- Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar by Joanna Grabski
Joanna Grabski's Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar maps, in six vivid chapters, Dakar's contemporary (1990s to the present) art-making and art-viewing practices spatially, discursively, and historically. As such, it is a book that integrates art history with museum studies scholarship, analyzing Dakar's artists and their artworks through an investigation of the urban and institutional infrastructure in which they operate. Nourished by field research and relationships sustained over nearly two decades, Grabski sets in motion a number of engaging anecdotes to offer a framework for evaluating and interpreting contemporary African art that is grounded in local modes of sociability, political activism, and creative expression.
Grabski positions Dakar as an art world city, which, drawing on sociological and urbanist approaches to fields of cultural production, she defines as "a multiscalar, urban site for artistic production, mediation, and transaction" (3). The paradigm of art world city allows Grabski to foreground a local context of production while nimbly maneuvering between urban, national, continental, and even global framings of Dakar's artists. This is significant in that Dakar-based artists have been primarily framed through nationalist and Pan-Africanist projects, stemming from Léopold Sédar Senghor's early investment in the arts as national culture. Post-Senghor, in a period of reduced state support, such artists have been read through a global art market lens that imposes a set of expectations and aesthetic concerns that are not necessarily the ones most pertinent to African or Senegalese creative expression. Art World City, on the contrary, defiantly places Dakar and its urban environment as the structuring force behind its own art-making and viewing practices. Grabski elucidates the Dakar-specific narratives, regimes of visuality, and systems of value that shape the production, circulation, and consumption of art within the city. At the same time, she demonstrates how the local scene inflects art production at the scale of the nation (through the arts education programs located in Dakar, for example), the African continent (via the Dak'Art Contemporary African [End Page E42] Art Biennale), and even the global art market (by making urban life central to pictorial representations of Senegal).
The book's six chapters build on each other, though the thematic overlap in the first two sets of chapter results, occasionally, in the belaboring of certain arguments. Chapters One and Two focus on how art is exhibited in Dakar, providing new insight into how its exhibition culture departs from the norms of the global North. For example, it is artists rather than institutions in Dakar who organize and fund exhibitions. In addition, Dakar's exhibitions tend to lack a curatorial or thematic proposition, focusing instead on the featured artist's public persona. Moreover, the exhibitions do not take place in spaces consecrated exclusively to art conservation, education, or sale, such as museums and galleries. Instead, they take place all over Dakar and include a host of corollary activities that contribute to the city's animation artistique; exhibitions, and their opening nights function first and foremost as popular, rather than professional, events.
The importance of local sociality in Dakar's artistic production does not mean that the economic, political, and cultural impact of art is overlooked. Indeed, Grabski meticulously uncovers a local and robust knowledge-producing framework populated by journalists on the culture beat, art critics, and the artists themselves. These actors use exhibitions to set narratives about the art produced in Dakar for both local and international publics. Grabski then offers an original analysis of the city's most globally-visible exhibition, the Dak'Art Contemporary African Art Biennale. The predominant narratives about Dak'Art tend to situate the biennale as falling short of international standards, opting to focus mainly on Africanité and identity politics. Eschewing this framework, Grabski instead positions Dak'Art as...