by Beth Buggenhagen
With oil prices down to their lowest point since the 1990s consumers everywhere seem to be benefiting from lower gas prices. Except in Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer and largest economy. As consumers jostle for scarce gasoline they are not only hard pressed to afford it, but to meet many of life’s most basic necessities. How is it possible that in the country that produces a major share of the world’s oil, the cost of living vexes the majority of its population? Nigeria may be a petrostate, a major oil producer whose national budget depends on its output, but most refining operations happen outside of the world’s most populated country. So while refining operations benefit from low prices for their major input, oil, oil producing countries are hurt by lower prices for their major export. As Achille Mbembe has pointed out elsewhere, “as capital expands it does not need to absorb everything in its path…it needs to keep producing or generating an exterior.” [italics mine] How is it that oil wealth in any one country puts its citizens at the exterior of global capital? How do people grapple with the experience of exteriority?
One example can be found in the work of Dakar based sculptor, Henri Sagna. Sagna completed his studies in Fine Arts at Dakar’s Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 2005. Shortly after finishing his studies Sagna received the Premier Prix du sixième Salon national des artistes plasticiens sénégalais. Sagna works within the artistic movement of récupération that has come to be synonymous with Dakar based artists, in which artists take inspiration from discarded objects from the urban environment. In his recent body of work Sagna draws upon plywood and salvaged tires to produce three-dimensional sculptural works. The results are minimalist compositions of light and dark. The materials speak not only to perceived differences between Muslims and Christians but also to other regional confluences: the centrality of rubber to the colonization of Africa, the extractive economy of oil, the environmental devastation wrought by this industry, and the problem of waste. Sagna remarked upon his use of tires, “It is the form, it is also the material, which is black, which is derived from oil; which is a problem. But religion has also become a problem; it has brought violence, fury, spilling of blood. You get rubber from oil; you can also extract it from a tree; the oil is black, and the rubber, is black.”
Not only has Lagos witnessed an explosive growth in Pentecostal Christianity, it is also not far from one of the worlds largest petroleum reserves in the Niger Delta being exploited by Royal Dutch Shell. The impact of this extractive economy has been strikingly documented by the photographer, George Osodi, who visited the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University in 2013. Osodi’s visit was part of an initiative among faculty at Indiana University on New Media and Literary Initiatives.
How do Nigerians, and Africans more generally, exist at the center of the most intensive forms of capitalist exploitation and yet are simultaneously thrust upon its exteriors excluded from the benefits of the spread of global capital? Pressed to make ends meet on a daily basis, many turn to religious leaders for guidance. The work “Questionnements” resulted from a workshop that Sagna attended in 2010 at the Center for Contemporary Art Lagos in conjunction with the Triangle Arts Trust when he was began to notice a large number of churches as he made his way about the city.. Unlike Dakar, where churches and mosques sit in equal numbers, Sagna saw few mosques in Lagos. Curious about the nature of interfaith relations, and the turn of many Nigerians toward Pentecostal Christianity, Sagna said in our interview in Dakar in 2014 during Dak’Art, “I asked, how did that come to be? and so I cut tires into mosques and churches in the shape of a question mark.” Of this work Sagna remarked, “Churches and mosques may ask you for money, but when you ask them they may respond, ‘may God help us.”
Sagna has recently been selected to participate in Dak’Art 16. Dak’Art is one of the ten major biennales in the world. The Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary African Art is an international exhibition featuring contemporary art produced by artists based on the Continent and in the Diaspora. If the second world festival of black art, known as FESTAC ’77 and located in Lagos, married “cultural tradition and fast capitalism” (according to anthropologist Andrew Apter in his book, The Pan African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria), then does the rise of Dak’Art and other biennials of the global south portend an unhinging of art and its commodity form? How does such an unhinging allow Dak’Art and other venues like it, such as the Center for Contemporary Art in Legos, to emerge not as a global marketplace for African art but as a space in which the artists speak to historical experience through their work? Dak’Art is a relevant venue not only for displaying contemporary art produced on and off the continent by artists with a shared historical and political consciousness, it is also the authoritative space from which African artists speak about Africa.
The official program of Dak’Art 16 is accompanied by more than two hundred Off exhibitions in Dakar and Saint-Louis, Senegal, showing more than five hundred artists. In the 2014 iteration, Sagna’s Témoins de Nôtres Temps (2013) was installed in the salon of African sculpture at Musée Theodore Monod de l’IFAN where the work of seventeen artists was displayed under the theme of “Cultural Diversity” and curated by Massamba Mbaye. This work consists of four-sided wooden boxes etched with differing religious symbols on each side. Some are stacked and some are hanging from an invisible thread, swaying in the gentle sea breeze. Others are resting as if they had fallen into the sand covering the grounds of the museum. All are inhabiting the same space. Through this work, Sagna prompts his audience to ask: What is the value of religion, and what questions can we ask of it and of ourselves? And is another world possible?
Beth Buggenhagen is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Indiana University. She is currently working on a book on the histories of African self-imaging and contemporary reinventions of the portraiture tradition in West Africa. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Her review of Dak’Art 14 appears in the May issue of African Arts.