Dakar, Senegal – In April 1966, Senegal’s first president and a poet, Leopold Sedar Senghor ascended the steps of the National Assembly in Dakar to declare his country the temporary capital of Black Civilisation at the launch of the World Festival of Black Arts.
In the following weeks, African luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and writer Wole Soyinka would converge on the Senegalese capital, as would others from the wider African diaspora: Jazz great Duke Ellington, the Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire, Barbadian novelist George Lamming and American writers Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka.
Dakar would briefly play host to some of the leading black movements of the day. African liberation, the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz, and the negritude movement, of which Senghor was also a leading figure, were represented. Despite their differences, they shared an optimism that people of African descent, wherever they were, would define their own futures.
And as that utopian spirit hung in the air, Senghor stepped up to present a bold, new vision for a post-colonial Africa. Art and culture ought to be at the heart of development. And central to this would be a museum in Senegal that would present the past and present experiences of black people everywhere
But economic and political realities soon kicked in. Senegal was unable to sustain its audacious investment in art and culture, which peaked as high as 25 percent of government spending under Senghor. Governments came and went. The dream lingered on.
Now, 52 years later, Senghor’s vision will finally materialise.
The Museum of Black Civilisations will open on Thursday in Dakar to a flourish of dance, drums and acrobatics, and its curator, Senegalese Babacar Mbow, claims it “incomparable to anything in the world.”
Its 14,000 square metres of floor space and capacity for 18,000 exhibits puts it in league with the National Museum of African American History in Washington. Its range of exhibits is, however, more far-reaching.
The high-ceilinged exhibition halls include Africa Now, showcasing contemporary African art and The Caravan and the Caravel, which tells the story of the trade in human beings – across the Atlantic and through the Sahara – that gave rise to new communities of Africans in the Americas.
These diaspora communities – such as in Brazil, the United States and the Caribbean – are recognised as African civilisations in their own right here.
“Memory in Motion” by Haitian artist Philippe Dodard describes the stages of enslavement from Africa to the slave ship to the Caribbean plantation with floating eyes, wandering souls and chained hands and feet in black India ink against a white background.
Women of the Nation showcases women of African descent, including Angela Davis.
The scale of the project follows that of the Dakar Art Biennale and the Renaissance Monument, in which successive Senegalese presidents have cemented their legacies with works of culture, Mbow says.
“All of the phases of the inauguration of the museum is done by Africans,” he says.
The museum’s disc-like shape is modelled on the rounded walls of the Medieval city of Great Zimbabwe.
Inside, a vast hollowed-out interior spans the museum’s four floors and gives way to galleries that possess huge copper ribs.
Like a giant snake, a sloping walkway gradually winds itself up and around the atrium, which is inspired by houses of Senegal’s Casamance region, whose roofs are open to collect rainwater.
Mbow said that the museum is an attempt to “finish the decolonisation of knowledge as it pertains to Africa”, citing a preoccupation that was as important for attendees at the festival in 1966 as it is for intellectuals today.
Though decolonisation in a political sense was well under way in the 1960s, Africa still had a long way to go towards recovering its own self-image from the imposition of European ideas and languages.
The work of Senegalese historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop, an attendee in 1966, sought to challenge the biased assumptions held by many Eurocentric scholars and found in school textbooks that Africa was dark and savage, devoid of civilisation.
Key to his arguments was the African origins of homo sapiens, widely accepted now, but considered controversial at the time. Shunned by academic elites, his mission to decolonise African knowledge influenced a new generation of African scholars.
Among them was Kenyan Professor George Abungu, curator of the inaugural exhibition The Cradle of Humankind.
In the cavernous hall at the heart of the museum, it will tell the story of our early origins in Africa through to the Stone Age in line with the latest scientific research, and display the original stone tools our earliest ancestors once used.
“When you talk about technology that eventually led to computing, it all started from here. That’s a major contribution that Africa made to the world,” says Abungu.
Carole Boyce Davies, professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University in the US, said that while the museum is a fulfilment of Senghor’s vision, the work of decolonising knowledge must continue.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket, we need to do a lot more.”
Boyce Davies, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, will be joined by other scholars from across Africa and the diaspora for an academic symposium following the opening entitled Reclaiming Black Civilizations. Finishing the decolonial process.
The continued investment in English and French departments, at the expense of indiginous languages, is a sign that “the African university is still colonised”, she says.
She envisages the museum to become a focal point for modern-day discussions surrounding decolonisation, which also includes issues of gender and class and the classification of disciplines in academia.
Citing the British-based “Why is My Curriculum White?” campaign, whose key membership includes people of African descent, it is a “good time to recognise the links between Africa and the Diaspora”.
Fifty-two years ago, just after Senghor had hailed Senegal as the capital of Black Civilisation at the opening of the festival of Black Arts, a French minister moved forward to give a speech.
A minister from a foreign country will also address the nation on Thursday, but this time they will be Chinese.
Chinese signage in the museum’s concrete back room is a reminder that it was built in part due to a large financial donation from the Chinese, their latest projection of soft-power on the continent.
Cultural relations with France, Senegal’s former colonial master, remain strong.
But Senegal’s pivot towards China is unmistakable given the Chinese hand in a succession of defining cultural projects. In July, Chinese leader Li Xinping visited Senegal to open a vast arena devoted to wrestling, Senegal’s national sport, also built with Chinese help.
An emboldened Senegal, buoyed by news that France will be returning artworks to Benin, also requested its own back last week.
And while most here will welcome the museum as a powerful symbol of decolonisation from France, the jury is still out on China.