Transatlantic Connections – Dakar, May 2014 – C& Interview

Interview with Gabriela Salgado

1. What brought you to initiate the 5-year project Transatlantic Connections?

I have specialised in Latin American art and have worked in the region for over fifteen years.
In 2008 I took my first trip to West Africa to attend the 9th Dakar Biennale, and through conversations with artists and curators I realised that there were more coincidences than differences between the Latin American and African art scenes in relation to the mainstream, canonical art history and the market.
I thus began to investigate the historical reasons for the lack of dialogue between Africa and Latin America in the visual arts field, and to build a practical template for cooperation between artists from both sides of the Atlantic.
Reflecting upon these questions I realised how invisible the traces of the African heritage are in the art produced in most Latin American countries, something especially shocking in those places where large portions of the population are black or mixed race. I believe that in an attempt to please and be accepted by the international mainstream, our artistic production has self-colonised by consistently whitening and westernising its discourse. With the exception of the Havana Biennale, whose inaugural editions of 1984 and 1986 put an emphasis in exhibiting artists of the global south, most biennales and exhibitions in Latin America have turned their back to African art until very recently.

Subsequently I initiated collaborations with Colombian organisation Más Arte Más Acción, Portes et Passages de Retour in Senegal, and Doual’art in Cameroon and realised three artists exchanges between 2012 and 2014.
In 2013 I met Lucrezia Cipitelli who had previously worked in projects in Africa and Latin America and was researching the possibilities of an exchange programme between Afro-descendants from Colombia and African artists with a focus on urban and communitarian practice. We decided to set up Transtlantic Connections and to propose an artistic exchange to be included in the programme of the following Dak’art Biennale.

2. How do you define transatlantic connections, these ties in terms of identity and movement/migration?

Transatlantic Connections proposes an investigation of the historical precedents and potentialities of the interaction between Africa and Latin America in the visual arts, to link historical truth through innovative processes of resurfacing diverse knowledge and cultural systems while highlighting the foundational dialogues originated from the encounter between millions of Africans, Amerindians and Europeans in the Americas.
Without a doubt, in the field of performing arts, including music and dance, Latin America is perceived as a repository of a number of cultural heritages, including the highly significant African diaspora. However, this does not seem to be acknowledged in the visual arts, where it appears that the impact of the multiple cultures that constitute our identity is hidden under layers of mirrors that reflect visual arts production as continuous references to European modernity. To decolonise this way of operating and thinking, we propose a series of transatlantic connections, a distinctive type of international networking inspired by the decolonial theories of Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel.

3. In terms of historization through artistic/cultural practices, what are the linking points between Africa and Latin America? Do you have any examples?

What became apparent in realising the project with Benjamin Abras in Dakar is that the traditions of African matrix developed in the Americas – in this particular case in Brazil – are not necessarily identifiable in Africa. This is because the links to the original African cultures were affected by the very conditions imposed by the slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries. Firstly contemporary Africans, clearly free from such trauma do not relate to that past, and secondly the mingling and consequent interactions of a great number of ethnic groups in the Americas made it impossible for clear-cut traditions to remain unchanged.
Nonetheless, the fascinating outcome of the Dakar exchange resides in the magic of dance to merge the ancestral symbolism of Brazilian Candomblé with the local animist worship as well as hip-hop and sabar, (the traditional dance from Senegal) and to engender a new artistic language, fruit of a multifaceted dialogue. In this way, all the artists involved learnt from and influenced each other, exploring novel ways of increasing their creative potential.

4. The first edition of Transatlantic Connections took place this year in Dakar in collaboration with Association Cie 1er Temps. Two months later, what have been the striking as well as quiet moments that you have in mind?
I am not sure I understand the question…but here is an attempt to answer. Let me know if it responds to your query…

My colleague Lucrezia Cipitelli, co-curator of this edition of the project in Dakar, proposed to work with Cie 1er Temps and its dancers, strongly rooted in Ouakam and its community. She had previously worked with them in Urban Scéno Dakar/Ouakam, a residency project and festival, which invited artists from Africa and Latin America to develop site-specific works in Ouakam, a fishing village undergoing rapid gentrification in the outskirts of Dakar.
The company’s directors Andreya Ouamba and Fatou Cissé have a particular work ethos that includes the provision of dance training and capacity building for the local youth. We found this fundamental if we wanted to have some impact in the local environment, so the training workshops and final performance were created involving local dancers.

One the other hand, the dialogue sustained with Congolese born Andreya Ouamba and Benjamin Abras along our one-month residency was one of the striking points of the project. On a daily basis, the artists discussed their practices and shared a myriad of common interests including language, art, food, music and humour that shed light on multiple cultural crossings. These pearls of every day constituted an incredible source of knowledge for all of us and will remain a significant legacy of the project: a true transatlantic connection.

5. What is your outlook on South-to-South connections in the context of international art?

The role played by artists from non-western countries in challenging the spaces of visibility and the lack of connection between cultures that have a great deal in common must not be underestimated. The South has the potential to provide an active levelling in a moment where international markets and institutions are both avid to exploit and positively include other cartographies in their game.
In the case of Dak’art, a Biennale conceived as a Pan African event twenty years ago, there is an apparent vacuum in terms of the Latin American presence, given that the concept of diaspora generally involves only the English and French speaking Caribbean and North America.
Additionally, with the intensification of interest in African art, transatlantic connections should become more common, as artists in other regions of the world are becoming curious of the phenomenon and willing to explore what is being done in Africa.
In sum, I would say that the project is not intending to decolonise the international art scene itself but rather the attitudes of the south, as its art circuits have for so long blindly obeyed the dictates of a monocultural mainstream.

6. With this idea of shifting parameters, how do you consider the role of biennials, festivals as well as travelling projects?

Biennials and festivals are useful meeting points that serve networks of artists and curators, institutions and independent professionals alike. They are the food of the art system, where we go to see new work and meet people, but unfortunately they have material and time limitations.
The ideal scenario would be to produce biennales committed to develop meaningful lasting links with the host cities, as they are often criticized for their disconnection from the day-to-day life of the population, who looks at the events with contempt, seeing them as tourist attractions.
To counter this, I can cite two southern events that attempt to make a difference. The Mercosul Biennale in Brazil is an example of sustained artists’ interventions and pedagogical projects happening between editions. In Africa, the Lubumbashi Biennale in Democratic Republic of Congo is also extending its remit from the model of the biannual exhibition to a longer programme to provide critical and professional tools to local artists and the cultural leaders of the future. These examples are seeds of hope for a shift in mentality.
To conclude I would say that amidst Afro-pesimism and post capitalist dystopia, ultimately the South tireless resilience is our most valuable tool.

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