Living art in Dakar

In a benign invasion of the continent, an assorted band of celebrities trekked round selected African countries for a BBC TV series. Here, George Melly recalls how his pursuit of art led him to don a dress in Senegal
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The Independent Culture
A LARGE dusty yard surrounded by one-storey buildings and dappled with light filtered through the leaves of a great tree: unlike the humid noisy streets of Dakar outside the walls, it is pleasantly cool in this yard.

It is, however, more than just a yard. It's full of urban flotsam and jetsam: wood, scrap metal, sacking, traffic signs, bits of discarded machinery, but it would seem as if a sorcerer had passed by, as if on the last day of judgement this detritus had reassembled itself to form masks, the torsos of beautiful women, prisoners, animals and a hanged man. There are paintings too, mostly on sacking tacked to the walls or hung up like washing. They are, I suppose, what Western art critics call "informal" but there is no need to categorise them. They display complete authority, and at the same time a casual indifference to reputation or material success. There is certainly nothing in the least naive about them yet there is nothing self-conscious either. Like all the best art they look inevitable.

This yard, these paintings are the work of Joe Ouakam, the man I have come to meet. He was late, predictably enough I was told, but I didn't worry; there was plenty to look at.

This was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa. I was there to narrate and part-improvise a film about some aspect of modern African art for the BBC. My first choice had been Zaire and its savage folk art. However, for political reasons Zaire was too dangerous, so after further research I settled for Senegal. This was for two reasons. For one thing there was no hint of that technically accomplished, slick, sentimental "tribal" sculpture - airport art for VIPs - which I personally find repellent. The other reason was a strange story.

It would seem that Senegal's first president, Leopold Senghor, an acclaimed poet, intellectual and long-time exile at the cafe tables of Montparnasse, returned in triumph in 1959 with, among much other intellectual baggage, a political function for art. In particular he believed that it could illustrate his cherished concept of negritude - a philosophy that proposed a conscious pride in African heritage. This was to be achieved by re-assimilating Picasso's "Negro period" (1907) and through the resurrection of tribal sculpture; a cultural imperative in no way comparable to Stalin's "Social Realism" or Hitler's "Aryan" idealisation, but it had predictably tedious results. Still, those artists prepared to toe the line were given luxurious studios and guaranteed sales to help fill a large museum of modern African art. They were also commissioned to create public sculpture and official murals.

From among those artists who wouldn't or couldn't toe the official line only one, the late and great Mor Faye, openly protested. On the steps of the presidential palace he publicly denounced Senghor for conscripting art in the service of the state. For this he was confined to a lunatic asylum, where he died two years later at the age of 37. This, too, may bring Stalin to mind except that, even according to his admirers, Mor Faye may well have become mad. And that, in the asylum, he was given all the artist's materials he needed and produced some of his finest work.

In some ways Senghor was a strange, not entirely unsympathetic man. For one thing unlike any other African (or indeed any) dictator of a one-party state, he eventually and voluntarily resigned. This was not good news for those artists who had subscribed to negritude. They have been evicted from their fine studios, the museum is locked, its collection no one knows where, but artists like Joe Ouakam, those who never trod the official line, are much relieved. They far prefer the present government's indifference. Art is now poor but free.

So with this cautionary tale as a basis I set off early one morning with my son Tom as minder (I am the world's most easily flustered and grumpy traveller); that evening we met up with the film crew: Simon (camera), Paul (sound) and the director, Celia Lowenstein, an animated American of decided views which, as mine differed, led initially to a certain amount of what is called "creative friction".

I WAS glad to be staying in some comfort at the Westernised, three-terraced Hotel Savana, but it could have been anywhere. It was Dakar and its people I fell in love with. In this city dream and reality seem almost interchangeable and art "doesn't recognise its own name" (the phrase Dubuffet used of "outsider" art). Hand-painted advertisements, with images ranging from lions to sewing machines, cover almost every surface, buses are painted to look like mechanised dragons, and even the hideously poor slums are scraped and textured in ravishing violets, pinks and greens.

Yet for all its air of brilliant improvisation, Dakar is only the setting for its people and as far as I am concerned no African race, not even the Masai, are as beautiful as the Sengalese. Tall, and incapable of a graceless movement, they have a mildly androgynous air (could it be their admirable inability to act macho?). They are effortlessly courteous but without any hint of subservience. You quickly recognise that you are simply a white visitor in a black country. Despite rather chic traces of French colonialism, there seems to be no residual tension.

And talking of androgyny - or, rather, transvestism - Celia insisted, in exchange for me banging on about art, that I took part in a traditional ritual where, following a Muslim fast, the women dress up as men and form a huge circle round the men, who dress up as women and dance to the drums. Elaborately robed and made up as if I was Dame Barbara Cartland, I took my place and jigged up and down as convincingly as I could. The result was predictable. In drag I always come across as an elderly Jewish madam, in this instance surrounded by her exquisite stable of African girls.

The people of Senegal have, above all, a very laid-back sense of style. Even the very poor, living in the most unpromising conditions, are immaculate, their clothes as clean as if in a washing-powder ad. The city of Dakar is also a hair fetishist's dream. Coiled, braided, intertwined with ornaments, coiffure has become an art form in itself.

There is, however, nothing of much architectural interest in the town apart from a few examples of French provincial art deco. Dakar is a city frantically trying to modernise itself and saved from international cloning only by the lack of international capital. Yet only a short ferry ride away is the island of Goree. There is Islamic architecture at its austere best, but it is haunted ground. In airless prisons under the fine villas, thousands of Africans waited for the slave ships to carry them off to the Americas and West Indies.

IS THERE a Senegalese middle class? There is, for example the lawyer Bara Diokhane, who is partially involved in the music business (profitably too, I imagine, judging by his luxurious house). He also defends in an altruistic spirit many painters, both living and dead: Mor Faye, for example, of whom Bara owns a fine collection, and Joe Ouakam himself, for whom the lawyer negotiated an interview fee. But as the artist usually refuses to sell his work, this part of his business can't be exactly profitable.

Mr Diokhane and his beautiful wife (more Beverly Hills than Dakar) were among the haute bourgeoisie who turned up at a gallery for the opening of a contemporary exhibition. Some of the work was good, some overly derivative, but the public outshone Cork Street. Especially noticeable were three haughty young women who would have made Naomi Campbell look like Old Mother Riley.

What was fascinating was that this gallery led directly into an enormous and sophisticated night-club. It was as if the Marlborough acted as a foyer for Ronnie Scott's. It wasn't really that odd, though, as in Senegal music is all-pervasive and, even though it was not my brief for the BBC film, to ignore it here is to direct Hamlet not only without the Prince, but without Ophelia, Claudius and Gertrude as well. Senegalese music is eclectic. Its pulse, like early New Orleans jazz, is the African drum. But, like jazz, it has successfully absorbed many other musics: West Indian, South American, rock and jazz itself. It has its own prince too: the international superstar Youssou N'Dour, whose latest recording, even while we were there, was zooming up the charts. Celia had made an earlier documentary about Youssou so was very much persona grata.

Finally Joe Ouakam, tall, effortlessly elegant and smoking a curved pipe, arrived or, to be more precise, materialised in his yard and we immediately fell into sympathy. For more than two hours he talked to me in what is apparently beautiful French and, although my French is lamentable, we communicated easily. We examined all his work in detail and I soon understood that his view of art was that it was neither aesthetic nor a commodity, but a door to perception, a banner bearing the single word "freedom".

When we parted he gave me a small wire sculpture and an enormous, very powerful painting of a kind of fetish wrapped around the broomstick from which it was hung. Joe Ouakam, seer and charming eccentric, is an exponent of true negritude.

! George Melly's 'Footsteps in Senegal' will be broadcast on BBC2 on 7 September at 8pm


GETTING THERE: Bright Ways Travel (0181 574 2622) has Air France flights to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, via Paris for pounds 562. BA (0345 222111) flies from London via Geneva to Dakar for pounds 844.

TOURS: The African Travel Centre (0171 387 1211) can arrange flights, accommodation and tours of Senegal.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Embassy of the Republic of Senegal, 11 Phillimore Gdns, London W8 7QG (0171-937 0925).