The Contested Origins of Dakar’s African Renaissance Monument –

On the shoreline of the Ouakam neighborhood of Dakar, two volcanic hills called les Mamelles (the breasts) rise above the flat expanse of the city. One mamelle features an iconic lighthouse built in 1864; the other serves as the platform for the African Renaissance Monument(ARM), constructed in 2009 and dedicated in 2010. Billed as the highest (not to be confused with the tallest) sculpture in the world, the
164 feet of steel frame and bronze bodies atop the 300-foot-high hill creates a towering ensemble that is visible from most parts of the city.

The work depicts three figures—a man, woman, and child—emerging triumphantly from the interior of a craggy metal volcano that is itself an extension of the mamelle. The male figure, at center, looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. He is clothed only in a kufi-style hat with a wrap around his waist, revealing his swollen chest and superhuman musculature. With one arm, he embraces the female figure, who stands on the balls of her feet, throwing her right arm behind her. Her hair blows in the breeze, and her sheer windswept wrap leaves much of her body exposed. Seated on the man’s left arm is a child whose gesture guides the viewer’s gaze toward the water.

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At the monument’s dedication ceremony, Senegal’s then president, Abdoulaye Wade, who held the office from 2000 to 2012, called it a memorial for the past, a celebration of the present, and a beacon for the future, symbolizing the “triumph of African liberation from five centuries of ignorance, intolerance, and racism” as Africa “emerges from the bowels of the earth to leave darkness behind and move toward the light.” According to Wade, who commissioned, and ostensibly designed, the monument, the sculpture’s orientation overlooking the Atlantic is meant to connect Black populations in continental Africa to those in the Diaspora, specifically in the Americas.

While the dedication of the ARM was scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence, the event also included symposia, performances, and speeches centered around the United States of Africa, a hypothetical federation of African nations that Wade has championed. He wanted the ARM to rival landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, but as an emblem of Pan-African rather than national pride.

Indeed, the monument itself is rooted in the “African Renaissance” political philosophy, a Pan-African concept initially developed in a series of essays by Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop, written between 1946 and 1960 while he was studying in Paris, and revived in the mid-1990s by South African president Thabo Mbeki. At the core of this loosely defined philosophy is the “rebirth” of culture and development. Many proponents emphasize the need to find Afro-centric solutions to issues of poverty, education, and self-governance rather than relying on external support. The African Union, a coalition of 55 member states on the continent established in 2001, in which both Wade and Mbeki were actively involved, employs the African Renaissance as its guiding philosophy.

The African Renaissance Monument.

Dereje Belachew via Getty Images

In a 2010 essay published in the journal Politique Africaine, cultural historians Ferdinand de Jong and Vincent Foucher astutely observed that the ARM is a strategy for Wade’s Senegal to take the role of porte-parole speaking on behalf of the African Renaissance movement and, by extension, Africa in general. At the monument’s dedication ceremony, Wade led a group of dignitaries, including 19 African heads of state, Reverend Jesse Jackson, North Korea’s then President of the Presidium Kim Yong Nam, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, rapper Akon, and a coalition from the NAACP, in singing the “African Renaissance Anthem”—which Wade also wrote.

While the ARM renewed interest in Pan-Africanism as a means of championing unity and modernism as
tools for progress, many leading African cultural theorists expressed caution. In a 2012 article on the monument in frieze, art critic Sean O’Toole quotes curator Simon Njami lamenting that “we are looking backwards again” by leaning on the outdated ideology of the African Renaissance. “We are sick of all those old people thinking old things in old terms,” Njami said. As political scientist Patricia Agupusi argues in her 2021 article “The African Union and the Path to an African Renaissance,” the philosophy comprises platitudes about unity from men who came of age in the independence era, and whose political programs are little more than “a repackaged neoliberal post-Washington idea infused with ownership,” despite its ostensible emphasis on the “relationship between the state, the private sector, and civil society in Africa.”

The controversy surrounding the ARM also extends beyond debates over political ideology: it has become a lightning rod due to concerns over its muddled authorship, unconventional financing, and confusing stylistic choices. Wade claims to have designed the monument decades ago.Upon assuming the presidency, he worked with a number of artists to draw up preliminary sketches. The commission for casting the colossal statue in bronze went to the Mansudae Art Studio of North Korea, with Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa appointed to supervise the project.

But as plans for the monument and its installation were released, questions and critiques from local stakeholders quickly emerged: Why was the figures’ physiognomy so squat and caricatured? Why, in a predominantly Muslim society, were they depicted mostly nude? Why was such a landmark public project outsourced to the Mansudae Art Studio, which has little involvement with African artists? And, given the larger societal ills and immediate needs of the Senegalese people—among them the lack of electricity in the Ouakam neighborhood and the soaring cost of food across the nation—who approved a public sculpture with a $27 million price tag?

While these concerns are not unfounded, popular media outlets—staffed primarily by American, European, and Senegalese reporters—have oversimplified the issues and sensationalized the monument: Wade did not pull the funds directly from the treasury, but instead gave 67 acres of land to Mansudae, which the studio then sold to recoup payment. Additionally, the ARM was built just as Senegal was named a beneficiary of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government-funded United States foreign aid agency that combats poverty through farming, construction, and health initiatives, all issues that were addressed at the symposia during the monument’s dedication weekend. The five-year award totaled $540 million, significantly exceeding the sculpture’s cost.

Those who sensationalize the ARM overlook two crucial unresolved questions: Who is the real artist behind the monument? And what does its contested authorship tell us about the idea of an “African Renaissance” in the 21st century?

Senegal has an outsize cultural footprint relative to other African nations. Since 1960, when the nation won independence from France, Dakar has served as both a hub and a launching pad for African artists involved in a variety of cultural activities, from the First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966) to “Art Contemporain du Sénégal,” which traveled to 24 venues in a dozen countries between 1974 and 1984, to Dak’Art, founded in 1989, the longest-running and most significant biennial exhibition on the African continent. With the President’s title and constitutional duty including “Protector of the Arts,” every leader has left an impact on Dakar’s cultural landscape, though few projects have been as hyper visible as Wade’s ARM.

The monument’s authorship became a key point of debate when Wade claimed a portion of the revenue it generated in perpetuity, calling the design his intellectual property and the product of his own artistry—a bold “Stalinian gesture in a neoliberal epoch,” according to de Jong and Foucher. While it may be tempting to treat the ARM project as the megalomania of an incompetent or wasteful leader, a more compelling line of inquiry is how the contested authorship unmasks an interconnected web of competing interests and influences.

Wade describes his conception of the monument in his 1989 book Un destin pour l’Afrique. He recounts the mental process of deciding on a trio of figures representing Europe, the United States, and Africa. The idea, he writes, had been germinating in his head since he was a minister of state in the 1980s. In a subsequent edition, published in 2005, he adds that in 1996 he approached an artist—later identified as the celebrated Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow—to help him design a maquette. In the end, Wade gave the commission for the monument to the Mansudae Art Studio because of their competitive rates, telling the Wall Street Journal, “I had no money… only the North Koreans could build my statue.” Though Atepa, the project supervisor, would maintain that the monument is solely Wade’s design, a number of local and foreign actors all helped shape its final form.

In a report on the monument published in the French newspaper Libération in 2009, journalist Sabine Cessou discovered that Ousmane Sow, who died in 2016, had a different account of his involvement in the project, claiming that Wade approached him about creating a monument and that the design concept resulted from informal conversations between them. Sow said he came up with the idea of a man, woman, and child, alluding to the return of slaves to Africa. He also allegedly suggested two statues, one pointing from Dakar toward the Americas and another in the United States returning the gesture to symbolize the presence of Senegalese in the Diaspora.

Due to tension with Wade, Sow abandoned the project, and although his initial maquette has never been made public, ARM clearly echoes Sow’s many hypermasculine sculptural figures—warriors, wrestlers, and horsemen in action poses. For instance, the heroic proportions of the monument figures repeat those in the broad chest and defined torso of Sow’s larger-than-life Scène de scalp (1999), made during the same period as the maquette..

Ousmane Sow’s sculptures on view along the Pont d’Arts, Paris, 1999.

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Even though a ceremonial “groundbreaking” for the monument took place in 2002, there is no proof of design until 2008, when Wade secured a patent in several countries for simple sketches supposedly drawn by his own hand. It later came to light these were based on a 2003 design by Romanian-French artist Virgil Magherusan, known as Virgil. Throughout his prolific, though poorly documented career, Virgil has focused on monumental sculptural forms promoting nationalism. He made heraldic monuments for Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist government in his native Romania, where he worked before settling in France in 1997. He was named a Peintre Officiel de l’Armée Française in 2007 for monumental sculptures of impassioned human figures and horses that honor the French armed forces.

Wade commissioned Virgil in 2001 to create a maquette of the ARM depicting a couple and their child, and the artist traveled to Dakar for a site visit. However, after submitting the 20-inch-high study and an invoice in 2003, Virgil supposedly received no further communication, nor remuneration, from Senegal. It was not until 2010 that he saw the almost-completed statue in the news and realized that the project had gone forward without him.

In a 2011 interview with Le Temps, Virgil critiqued the final form of the monument, railing against its disfigured proportions improperly scaled from his original maquette, and the “orientalization” of the figures. “For me, African man is a tiger and the woman is a gazelle. I respected the anthropological forms in my sculpture,” Virgil said. “But the Koreans drew up these shortened legs, the proportion of a primate and these slanting eyes. Today I’ve put this whole story out of my mind. But it remains a sore spot.” Despite the offensive comparison between African bodies and safari animals and racist characterization of Asian physiognomy, Virgil’s comment confirms that the work continued to change as authorship passed from hand to hand.

The Overseas Projects division of the Mansudae Art Studio, the most important official art studio in North Korea, ultimately executed the monument. The studio was founded in 1959 for the glorification of the North Korean government and the ruling family. Four thousand workers, a quarter of whom are fine arts graduates from Pyongyang University and the country’s top art academies, create public monuments in a traditional or Socialist Realist style. The studio generally caters to socialist countries, and there are records of gifts to African nations dating back to the 1980s, such as Ethiopia’s Tiglachin (or Derg) Monument, a towering construction dedicated to Communist fighters from Cuba and Ethiopia, decked out with a hammer and sickle crest and a red star. Mansudae has since built monuments, buildings, and bridges in 18 African countries.

At least one report indicates Mansudae had a significant role in the design process, and not merely in fabricating a preexisting model. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Wade mentions that he had demanded changes to Mansudae’s initial design, saying that “it had to have African heads, not Asian!”—echoing a complaint about a previous Mansudae project in Mali. There are likewise clear similarities between the ARM and other Mansudae works in Africa, such as Heroes Acre (1981) in Harare, Zimbabwe, in the handling of form and surface treatment.

As for Atepa’s role in the affair, the eminent architect told the publication Arte that he merely enacted Wade’s vision and had no direct influence on the sculpture’s visual scheme, despite the title project supervisory designer. Ultimately, the interview serves as a defense of the monument’s cost, echoing Wade’s declaration of a need to invest in future generations, suggesting that Atepa was merely tacked on as a notable Senegalese personality in hopes of tempering political objections about outsourcing to foreign agents. At one point during construction, Atepa advocated covering the female figure’s legs in response to backlash from the Muslim community. No such modification having been made, Atepa was evidently impotent in the area of design.

The Third Millennium Gate in Dakar, designed by Pierre Goudiaby Atepa.

SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

It is clear that Wade’s assertion of singular authorship of the ARM is troublesome: the finished work seems to reflect a mix of Wade’s concept, Sow’s influence on the forms, Virgil’s nationalist verve, and Mansudae’s monumental aesthetic. More problematic is Wade’s claim to 35 percent of the revenue from the monument. Although his entire share supposedly goes to a foundation devoted to alleviating housing insecurity, red flags naturally appear when a president exchanges public land for a national project that results in personal gain. The monument—which Wade “authored” like a medieval sculptor, delegating most of the labor to workshop assistants—generated discourse on the status of contemporary African art within every social stratum of Senegal, from scandalized (and scandalizing) reporters to government employees to art world denizens to the taxi drivers who zip past the monument daily. Who makes African art, and for whom?

Regardless of his project’s public reception, Wade did succeed in following the precedents of earlier Senegalese leaders: he impacted the continental art scene, acted as a patron for the arts, and used the occasion as a springboard for larger, intra-African aspirations, like the United States of Africa. Instead of a festival or biennial, Wade pushed for a monument. And instead of dedicating a civic project like a new bridge or skyscraper in honor of his guiding philosophy—his vision of an “African Renaissance” for the entire continent—he chose a superhuman sculpture to champion this ideology.

Abdoulaye Wade

Though there has been no discernable sign of a “rebirth” of Pan-African politics since Wade exited the presidency in 2012, the ARM has served as the focal point for salient conversation. Like the monument’s contested authorship, the motivations for this “Renaissance” are tangled. Is the idea a throwback to an old-guard philosophy that the sculpture’s outmoded Socialist Realist style visually echoes? Was the project impelled by the external market—Western, Diasporic, or continental—seeking out new sites for African tourism? Does it reflect shifting political relationships between Africa and East Asia that are not mediated by Euro-American supervision?

Despite the outraged headlines the statue inspired, the Senegalese public was not necessarily against the creation of such a monument. Though there were protests throughout construction, at least some members of the community supported the concept, believing that Africans would benefit from seeing themselves represented en grande and that the monument would eventually become a national symbol. In the twelve years since its completion, there has been a general acceptance of it, and talk of dismantling it has dissipated.

In fact, for many locals, the ARM has become a landmark, even a point of pride. As is typical with public monuments—including the now beloved State of Liberty and Eiffel Tower—the original disdain for the ARM has morphed into fascination and self-identification. Arguably, the statue serves as an embodiment of our time more than a personification of the African Renaissance philosophy; it’s a project motivated by individual ego, with an appropriated design and a cast of collaborators pulled from every corner of the globe. The greatest irony is that a monument dedicated to the African Renaissance, with its ideals of intra-African relationships and economic development, was outsourced to a foreign firm, turning Africa’s regard from West to East.  

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