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Ndary Lô, Délit de surcharge, 2004. Installed in the grounds of the French Cultural Centre, Dakar, Senegal. Photo: © Susan Kart

Destruction and Récupération at Dak’Art

Dana Liljegren

The récupération movement, established in Dakar, Senegal in the 1990s is characterised as a process of recovery, reclamation and recycling involving man-made objects and natural materials. Art historian Dana Liljegren discusses the work of three artists who use discarded objects to think through the subject of destruction and position it as a transformative act.


Dakar, Senegal is a peninsular metropolis that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, making it the westernmost city on the African continent. The island of Gorée, only a short ferry ride from the city’s downtown ‘Plateau’ area, has become a destination point for tourists looking to revisit its grim history as a thoroughfare of the transatlantic slave trade. Oceanic passage, in all its forms, is thus a defining feature of Dakar’s identity, from the sustenance of the local fishing economy to the literal and symbolic ways in which the waves and coastal winds shape the urban terrain.

In September of 2002, a Senegalese passenger ferry called the Joola was tragically wrecked off the coast of the Gambia while traveling from the southern region of Casamance. The vessel, whose official capacity was 536 passengers, was carrying more than 1,900 people, of whom only 64 survived. This devastating event has been described as Africa’s greatest shipwreck and compared to the historic sinking of the Titanic in 1912.1 In the tumultuous and emotional aftermath of the Joola wreck, then-President Abdoulaye Wade described the cause of the accident as ‘an accumulation of errors,’ a statement that likely exacerbated the anti-government sentiments of those who were grieving, seeking answers, and demanding justice.2

The 2004 installment of Dak’Art, Dakar’s first contemporary art biennial since the Joola catastrophe, included numerous artistic responses to the capsized ferry and its lost passengers. The late artist Ndary Lô (1961–2017) used his signature method of artistic récupération—crafting sculpture and assemblage installations out of repurposed materials from the local environment—to create Délit de surcharge (2004). The prevalence of artistic récupération, as both a strategy and conceptualization, has characterized the work of many contemporary Senegalese artists since the 1990s. Its processes of recovery, reclamation, and recycling have direct ties to Dakar’s Set-Setal movement of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, during which both professional and amateur artists took to the streets to rescue the city and its public spaces from the destructive forces of a waste management crisis.3 It seems important to note that, within this context of Dakarois artmaking, that which a Western perspective might characterize as ‘destruction’ may be more often understood as ‘transformation.’

Lô’s Délit de surcharge went on display in the courtyard of the French Cultural Center (now called the Institut Français du Sénégal) and featured a Senegalese pirogue—emblematic of the local fishing economy—overburdened with a cluttered array of found objects. A bevy of dolls’ heads on pikes of wood or metal protruded from a mass of detritus, creating an eerie collection of plastic faces in the upper register of the installation—perhaps a somber visual reference to the heartbreaking number of children who perished in the shipwreck. Visible below and around the dolls was a jumble of defunct electronics (telephone parts, a boombox, a computer keyboard, an electric fan), scrap metal, a fishing net, flip-flops, plastic bottles, and pieces of knotted fabric suggestive of traditional amulets. As a whole, the heaping, tangled pile of objects suggested a kind of top-heavy turmoil, evoking not only the anonymous people to whom such objects may have belonged, but also the chaos of the Joola’s sinking and the ensuing flotsam. The inspiration for Lô’s work, in this instance, is clear. And yet this monument of sorts poses and prompts questions: Is it a remembrance of those who were lost, or of an event that befell them? A representation of life lived, or of things jettisoned and left behind?

It seems ironic that the site of the Joola’s waterlogged end was also a place of creativity and transformative beginnings for the artist. For Lô, Dakar’s proximity to the ocean imparts significant symbolism and material resources: “When I pick up a piece of wood or cloth from the beach, washed and polished by the sea, I see in it something very strong, something that is sacred and full of spirituality. By working them, they acquire a sacred character…Water is the greatest sculptor. A stone polished by the sea will take on a certain form.”4 Indeed, many of Lô’s reclaimed objects—from sandals and discarded clothing to glass bottles and bits of plastic—are things given up, or given back, by the ocean. It therefore seems fitting—and poignant—to think that the sea itself may have ‘contributed’ something to this particular work of public art.

In Dakar, the local dust seems to touch most of the urban landscape, bestowing powdery hues of ocher and rust throughout the city. To imagine a single particle and its windblown trajectory might lead the mind’s eye to 17, rue Jules Ferry in downtown Dakar, where, in an open courtyard-cum-art space, paintings by artist Issa Samb (1945–2017) were once themselves a resting place for such earthy fragments.5

In November 2016, an online petition appeared at calling for the preservation of the longstanding atelier situated at rue Jules Ferry. The workshop-exhibition space was the primary locus of the Laboratoire Agit’Art, the avant-garde art collective co-founded by Issa Samb—also known as Joe Ouakam—in 1974. For more than forty years, Samb maintained and presided over this courtyard kunsthalle. “It is undeniable,” wrote the authors of the petition, “that this site…constitutes an important ecological and artistic organ that contributes to the health of the residents of Dakar, the cultural influence of the city of Dakar…and the strengthening of the African presence in the discourse, practice, and history of contemporary art.”6 Despite the urgent call to “avoid the cultural, ecological, and human disaster that would be the disappearance of the Laboratoire Agit’Art workshop,” the courtyard was shuttered after Samb’s death in 2017.7

For the 2018 edition of Dak’Art, one year after Samb’s passing, the Laboratoire Agit’Art participated in ‘Dak’Art OFF,’ the biennial’s series of unofficial exhibitions, many of which are installed in public spaces. The Laboratoire’s exhibit, titled La Cloche des Fourmis (The Bell of the Ants), was displayed inside the old Malian market in the city’s downtown Plateau area; the series of works included scrap-metal sculpture, various forms of wall markings and text, assemblage installations, and even some artful couture garments draped over mannequins or suspended on hangers.8 It was, as art historian Sophia Powers put it, a veritable array of ‘recuperative bricolage.’9

Cécile Ndiaye, Cartographies (Densité de Peuplement du Sénégal), (2017) Photo: © Dana Liljegren

One of the first works encountered upon entering the space was a contribution from Studio Wudé, an atelier led by artist Cécile Ndiaye. For ‘Cartographies,’ a series of leather garments resembling short caftans or West African boubous were displayed on mannequins. Using ‘resources available in her environment’ of Dakar, Ndiaye collaborated with engineer-artist Laurent Malys to craft a single piece of leather into a web-like matrix of cutouts and braids.10 Drawing inspiration from nature, ecology, and urban development, Ndiaye and Malys used contemporary geographic data from Senegal—cartographic information pertaining to groundwater usage, population densification, and materials harvested for construction—to form a ‘map’ of human withdrawals from the natural environment.11 This data was then visualized as a Voronoi diagram and applied to the piece of leather using laser-cutter technology.12 To accompany the displayed garments, Ndiaye supplied the following insight into her artistic process: “We only borrow that which can be replenished. How to cut a piece of leather and form it to the body without generating waste? All the material will be used. Spiral patterns are cut on a leather surface, the strap that emerges from the pattern, while remaining attached to the surface of the skin by its end, will be braided to form to the body…”13 For Ndiaye, the cutting of the leather, an act of weakening or diminishing its natural structural integrity, is counteracted by the reinforcement of braiding and weaving; thus, this give-and-take of extracting and reintegrating provides a physical and visual representation of humanity’s taxing usage of local materials and spaces, resources that, per Ndiaye, need to be used responsibly through strategies of efficiency and economy.14 In this way, Ndiaye’s work is but one example of the ways in which Dakar artists are lately visualizing the concept of destruction through an ecological lens.

Left: Wall painting depicting Issa Samb. Photo: © Dana Liljegren. Right: effigy of artist Issa Samb. Laboratoire Agit’Art, 2017. Photo: © Dana Liljegren

Moving further into the exhibition space, viewers were confronted by an effigy of the late Issa Samb, identifiable—unmistakable, really—by the artist’s signature pageboy cap, spectacles (represented by sunglasses in this iteration), and patchwork coat. The installation, a presumed extension of a 2017 exhibition at Dakar’s Galerie le Manège in the months immediately following Samb’s death, featured the figure of Samb seated among representations of the contents of his famed courtyard: stacks of Le Soleil (the local French-language newspaper), a baobab tree, works of art lining the walls and scattered throughout the unconventional exhibition space. The figure held in its right hand a bundle of red ropes, resembling the sheets of a sailboat, which, if followed to subsequent sections of the exhibition, were revealed to be tied to a clock-like structure and anchored by a large red ‘2’ (itself absent from the clock face), a legible reference to the 2018 biennale’s curatorial theme of ‘L’Heure rouge,’ or ‘The Red Hour.’ Taking this phrase from a play by Aimé Césaire, one of Léopold Senghor’s collaborators in the formulation of négritude, artistic director Simon Njami invoked the notion of the ‘red hour’ as a watershed moment at which freedom—and its attendant stakes and responsibilities—comes to the fore.15

Asked about artistic representations of, and references to, the Laboratoire’s deceased founders, member artist Nampémanla Pascal Traoré explained,

At the Laboratoire, our project is Man. The spirit of the dead rubs shoulders with that of the living in perpetual harmony. We don’t just evoke them; they are present in the environment. In Joe’s [Issa Samb’s] courtyard at 17, rue Jules Ferry, the images, writings,   and even personal effects of companions have always had their place. They are present at all times and move and settle in space because they are alive in this place… In the Laboratoire Agit’Art, the term ‘homage’ has no meaning. We do not pay homage. We interact with those people who are gone yet are there with us every day.16

Traoré’s lyrical description paints a picture of Samb as one person, one point, within both the immediate local environment and a broader constellation of interconnected people (the Laboratoire, citizens of Dakar, artists and thinkers throughout the world) and things (personal belongs of living and deceased friends, fallen leaves, portraits made in soot upon crinkled paper). Samb is thus a continuing presence, a visible thread woven into the city and its art by those who knew him.

Alongside the images and aura of Samb, numerous works overtly reflected the exhibit’s prominent display of récupération—broadly understood here as the artistic recycling of man-made objects and natural materials. A collection of sculpted monkeys made from wire by artist Bassirou Wade were accompanied by a written call to ‘recover the air, catch their breath, reappropriate nature, reconnect with life’—sentiments suggesting that récupération, in this context, is about recuperating more than physical materials.17 Artist Jean-Marie Bruce, a Laboratoire member and self-described user of récupération methods, creates abstract, shadowy portraits on corrugated sheets of scrap metal.18 One of his scorched, rusty panels, suggesting the rectilinear form of a door or mirror, stood resolutely within the makeshift exhibition space. Here, the raw dust-and-sand floor of the old marketplace provided an uneven terrain of small peaks and troughs, seemingly grounding the featured works even more firmly within the specific environment from which they emerged.

These reflections wind down among the dust, having started in the waves. Dust and waves, two often-used tropes of life’s cyclical processes: the trajectory of birth, death, and disintegration visualized through earth and water. As Issa Samb and Ndary Lô understood, these forces of the natural world are both creative and destructive, as is our human presence among them. Perhaps such instances of generative or entropic reciprocity are part of an ongoing circuit, continuously flowing towards some kind of imbalance, or ebbing, hopefully, back to a state of equilibrium.

Dana Liljegren is a PhD Candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her specializations and topics of interest include West African art, international contemporary art, and environmentalism. Her dissertation, which examines the intersections of art, politics, and urban ecology in Senegal, has been supported by the Getty Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and Raw Material Company in Dakar.