When you touch down in a city that truly appreciates art, you feel it immediately. It manifests in the way its citizen’s dress and carry themselves. It informs the conversations they have and recommendations they give. Dakar is exactly this city. As Senegal’s capital, Dakar is better known for its music and its tropical beauty, but now a thriving contemporary art scene is attracting enthusiasts from the west. The city’s appreciation for the arts is obvious at every turn. Home of the Dakar Biennale – a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years in Dakar, Dakar has long been an arts and culture capital in West Africa. But beyond the festivals and cultural events hosted by various cultural institutions, the fashion, street art and music of Dakar – more accessible and more intoxicating – will inspire you.
Dakar’s top fashion designers were educated at the world’s most prestigious fashion schools. Their aesthetic is equal parts fashion forward and modest; their clothing highlights strength in femininity and versatility. And the craftsmanship is impeccable.
At Sophie Zinga’s flagship store in Dakar, I had a private shopping experience that is rare to find in the United States. I browsed racks of dresses and separates, while the saleswoman and I chatted about our lives, our homes and our families. When I found a perfect orange gown, she took my measurements and asked me how soon I’d like the dress. When I told her I thought I would leave with it, she smiled and explained that the dress would have to be tailored. Obediently, two days later, I picked up my perfectly tailored and newly cleaned dress. I’ve received no shortage of compliments on the two occasions I’ve worn my Sophie Zinga gown. Everyone asks where it’s from, and I always tell them they’ll have to go to Dakar to get something similar.
The medina is covered in art. Nearly every home has at some point been the canvas of an artist. It’s a beautiful site to see – all organized by Yataal Art, a collective of local artists started by Mode Boye, which acts as a liaison between artists and local families.
Montreal-based street artist, Miss Me, and I spent a day touring the medina with Yataal Art. She met with families and other artists and was invited to post her work on two homes. I watched her paint and paste beautiful portraits of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday in Senegal’s January heat. The end product was stunning. But the conversation it started between the artist, the collective and citizens of the medina is truly inspiring. Watching children engage in that conversation explained why the appreciation for art will last for generations.
When I found that I had just missed the Kora Jazz Trio at the French Institute in Dakar, it became a personal obsession to find live kora music. I researched every day and asked anyone who could understand my attempted French where I should go. What I found was that there is live music of all genres everywhere in Dakar. I found mbalax, jazz, reggae, zouk in my quest. In the end, I went to a small restaurant where a sole kora musician serenaded our small group for hours.
From traditional aesthetic expressions to modern notions of cosmopolitanism/afropolitanism to urban identities realized in new artistic formats such as hip-hop, street art, and graffiti, I was able to learn about Dakar’s thriving art scene. If you’ve never been before, it’s important to note that Dakar booms with life, and this energy can also be found in the creative, artistic and cultural expressions of the city. Though only there for a short period of time, I was able to discover the true essence of this artistic city, and it’s something that should be experienced by everyone during an expedition to this West African city.