Sound, silence and the space between
Reflections on the works of Egyptian artists in the 2018 Dakar Biennale

With art biennales around the world, a certain economy of artistic production, representation and opportunity is mapped out, usually prioritizing global “centers” and capital city pit-stops for jet-setters. However, there is one biennale that has historically paved the way for a non-Western, African-centric position and direction of cultural intention. In Senegal, Dak’Art, the capital’s contemporary art biennale, has been a unique historical platform and a microcosm of progressive artistic discourse in the African continent since 1990.

This year’s edition, titled L’heure Rouge (The Red Hour), which took place from May 3 to June 2, was comprised of both an “In” program, made up of the biennale’s core exhibitions, and an “Off” program, a number of independent artistic events organized around it. Between both programs, the biennale spanned the entire city, from grand museums to local residents’ living rooms.

For Egyptian artists and art-historical discourse, the Dakar Biennale serves as an important point of engagement and reflection. And because any attempt at giving a comprehensive overview of this expansive and multiplicitous curatorial feat would be futile, I will instead mark out some points of intention and process that sew threads throughout the work of the Egyptian artists featured in this year’s “In” program, which include young emerging artists, as well as established figures, such as pioneering Egyptian sound artist and composer Halim al-Dabh (1921–2017).

Finding new life in tried sounds

Located at the IFAN Museum of African Arts in downtown Dakar, one of the main exhibitions in the “In” program was titled Canine Wisdom for the Barking Dog Done Gone Deaf, curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and co-curated by Egyptian musician Kamila Metwaly and Marie-Helene Pereira. This curatorial research project is simultaneously a quasi-retrospective of Dabh’s work and a collective show by a younger generation of African sound artists who were invited to “respond” to echoes of Dabh’s legacy within their own work. As stated in the exhibition text, the intention of the show is for “us young Africans to assume the responsibility of writing our own art histories, by (re)positioning or (re)introducing Halim al-Dabh’s oeuvre in and on the African continent and the world at large.”

Exhibition shot of the Canine Wisdom exhibition at IFAN - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Dabh was born in Cairo and his interests and experimentations with noise developed into a formal study from a young age. As he says in one of the archival texts included in the show, “In the late 1930s, I did work with noise to discourage crickets. […] I didn’t want them to eat the corn […] I would take pieces of scrap metal, hang them from a pole […] When the wind came they would vibrate and hit the pole and create noise.” By 1944, he had composed one of the earliest known works of electronic music, predating Pierre Schaeffer’s work by four years.

It could be said that Canine Wisdom was centered around Dabh’s work. However, the artistic and curatorial mechanics in this exhibition (and the biennale at large) question the position and direction of speech that the words “center” and “around” might potentially denote. Who is talking through what? Is the Dakar Biennale speaking through the generation of contemporary African artists, or are these artists speaking through the biennale?

At first, I was mildly skeptical about the exhibition’s framework, as if it were a curatorial imposition, and I questioned the extent to which it provides or takes away space from the voices of the participating artists themselves, when they are invited to respond so specifically to the curators’ research. However, my doubts were challenged after speaking with Yara Mekawei, an Egyptian sound artist based in Cairo, who was one of the 14 artists taking part in the exhibition. It was an honor to be invited on this responsive proposition, she says, as “Dabh is one of [her] biggest sources of inspiration.”

After discovering his work in 2004, Mekawei purchased Dabh’s albums, studied him further, and eventually ended up teaching his music while working at the Modern Sciences and Arts University in Cairo from 2015 to 2017. The significance of the exhibition, to her, did not lie only in the act of reintroducing someone so important to the field of music and sound art, but also the attempt to build off of his legacy as a process of developing her own work.

Mekawei brings up a story she read that claimed that, when Dabh met Johnny Cash in a studio somewhere in the United States, he criticized the country singer’s work, saying something along the lines of, “Sound is a tool to make music, music is not a tool to make sound.” I found this story to be an interesting metaphor for the exhibition in question. To what extent is art a tool to make history, or history a tool to make art? How do the dynamics of who is speaking or creating embody themselves in the biennale at large?

Mekawei’s artistic contribution to the exhibition, titled al-Mujahid, was not only a powerful installation on its own, but also a unique model of what it means to speak through and around, in the case of framing Dabh’s oeuvre. Her idea was to reenact the processes that Dabh underwent when he visited specific locations in Dakar to record noise as sources for sound compositions. Twenty years after Dabh, Mekawei went to these exact same locations, recording at the same time of day, to have her own compositions fold in the past and present of what can be heard on a particular site.

Upon visiting these places, Mekawei stumbled upon a public Sufi ceremony, which she recorded, giving the piece a new layer. It was a strange coincidence, as for the past three years she had been researching the tonality of religious sound, and in her attempt to serve as a marker for situating Dabh’s process, the process itself became a marker for her own trajectory of research and practice.

Another unplanned incident defined Mekawei’s work at the IFAN. For her installation, the sounds that she had recorded were projected from speakers attached to a large tree, sporing out like fungus, along with other objects and wooden shapes that mimicked the forms of traditional Senegalese instruments. Only two days before the exhibition, she was sitting on a chair next to the tree, observing the almost finalized work. She was called over by one of the curators, and after taking only five steps, the tree all of a sudden came crashing to the ground, landing on the chair that she had been sitting on only seconds before. Looking at the result, after the initial shock, Mekawei says it was clear to her how serendipitous that seemingly random act of nature was. The death of the tree had somehow brought new life to the work.

Yara Mekawei’s al-Mujahid - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Speaking spaces and lost transmissions

The Dakar Biennale’s main venue, the Palais de Justice, is an enormous old courtroom building that architecturally maintains the authority and power of its history. The exhibition hosted there, titled A New Humanity and curated by Simon Njami, includes the works of Egyptian artists Asmaa Barakat, Marianne Fahmy, Magdy Mostafa, Rana Ashraf and Ibrahim Ahmed (among about 65 other artists from across Africa and the African diaspora). Within these works, many of the previously mentioned questions of speaking through and being spoken through, are materialized in dynamic ways.

In Fahmy’s video installation, 31 Silent Encounters, these questions arise in the ways in which archival materials and lost voices are reincarnated in a contemporary moment. For this work, Fahmy uncovered love letters between communists in 1960s Alexandria, who were imprisoned due to their political affiliations. In the video, these words appear as subtitles for still shots of buildings from that time as they stand in the present, as if these architectural remnants are the ones speaking.

“The work speaks of a time in history that many feel nostalgic about, however there’s a counter-nostalgia here as the voice-over speaks about the attacks on art and theater and the decline of intellectual writing that took place at that time,” Fahmy tells me. “This perhaps prompts consideration of a new historicism and new ways of researching alternative narratives.”

Still from Marianne Fahmy’s 31 Silent Encounters - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

In Barakat’s displayed work, Entropy Hypothesis No. 2, the act of speaking with the voices of others becomes much more physically embodied. In the video, we see a large close-up of the artist’s mouth speaking to the camera, with each act of pronunciation amplified in the movement of her lips. In it, she speaks testimonies of guilt, anxiety and psychological precarity, words that are not hers, but of people that are close to her. By embodying the feelings of those around her, she becomes a vessel for others’ voices, through an interesting repositioning of intimacy and distance to personal struggles.

Asmaa Barakat’s Entropy Hypothesis No. 2 - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Ahmed’s Only Dreamers Leave is a walkway of 30 large embroidered sails, with masts planted in the ground like flags (28 for all European Union countries, one for the US, and one for Canada). It also gives the impression of a forest that simultaneously invites and imposes on the audience’s passage. Each of the individual structures is embroidered with gold patterns referencing baroque and arabesque iron gates, which Ahmed sees as “symbols of wealth and status in Egypt that simultaneously function as exclusionary barriers for a large number of people.” For the artist, this ambitious work is deeply personal and speaks to the violence of bygone hope, particularly regarding the uprooting move his family made in pursuit of the “American Dream,” which leads him to question, “Was it actually worth it?” The sails themselves, as they stand in the exhibition space, prompt another question: What does it mean to be constantly flapping, but never moving?

Although each of the intricately designed cloth structures is deserving of its own presence, the real magnitude is in the spatial experience that this piece creates. In a way, it is similar to Dabh’s noise experiments to stave off crickets; something that was meant to hijack the force of the wind as a means of activating the conduit to trigger some kind of response. With Ahmed’s intention of “reflecting on the privileges and struggles of migration,” a point he mentions to me in a conversation we have after I’ve viewed the work, there is something in Only Dreamers Leave and the way that it plays with the movement of wind and bodies that actually allows the space to speak through the piece. Although Ahmed hadn’t intended to speak for or about the space, the work is especially pertinent in the context of Dakar, where the same wind had been sailed centuries ago, forcibly transporting people as slaves to America.

Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Through a similar mode of activating the space to speak through the objects in place, Mostafa’s Transmission Loss is a room full of different motorized and electric conduits for noise that resonate in unison. The title refers to “the difference between the sound energy at the source of transmission and that at the transmission receiver, within the sonic environment; and is mostly used in broadcasting and information/communication technology,” as stated in the text accompanying the work in the exhibition.  

Seeing Mostafa’s work after Dabh’s retrospective, I couldn’t help but relate the sound of vibrating machines on different material textures to the latter’s way of working and thinking through the potential of resonation. One of the many lessons to be learned from Dabh’s work, perhaps, is that there is more depth and meaning in the attempt to uncover the mechanics of sound, beyond the pursuit of impressive technological complication. Is there any essence that reveals itself within the buzzing?

In Mostafa’s work, one could see/hear the mechanics of the conduit: the friction, the space and what is moving; but in all of these mechanics, one could also sense an empty space where content may have lied, which might be the shortcoming that I sensed in the transmission of this work.

Magdi Mostafa’s Transmission Loss - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Another work that somehow speaks to loss, or rather getting lost, is Ashraf’s The Air and the Worlds II. This work is comprised of a selection of illustrations, texts and sketches installed in a straight line spanning two walls and leading up to a third wall with a beautifully hand-drawn map of lines and arrows that point to “here,” “nowhere,” “there,” “somewhere,” etc. Here, too, I could see echoes of Dabh’s work in the compositions of scoring and mapping. Ashraf’s work, however, is based less on making connections and more on a type of movement that intentionally doesn’t lead anywhere.

There is something that comes across as childish in her scribbles and diary notes, which she claims present the “personal yet universally shared childishness of being lost and tired.” In the context of the biennale, there is some sort of power to this vulnerable de-professionalizing of the artist’s mind that actually serves as an important critical engagement into the show. Not only does the work itself embody the very processes and anxieties of an artist exhibiting their work, but it also might provide a perspective through which this very exhibition could be seen, regarding the institutionalized confidence of such a “global” event.

Rana Ashraf’s The Air and the Worlds II - Courtesy: Ash Moniz

Barking to and through

On the one hand, this show was difficult to maneuver as it seemed to have been curated without a particular theme in mind. On the other hand, however, there is something noteworthy in the presentation of an overwhelming range of conceptual directions, “quality” levels, backgrounds and aesthetic pursuits. In the show’s attempt to provide a platform to such a wide variety of artists, it also offers a range of diverse definitions for what it means to be one. This in itself appears to be a politically conscious endeavor that reflects the “new humanity” Njami refers to in his curatorial statement, when he says that it is through the “experimentation, duality and quest for meaning by African artists that the new humanity evoked by Frantz Fanon intends to bear witness.”

Njami claims that his choice for the color red in the biennale’s title “The Red Hour” was partly in reference to Martinician poet Aime Cesaire’s And the Dogs were Silent (1956), which is well-positioned in relation to Bejeng Ndikung’s […] The Barking Dog Done Gone Deaf. In Cesaire’s text, the dog evokes both slave masters (who used dogs against rebellious slaves) and the rebels themselves (who in Cesaire’s story were adorned with a dog head, like the Egyptian god Anubis). In Dabh’s case, the dynamic is between a man and his dog, as deciphered from an old recording in Dabh’s voice, used by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh in his work displayed as part of the exhibition. Dabh tells the story of a dog who grows “fed up” with his owner’s commands: “He turned his ears and then went deaf, and that’s how the dog done gone deaf.”

The various, non-anthropocentric curatorial and artistic endeavors pursued in Dak’Art 2018 insightfully explore what it means to speak about, speak through and be spoken through, questioning how these overlapping possibilities manifest between the different agents of cultural history. The directionality of how, where and by whom the speaking occurs reveals a decolonial geography of discourse that situates itself not only Dakar, but in the range of voices reverberating throughout the African continent, its diaspora and beyond.


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