African culture, made in China

Dakar, Senegal is the bustling center of French-speaking West Africa. For more than 500 years, it thrived as a cultural and commercial center without resorting to fanciful, man-made attractions. That started to change in 2006, when then-President Abdoulaye Wade commissioned a North Korean state-owned company to build the African Renaissance Monument, a 160-foot-tall statue of a muscular man. and scantily clad holding a woman and child, on a hill on the west coast of Dakar. Wade is gone now, but the statue lives on, towering over the otherwise pleasantly unmonumental city.

Late last year, Dakar saw the opening of another ready-made monument built by a foreign dictatorship: the Museum of Black Civilizations. In theory, the museum was long overdue. As the definitive center of black culture located on African territory, it is both a practical and symbolic way for Africans to reclaim their cultural heritage after centuries of foreign oppression. But the museum offers visitors little sense of this higher mission. Architecture, the handiwork of Chinese state designers, is a big part of the reason. Beijing paid $34 million for the project, and it shows.

From the outside, the museum is a colonnaded beige cylinder surrounded by a concrete sea of ​​nothingness. Inside, it’s an intimidating maze. Modern museums, such as the New Museum and the Whitney in New York, often use high-ceilinged, windowless galleries; the trick is to channel in just enough natural light to keep visitors from feeling like they’re in a basement or warehouse. Yet the museum in Dakar is downright sepulchral, ​​filled with spaces so eerily impersonal that they barely feel like they were built for human beings, let alone art.

The inhumanity of the museum is particularly evident if one wanders around Dakar’s neighboring Plateau district, which is as lively and captivating as anywhere on Earth. Further north is the marvelous Village des Arts, a rustic and endlessly fascinating collection of several hundred studios clustered around a small but impressive gallery of tenants’ best work. It is art that deepens, rather than interrupts, the enchantment with the surrounding environment. Visitors to the central gallery can see, for example, Serge Mienandi’s vibrantly colored abstract canvases from Dakar and feel like they are seeing something they couldn’t find anywhere else.

At the Museum of Black Civilizations, on the other hand, one looks at the gaping hallways or the white skylight of the almost empty atrium and one feels destabilized and out of place. A group of excellent bronze heads from Benin, or two huge galleries of contemporary Afro-Cuban art, don’t distract from the wainscoting or Mandarin signage in nearly every room. It was difficult for me to browse an exhibition of Chinese masks on the second floor, perhaps intended to evoke a sublime cow mask from Cameroon a level below and probably included because of the building’s funders, and not to remembering China’s persecution of its Uyghur Muslim population. , who share a religion with more than 95% of Senegalese.

When I visited in early August, much of the museum was still empty. It will eventually be fulfilled, and it may one day keep its promises. But, for now, it serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to commission the creation of a major cultural institution, especially when it means relying on foreign patrons who neither care nor understand what they are building. That the museum was designed to be an assertion of Africa’s independence from foreign control is a particularly bitter irony.

A few thousand miles south, in Cape Town, South Africa, lies another waste of potential. Since its opening at the end of 2017, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa has been a must for visitors to the city. Architecturally, the museum is a triumph, perhaps the masterpiece of British designer Thomas Heatherwick. It is housed inside the envelope of an old grain silo. Yet many elements of the original structure remain on display inside, including the wide rounded edges of the silos themselves, which have been cut away to form the building’s atrium. When I visited in April, the atrium housed a five-story aluminum sculpture found by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, while the galleries housed an outstanding study of contemporary art from neighboring Zimbabwe.

The institution cannot yet be considered a success. The day of my visit, hardly anyone was there. Standing on the museum’s rooftop terrace, near the entrance to the $1,000-a-night Silo Hotel, I could see Cape Town’s waterfront, home to some of the most expensive commercial real estate on the African continent. Only a few miles away were the squatter camps and slums of the Cape Flats. Like the museum in Dakar, the Zeitz is incongruous with its larger surroundings and largely irrelevant to them, a distant shining object with only a vague sense of a larger purpose.

This year in Senegal, the rains were slow to arrive. Farmers wondered if they could save their crops, and there was palpable nervousness even in Dakar. A few months after I left Cape Town, the army was called in to pacify the out-of-control gangs in the Cape Flats. Hunger and violence do not make art museums an unnecessary luxury; no doubt they make them even more urgent. But Africa’s two most notable new museums are not yet advocating as effectively as they should. One is the cynical soft power game of a foreign dictatorship; the other, a shimmering island of opulence with a boutique hotel slapped atop. Both are shocking contrasts to their host societies, reflecting the tastes, demands and spending habits of non-Africans.

Bridging the gap between these institutions and their immediate contexts may prove difficult. Fortunately, their tasks are too important for failure to be an option.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based traveling reporter for Tablet Magazine.

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