In the exhibition hall of the Théodore Monod museum in Dakar, where the main exhibition is held, stands a large bird cage with fake birds. Ndubuisi Nduwhite Ahanonu (1976) from Nigeria describes himself as a social artist, a 'cultural activist' who focuses on globalisation, environment and politics. "To me the point is how human beings influence the earth: in those places where we drill for oil, nothing grows anymore. The fish that we love to eat die out,” he explains as he puts together his birdcage the day before the opening. "At the same time, we want to protect nature and the environment, to make the earth beautiful. These two desires conflict with one another. I denounce that."
Moridja Kitenge Banza (DR Congo, 1980), winner of the biennial's grand prize has an exhibition next to Ahanonu in that same exhibition hall. He has created a new federation called l'Union des États, with its own flag, coat of arms and currency. Using this 'homemade' money he has bought hundreds of spoons that now hang on a wall. He continually changes the price of the spoons, a reference to the distorted trade relations in the world. Kitenge Banza sees this as a new form of slavery. "Spoons make me think of how slaves were stacked up in ships in the past. And spoons serve as a mirror,” he says. "Visitors see their own image in them. It is my way of saying, "Accept your history without any feelings of guilt. Otherwise, we will never move forward."
Not all works of art in the rather small exhibition hall are based on social engagement. Personal quests for identity are also in evidence. But slavery and migration continue to be important sources of inspiration. In that sense, the work of the Ethiopian Mulugeta Gebrekidan (1970) is surprising: a cloth with paint tubes over which barbed wire is stretched; the paint drips from the tubes like blood. "My art is about barriers and confines - in particular the confines that confront Africans, such as the fact that African artists are frequently unable to get a visa to go abroad. But it is also about artistic freedom, to be able to create what you want."
At the exhibition opening, Gebrekidan gave a performance: he had put on a military uniform and had strung police tape around his art work. Then he refused to let the invitees, including the Senegalese Minister of Culture, get close to his work. He consulted lists and shook his head. No, the Minister’s name was not on the list. How did he react? "He found it interesting. And ultimately, the Minister must be the one to cut the tape."
This article was made possible by the Mondriaan Foundation and ZAM Africa Magazine.