, on the other hand, Islamisation banishing the cult of physical representations.

Appointed in 1963, his courses only started two years later due to a lack of students and materials!

Painting by Zulu Mbaye from the School of Dakar exhibited at the Museum of Black Civilizations
Mouhamadou Mbaye named Zulu, "God Dogon" (Dogon God) 78.5x100 cm, 1992

Criticisms and contributions of the Dakar School?

Beyond the creation of a school of arts, the School of Dakar was conceived as a movement responding to Senghor's ideological aspirations.

A globalised "Art Nouveau"

His idea of art nouveau in Senegal was intended to demonstrate that the African was capable of creating beauty on the model of Western contemporary art. Senghor's approach is basically quite influenced by the West and is illustrated by his desire to develop sculpture from materials used elsewhere.

Rather than highlighting the ancestral know-how of blacksmiths in the handling of iron, he wanted to show that Africa could compete with modern sculptures by contemporary Western artists while drawing inspiration from "negro art".

In tapestry, the traditional looms and the woven loincloth technique were not exploited or promoted, but once again it was the European experience of the Gobelins that built up a new know-how in Senegal.

Artists on the fringes of or in reaction to Senghor's vision

During Senghor's lifetime, the vision of his "Art Nouveau" gave rise to initiatives that were built alongside the Dakar School.

In the 1970s, Issa Samb, known as "Joe Ouakam", created, with artist friends, the Agit'Art laboratory to distance himself from Senghor's ideology and paternalism.

Joe Ouakam criticized the method of the Dakar School, such as the fact of wanting to classify artists in categories and movements.

Painting by Abou N'diaye from the School of Dakar exhibited at the Museum of Black Civilizations
Abou N'diaye, untitled, 30x43cm

It should be added that the President's intervention in creation will direct aid, grants and interventions towards artists who share his ideas. This clientelism undoubtedly created certain frustrations.

And if young artists and intellectuals said they did not share Senghor's ideas, it should be added that artists who were neither aware of the School of Dakar movement nor politically involved could be classified in the School of Dakar without adhering to its philosophy.

What remains of the Dakar School?

Warm colours, a preference for figurative representations over abstracts with references to African mythologies, asymmetrical signs and forms, a touch of contemporary modernity, a freedom to create, an innate and spontaneous sensitivity, are all characteristics of the Dakar School.

An environment favourable to the arts and culture

Although it is not immune to criticism, the Dakar School has made a significant contribution to Senegalese art. It has created a favourable environment for the development of culture and the arts in Senegal with quality training.

A whole generation of artists has benefited from the unfailing support of the State.

With major exhibitions of international renown such as the exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1974 and the Festival of Black Arts in 1966, Senegal was placed on the map of countries that count in contemporary art. This development favoured the birth of major events such as the Dakar Biennale, still active today.

A significant movement in contemporary Senegalese art

Even if few claim to be part of this movement today, many Senegalese artists are now following in its footsteps, while seeking new forms of expression and drawing on other influences.

The school of arts still exists and continues to train cohorts of artists in its premises. Many artists leave the school with a mastery of techniques but also a particular style in the colours, tones and inspirations of this famous school.

Today, many artists who have graduated from the Dakar School of Arts continue to perpetuate a style inspired by their mentors from previous generations.

And to this day, the artists of the first generations of the Dakar School of Art adorn most of the rooms of the major institutions in Dakar, from the Palace of the Republic to the National Assembly, as well as the offices of lawyers and notaries...

A heritage and a sure value

Despite all the criticisms that can be levelled at Senghor, he was able, with his vision, to direct a real policy focused on the development of culture and its international influence.

I believe that what is missing in Senegal are politicians who see culture as an essential factor in the country's development!

Painting by Séni Mbaye from the School of Dakar exhibited at the Museum of Black Civilizations
Ousseynou M'baye dit Séni, sans titre (untitled) 99x104 cm,1989

Scholarships, aid, bank loans, training courses, participation in national and international events, aid and laws intended for the development of culture and art in particular are indispensable assets for artists.

The law of defiscalisation of the 1% of 1968 intended for the promotion of the Art for the companies and collectors, the Festivals of the black arts, the international itinerant exhibitions of contemporary Senegalese art initiated by the State of Senegal, the village of the arts of Dakar, the contests, etc... all that had for only objective the radiation of the contemporary art!

Painting by Diatta Seck from the School of Dakar exhibited at the Museum of Black Civilizations
Diatta Seck, untitled, 67x76 cm

The exhibition at the Musée des Civilisations Noires at the beginning of the year allowed us to rediscover this entire generation of artists from the Dakar School, and all of their sometimes neglected talent!

Such events should be repeated to highlight these artists who have not been recognised to their true value by their own country and abroad, where speculation about emerging African artists is in full swing.

I regret that today this school is not more valued, taught in schools, because in Senegal the general public has a lack of knowledge of the artistic world, of culture in general, and prefers to confine itself to the more folkloric sides.

I would add that when I was young, I would have liked to have had art classes in secondary school in our school curriculum.

At school, we study Senghor's poems and his written works, but we ignore the history of art.

Let's teach the young generation to have an artistic culture. And as Senghor said, "rootedness and openness"!

If I am far from being a follower of his theories, he, the poet President, believed in culture and its development, as evidenced by the extraordinary artistic heritage of the Dakar School!

Room of the great exhibition on the School of Dakar at the Museum of Black Civilizations
The Exhibition "The School of Dakar"

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