press release

Universalism at Stake presents work by twelve international contemporary artists, which developed out of a series of residencies in Senegal in 2004, organised by Face à Face, Paris, and curated by Marie-Thérèse Champesme. The installations, drawings, videos and photographs that make up Universalism at Stake are presented in the UK by SPACEX as part of Africa ‘05.

The overall theme of the project was to respond to the question of 'universalism' as set out by the late Léopold Senghor, the distinguished poet and President of Senegalese independence, member of the UN Human Rights Commission and founder of the African Human Rights Charter. Artists were invited from around the world (Senegal, Gabon, Mozambique, France, Albania, USA, Brazil, Haiti, Palestine, La Réunion) to work together for a period of weeks in Joal-Fadiouth, Senghor’s birthplace and one of the first European trading posts in West Africa.

The result is a series of fascinating reflections upon questions of universalism and intercultural relations, marked by the personal history of each artist and inspired by the reading of Senghor's texts. For the African artists, as well as artists with African roots, the residence was a new occasion to think about identity and its relation to occidental culture. For the artists who had never visited West Africa before, there was an awareness of the risk of being lured by an easy 'exoticism' and this process of critical reflexivity is a feature of the work.

The principle of universalism, Senghor argued, was a necessity of the de-colonisation process, due to the growing economic interdependence of countries. In the current ideological context of globalization, this project provides an opportunity to re-visit the issue of universalism once again.

Muhsana Ali (Born in USA, lives in Dakar and Philadelphia) - grew up in the Nation of Islam and decided to move in the 1990s to the Ivory Coast to explore her African origins. However every where she travelled in West Africa she was told that she must have roots in a different region. She thus decided to make a work about this state of foreign-ness, as an African American.

Maria Thereza Alves (Born in Brazil, lives in Berlin) – felt very self-critical about her role as an ‘outsider’ invited to make work in this context, and thus decided to leave something useful as a result. Diothio Dhep is a video document of an actual process of trying to facilitate change. Alves also took inspiration from Senghor’s writings on ‘specificity’, in relation to universalism.

Taysir Batniji (Born in Palestine, lives in Gaza and Paris) – developed work as part of an on-going series of poetic montages of ephemeral music and images, which partly reflect his experience of transition and disappearance in Palestine. He is particularly interested in the repetitive rhythms of everyday life, as well as religion, and this informs the editing of the work.

Jack Beng-Thi (Born in La Réunion Island, lives in Port, La Réunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean) - on the 2nd anniversary of Senghor’s death, and also the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in La Réunion, Beng-Thi organised a ceremony in tribute to Senghor (see Maxence Denis’ video). The banners refer to the ‘Code Noir’, or rules for slaves, and images include the Island of Gorée, or ‘Gate of No Return’, in Senegal, as well as other related images.

Marie-Noëlle Boutin (Born in France, lives in Lille) – never photographed people before visiting Senegal. She decided to work with local children using pin-hole cameras (see Maxence Denis’ video), as well as making these large-format images. She says these were not “stolen” images, as the apparatus is so visible. She is interested in how people occupy space.

Maxence Denis (Born in Haiti, lives in Port-au-Prince and Paris) – Senghor refers to Haiti, as the first independent black republic. In the video-work, L’Universel?, Denis documents life in Joal Fadiouth and the way artists chose to work there.

Jimmie Durham (Born in the USA, lives in Berlin) – knew Senghor personally and worked with him at the UN Human Rights Commission, in the 1970s, when the artist represented the Indians of North America, as a Cherokee. Although he was not able to take up the residency, Durham contributed works to the exhibition which address issues of globalisation and universalism.

Angela Ferreira (Born in Mozambique, lives in Lisbon) – is interested in the role of trade, and the relationship between Portugal and its ex-colonies. In Joal Fadiouth there are many traces of the relationship of trade in the local culture. Senghor refers to this, and suggests his own name came from the Portuguese word, Senor. Ferreira’s video-work features a, possibly fictional, character, Joana Alves, whose name might have formed the basis of ‘Joal’.

Kan-si (Born in Senegal, lives in Dakar) – a member of the Senegalese artists’ group, Huit Facettes-Interaction, which facilitates international exchanges. He organised a photographic project, giving locals cameras so that they could photograph the tourists who come to photograph them. He then photographed the local photographers himself. The resulting images were first presented on opposing sides of the bridge which joins the island of Fadiouth to Joal.

Ludovic Linard (Born in France, lives in Dunkirk) – questions the role of the artist, and so acts as a facilitator instead. In this project he worked with children from France and Senegal in a drawing exchange, or “playground”. Each image is made by two children, or “four hands”; one child from either country. The child who started the drawing knew it would be sent far away to be completed by another child, who they would never meet.

Myriam Mihindou (Born in Gabon, lives in Rabat, Morocco) – worked in collaboration with a local artist, Salimata Seck, to make a project about the act of ‘greeting’, and its universal significance. The video features Seck crossing the bridge between Joal and Fadiouth.

Anri Sala (Born in Albania, lives in Tirana and Paris) – when he arrived in Joal he constantly heard the Wolof word “toubab” wherever he went, which he subsequently discovered means “whitey”. This led to an exploration of the importance of colour, especially black and white, in the Wolof language. There are many words for different shades of black and white, as well as a word for red, in Wolof, but all the other words for colour are French. These different words also take on different values, both pejorative and positive.

Universalism at Stake was commissioned by Face à Face, Paris, and is presented in the UK by SPACEX in association with Africa ’05, and with support from Art Council England. Jimmie Durham’s work is presented with support from Galerie Michel Rein, Paris. Anri Sala’s work is presented courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zürich London. Maxence Denis’ work has been translated by Saer Ba, with support from the University of Exeter.


only in german

Universalism at Stake

mit Muhsana Ali, Maria Thereza Alves, Taysir Batniji, Jack Beng-Thi, Marie-Noelle Boutin, Maxence Denis, Jimmie Durham, Angela Ferreira, Kan-si, Ludovic Linard, Myriam Mihindou, Anri Sala