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In Senegal, Artists Seize the Spotlight

Marie-Madeleine Diouf recalls how it all started: her love affair with indigo. Growing up in Parcelles Assainies, a working-class neighborhood in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, she would gravitate to traditional dance in her after-school programs. That meant raiding her mother’s closet for vintage wraps—and thus indigo fabrics, prized in her family’s Serer culture. “I was 7, 8 years old,” Diouf says, “and ever since then, I’ve seen life in blue.”

For 15 years, Diouf worked as a medical administrator. On the side, with a cheap sewing machine, she made clothes that she took on days off to Banjul, the capital of neighboring Gambia, to sell door-to-door. Then, in 2015, she made the jump. Now, as the owner of NuNu Design by DK, she’s one of the bright stars in Dakar’s art and fashion scene, where craft and innovation, cultural heritage, and contemporary design combine to thrilling effect.

Across West Africa, textile and ornament traditions and techniques keep fashion dynamic in daily life—just ask any street photographer. But some cities boast an especially active interplay of lineage and cutting-edge creation. Dakar is a place of constant exchange, with direct flights connecting it to Paris and New York for visitors and the entrepreneurial Senegalese diaspora. It’s also a knowledge hub with solid universities and Africa’s most respected art biennial.

All this unfolds on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, yielding beautiful vistas (and not-so-gorgeous traffic bottlenecks), with new neighborhoods sprouting inland as the city expands. The peninsula hooks to create a harbor around which Dakar first grew during the French colonial era, then after independence, in 1960. Here you’ll find banks, ministries, and boutiques like Diouf’s showroom, as well as the Museum of Black Civilizations and the ferry to historic Gorée Island.

On a mild afternoon in March, Diouf is on the grounds of the Théodore Monod Museum of African Art, next to the Parliament. She has just run an indigo dyeing workshop for a half dozen Dakaroise women, turning cloth squares into unique pieces. Nearby stand furnishings by the designer Bibi Seck, and a grove of baobab tree sculptures and pouf seats in recycled denim by Selly Raby Kane, with details such as suspended fish and stars.

In all, some two dozen creators are showing here and in an airy gallery upstairs. They gathered at the behest of La Galerie du 19M—the exhibition arm of Le 19M, the new complex that Chanel has opened in Paris as its home for the 11 craft maisons that it owns. The French luxury brand has cast its eye on Senegal. It held its Métiers d’Art show in December at the former Palace of Justice, where the Dakar Biennale takes place, then followed up with this local showcase, Le 19M’s first international venture. The exhibition heads now to Paris, where it will be on display at La Galerie du 19M from May 17 to July 30.

When we meet, Diouf is wearing her contemporary creations, but her section of the show is a shrine to indigo and memory. Here are pieces, precious and for daily use, bequeathed by her grandmother. Here is indigo itself—dried leaves in a calabash, and balls of paste—along with the marsh grass that serves as natural pigment fixer thanks to its salinity, and a wood mortar and tall pestle. And then there are the old family photographs. Diouf has collected hundreds of these black and white studio portraits in visits to coastal Joal-Fadiouth, her ancestral hometown.

For decades in West Africa, she explains, such portraits served as life markers and updates, sent back to the village by those who sought work in the capital. “To be photographed was a whole art,” Diouf says, explaining the attention to attire in the images. “And that’s where you find a lot of indigo—this beautiful, desirable blue that almost resembles us.” She urges preservation of this visual heritage together with traditional needlework and knowledge of vegetal pigments. “My creations express the soul of this research,” she says. “It’s a duty of memory.”

Cuttings from Diouf’s atelier appear elsewhere in the show. Using thousands of short vertical strips of indigo cloth offset by lustrous bazin, a prized brocade style, and connected by painstaking stitchwork, the artist Manel Ndoye has composed a work that shimmers. Up close, it is sheer color and abstraction; but from a distance, we discern a group tableau based on Ndawrabine, a dance of the Lebou, the fishing community considered to be Dakar’s original residents. Ndoye has uncles and cousins who still fish the traditional way, on pirogues for 12-hour stints on the water. The motions of the women’s dance derive from the movement of pulling in nets. “Without gathering the nets, we wouldn’t have the dance,” he says.

Ndoye, a formally trained painter, describes his evolution from acrylic on canvas to textiles in analytical terms. “My question was: Is a portrait carried by its lines?” he says. Each fabric strip works like a brushstroke, while the indigo treatment provides chromatic depth and nuance. But his concern is not just formal: It encompasses the Lebou connection to marine life—and sadly, now, to the scourge of pollution. He hopes his works, like the songs that accompany the Ndawrabine, will sensitize people to care for the ocean.

Textile is also a powerful new draw for Arébénor Bassène, who first became known for abstract paintings mounted with paper inscribed with cryptic signs; they earned him a prize in the 2016 edition of the Dakar Biennale. Lately, Bassène has turned to batik: He has learned the wax and dye process and is applying it directly to his canvases before he stretches them and completes the composition using acrylic paint, graphite, and gum arabic. “I use materials I have in the studio environment, expressed however I feel,” he says. “The process can be quite loose.”

Bassène, who studied African literature and civilizations, is fascinated by ancient cultures, much in the spirit of Cheikh Anta Diop, the great scholar of precolonial societies for whom Dakar’s university is named. Bassène’s colors tend toward browns, ochres, and yellows, like those of the Tassili massifs in the Sahara; inspiration for his lines ranges from cave paintings to the energetic dance of the Diola, in the south of Senegal. Batik brings a new physical dimension to both his process and the works. “Even if the technique is artisanal, so long as there is a concept to it, it’s contemporary art,” he says.

The exhibition spans materials and practices—from fine art seen in Dakar’s galleries to fashion from its boutiques. It is also cross-generational, with works by elders like the artist and textile scholar Alioune Badiane and the late Souleymane Keita, who died in 2014 and created semisculptural works in leather embedded with objects. There are pieces from the host museum too: Its curator, El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, served on the local committee that worked with Le 19M to curate the exhibition and select its participants.

The show mobilizes important knowledge that exists in rural areas. In the Sine Saloum region, the weaver and designer Fatim Soumaré—who returned to Senegal after pursuing a finance career in France—works with a collective of 200 women who hand-spin local rain-fed cotton according to an age-old technique. In Ngaye Méckhé, northeast of Dakar, women maintain a four-century-old embroidery tradition; they collaborated on a new work with the French artist Julian Farade. That connection was facilitated by designer Khadija Ba Diallo, for whom these artisans stitch some of the striking contemporary pieces she sells at her popular store, Le Sandaga. She ran a pop-up shop for two months at the exhibition.

The charismatic Ba Diallo is known for bold, playful pieces: camouflage boubous, caftans with burger and sports logo patches, and T-shirts and accessories full of references to Senegalese daily life, such as Pinton, a ubiquitous sardine spread. “We use it like Nutella,” she says. She also draws on the well of spiritual and philosophical sayings that adorn the rear of the “car rapides,” Dakar’s chunky mass-transit vans.

A compulsive scrapbooker as a child in Dakar, Ba Diallo studied law and luxury marketing in France, then made her way home and into design. She’s fascinated by the juxtapositions in her off-kilter creations that draw local and foreign customers. Her tailors, embroiderers, and jewelers have gotten used to her style. “They’d tell me, ‘This isn’t done. It’s weird,’ ” says Ba Diallo. “But at the end, they’d say, ‘Wow, it’s nice!’ ”

Ba Diallo doesn’t need validation from Chanel or any other brand. But the scene, she says, stands to benefit from the project, with its emphasis on hand-crafted quality and knowledge transmission, and the potential it opens up for collective creative exchange. She offers a proverb: “ ‘Better for two people to share a cow than for each to have a chicken.’ That means everything to me. I like sharing, and for Africa to move forward and for everyone to move forward.”

That communal ethos is familiar at Kër Thiossane, an art center in Sicap-Liberté, a neighborhood that came up in the 1960s. The center’s name means “house of traditional culture,” but it is also home to a fab lab with 3D printers and sophisticated machinery. “Our approach is collaborative and open-source, blending high and low tech,” says Marion Louisgrand Sylla, who founded Kër Thiossane in 2002 with her husband, Momar François Sylla. “And whatever we do, we bring it back to the neighborhood.”

For the exhibition, Kër Thiossane collaborated with Atelier Montex, Chanel’s embroidery maison, producing a curtainlike work from 360 laser-cut pieces of recycled denim, backed by discarded plastic and beaded by women from a local community center. Nonstop exchange on a WhatsApp group ensured that the process—design, sourcing, making—met the requirements of Montex and its artistic director, Aska Yamashita.

The designer and Kër Thiossane partner Jah Gal Doulsy, who came up with the pattern and the material concept for the piece, once belonged to Les Petites Pierres, an influential collective; so did the designer and filmmaker Selly Raby Kane, who joined in 2008. “It’s when I found my creative family that I started to see my city differently,” says Kane. Her work responds to Dakar in many registers. A virtual reality project meanders through a city filled with rituals; a short film dwells on small shops and stalls. “The alchemy of a city resides there, in these places of conviviality and care,” she says. Her breakout came in 2016, when Beyoncé was seen in one of Kane’s blue kimonos adorned with plants, seahorses, parrots, and a bird motif popular on West African wax prints. These days, her pieces have some bulk, with rigid parts, corset forms, and shoulder padding. “They’re a little armorlike,” she says, “to face the urban. And maybe also to anticipate the future.”

Outside Kane’s showroom stand two polka-dotted baobab tree sculptures made from papier-mâché over metal armatures, counterparts to her denim grove at the museum. The shop is in Keur Gorgui, an area that feels central now but was forest until 12 years ago. That may be why trees recur in her installations, she says. “And there’s the symbolism—knowledge, mystery—and how the baobab has healthy uses, from its roots to its leaves.”

Kane was another member of the committee of advisers who selected participants in the exhibition. Some creatives she knows weren’t interested, she admits frankly; they were instinctively wary of the intentions of a powerful foreign brand. “I get it,” she says, but she sees things differently. “It’s a spotlight moment that benefits Dakar, bringing people together. It helps us assess where we are as an ecosystem.” Her eyes stay on the mission: “To explore and propose what else there can be, what worlds, what ways of living. Toward an augmented life.”

Hair by Maty Ndiaye at African Beauty Agency; makeup by Diarra Cissé at African Beauty Agency.

Source: W Magazine

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