Dakar is the art capital of West Africa. Not only does the city host the largest and longest-running contemporary arts show in Africa, but its streets are dotted with illuminating galleries and unusual art spaces. Here are some of the best.
You don’t have to speak to French to guess what goes on at Le Village des Arts. Since 1998, an eclectic mix of mostly Senegalese artists have lived, worked and thrived within its painted walls. Workshops overflow with sculptures, ironwork, ceramics and paintbrushes. Courtyards and cobbled streets have been transformed into al fresco galleries. Some artists are internationally known, and others aren’t even known in their own neighbourhood. At its core, however, is community. A safe space for creative minds to practise their art, share tips and tools and, by mutual association, attract visitors, raise their profiles and make a living. The village is open to the public for most of the day and the vast majority of the 52 resident artists are friendly, open and happy to welcome you into their workshop for a chat. Known as a ‘window display of Senegalese culture’, the Village also boasts a large central gallery at its heart, which hosts continuous exhibitions throughout the year.
Loman Art Gallery is paradise among the dusty streets of Mamelles. Housed in a light, airy villa, this gallery can’t help but put a smile on your face as you breeze from room to room, immersing yourself in each unique creative space: an office with a sea wall fresco; a swimming pool surrounded by sculptures; cast-iron birds dancing in the trees. Even the bedrooms (which can be rented, as the gallery also functions as a boutique hotel) have their own themes, while the verdant courtyard has been transformed into a tranquil café serving up plates that befit the stunning setting – plus guests can use the pool. The gallery is also Loman’s home and mostly displays her distinct style of three-dimensional sculpted paintings – a blend of intricate metalwork and vivid brushwork – which beautifully captures the vibrancy of Senegal. Collective exhibitions of Senegalese artists take place throughout the year and the intimate homely feel is like no other in Dakar.
Founded in 1996, Galerie Arte is one of the oldest contemporary art and design galleries in Senegal. It’s only a short walk from the rough and tumble of Dakar’s bustling port, and walking into Galerie Arte is like stumbling into a peaceful, intricately decorated sanctuary: three rooms all filled with African furnishings that you’d want in your own home. Think handcrafted cutlery and carved table sets, vibrant rugs and bronze statues, patchworks, quilts, cabinets and paintings: domestic beauty, displayed all year round.
Galerie Antenna is the oldest gallery in West Africa, having opened its doors in 1972. It’s also one of the best. It’s a smorgasbord of West African art, across a myriad of distinctive rooms, corridors and open spaces; walking around Antenna is like being allowed to roam a cluttered museum at your own leisure. Stocked with both ancient and contemporary art, the gallery is an endless treasure chest of all forms of West African art. Tribal masks and sculptures, landscapes and abstracts, jewellery, prints, robes, figurines and guns – the list goes on and on.
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury may seem out of place in Dakar – its sleek, white-walled interior would be more at home in New York – but the city is all the richer for it. Having made a big splash in Abidjan (where its first gallery opened in 2012), Cécile Fakhoury opened its second chapter in West Africa’s other big hub in time for the 2018 Biennale. Known for promoting contemporary African art on the continent where it was made, the gallery represents artists who engage with the complexities of their country’s history and contribute to its living memory; artists who aren’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects and who shine a light on their respective national identities. From video and photography to plaster and canvass, the gallery serves up a diverse display of disciplines and puts on an almost continuous set of exhibitions.
As the exhibition space of the Institut Français in Dakar, Le Manège plays a key role in fostering cultural links between France and Senegal (although it’s too big to fit in the Institut Français proper). Based in an old equestrian yard (hence the name) in a quiet corner of Plateau, the large space welcomes six types of exhibition each year to facilitate this exchange of cultural ideas and bonhomie. For example, one sees a Senegalese artist invite a fellow West African artist to exhibit works in a particular field, such as architecture or scientific culture; another sees an international French artist collaborating with a European partner. Either way, Le Manège’s offering is always diverse, fascinating and well-curated.
‘Creation, recycling, environment, art’ are the four buzzwords that embody Créas I am’s raison d’être. Having initially set up a cultural space for budding artists and children to discover the love of art, Senegalese artist Haby Diallo turned her attentions to discarded plastic in 2013, and Créas I am was born. Given that Dakar’s streets and seas are often awash with jettisoned plastic products – which pollute and blight the natural environment – Haby sought to shine a light on how much rubbish we throw away and the power of recycling, so she transformed neglected plastics into works of art that reflected the African continent. Taking inspiration from the various colours and shapes of plastic products, used cans and cartons, Haby began to make tables, chairs, and even paintings of Nelson Mandela from her workshop/gallery in Medina. The results are phenomenal.
RAW is not your usual gallery. It’s not even really a gallery, but instead a cultural centre for ‘art, knowledge and society’. Founded in 2011, RAW has carved a niche in Dakar’s lively cultural scene as the sole space for critical reflection on artistic practice. There’s a focus on the artist over the art, which looks at how art influences the thought and lives of its creators. For the first four years of its nascent career, RAW held five or six exhibitions each year, but after an institutional sabbatical in 2015 it returned its focus to its academy. It now works with local and pan-African artists from a range of disciplines, but still hosts a number of illuminating public events. Exhibitions, such as the one held on the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 protests, complement weekly public programmes such as lectures and public screenings, while its library is fully open to the public.
Waru in Wolof means wonder, dazzle and magic. Created by Fatou Kandé in 2001, Waru is a production studio at heart, but, in reality, it’s more an experimental laboratory of artistic disciplines. It’s a place where choreographers, painters, photographers, musicians and writers come together to share knowledge and combine media. The results can be anything from books to costumes to performances, but all are vivid pieces of contemporary art that are juxtaposed with the lazy backstreets of Mermoz where the small studio is found.
Nicknamed the ‘Rodin of Senegal’, Ousmane Sow sits among the pantheon of Senegalese artistic greats. A sculpture of prodigious talent, he was known worldwide for his imposing and emphatic creations and his house, in the north of Dakar, pays wonderful homage to his work. A three-floored sculpture designed by Sow himself, the pastel-coloured villa is filled with both completed figures and unfinished sculpture series, including a room dedicated to giant heroes such as Victor Hugo and Charles de Gaulle. Sow lived here from 1999 until his death in 2016, and the house opened its doors to the public for the first time during the 2018 Biennale. Now, members of the public can visit on Sunday afternoons and special occasions.
The giant lion façade of the Keur Gaïndé hotel and gallery is hard to beat, with its column-esque legs, huge paws and first-floor balcony mouth, and the whole hotel complex – complete with restaurant and nightclub – is wholly unique, and the pieces in its gallery even more so. Founded by Amadou Yassine Thiam, the gallery presents contemporary and ancient African art of all shapes and sizes, with some pieces dating back 3,000 years, including ornaments, masks, statues and sculptures.
Do some research before you go. Galleries host exhibitions throughout the year and checking online on their website or Facebook page is the best way to stay in the loop. Opening times can vary as much as the art within. Some galleries close for a long lunch, others for weekends, while those run by a single artist can be closed entirely when the artist is away.
These recommendations were updated on January 23, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.