Friday, September 3, 2010

The African Renaissance Monument. Some thoughts.

In April of this year the big monument of African Renaissance was inaugurated in Dakar, Senegal with the presence of many African leaders. Although this is not an AfroEuropean issue as such I’d like to express my opinion on this.

According to Senegalese President Wade, the initiative taker of this project, this is not just a Senegalese or African monument, but it also represents the people of the African diaspora all over the world. This means that this monument is symbol uniting all peoples of African descent.

The statue is 49m high set on a 100m high hill in the Ouakam suburb of Dakar. Thus being bigger and higher than New York’s statue of Liberty (46m high on a pedestal of 47m, total 93m) it now dominates Dakar’s skyline. Of course the building of such a huge monument in a poor country erases doubt and criticism. Even the way how the project took off makes one wonder who will really profit of this massive monument.

It was first and for all build for the 50th anniversary of independence of most African nations. The inauguration was set during Senegal’s independence ceremony but was meant as reaching to the whole continent. Many African leaders were present, and even Jesse Jackson came to give a speech (I wonder how much he got paid for this). Senegal is one of black Africa’s nations to have been first in touch with the European and Arab worlds and was a main contributor of slaves during the 5 centuries of AfroEuropean colonial ‘exchange’. In this sense Dakar may be the right place for such a monument. Below I will go deeper into the meaning of and the criticisms surrounding this monument.

The monument was officially designed by President Wade himself. But Ousmane Sow (Link in French), a famous Senegales sculptor, pretends to have designed it. Wade admitted that ‘an artist’ came up with the idea but that he worked it out. He states he cannot remember who that artist was, but that he is the final and genuine producer of the concept.

It depicts an African family. A gigantic father holding his child on his left arm and behind him a woman, his right arm around her waist. The child (a boy?) is resolutely pointing his finger West. This pointing is a pointing to the future and pointing to the African diaspora. I don’t want to speculate about the meaning of art, or the meaning of the child who points West. I’ll leave this for personal discussions and thoughts.

From a gender perspective the whole statue is rather problematic. It is obviously male-centered and depicts women as secondary to men. I think that this is a lost chance, considering that women in many post-war African countries play a central role in the rebuilding and future of their country. Apparently not for Wade.
Another detail that bothers me is the woman’s hair. She has straight hair in the wind. While many African women straighten their hair with chemicals it is an illusion to have it waving in the wind such as seen here. Straightened hair is too dry to move like that in the wind. Having put a woman with cornrows or other braids or even an afro would have been much more African I think. It’s true that her hair could be interpreted as thin dreadlocks, a hair style very uncommon among African women in Africa, but becoming more and more normal in the African diaspora.

Intellectual profit and financial profit
President Wade, as conceiver of the monument, will get 35% of all profits that this monument generates. This is highly problematic because he didn’t conceive this monument in his free time as a private person, but as a president. A president cannot claim copyright over ideas conceived as function of his public office. In this sense all he produces for the nation is property of the state and not his personal property. Let’s compare it to what every employee produces within a company; it is owned by the company and not by the person who produced it.

Furthermore Wade is not the benefactor of this project, it was financed by the Senegalese state and sponsored by a private businessman. The building of the statue would have cost around US$ 27 million, and was paid in kind with land. Wade seems to not only want to put a monument that will outlast his life, not financed with his money he still wants to get money out of it.

The construction of the monument was carried out by a North Korean construction company, Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies. Even without taking into consideration the problematic reputation of North Korea and its leaders, I think it is a shame that the work hasn’t been carried out by Africans themselves. The African continent is full of able and unemployed people who would have loved to contribute to such a project. Instead North-Korean workers and engineers (underpaid?) were imported to Dakar to build it. I think this is another lost chance.

In a way I am happy that this monument has been build. Half a century after the major wave of independence on the African continent such a symbolic statement might be not really necessary but certainly welcome. I don’t really care that it looks like a Stalinist monument, that’s not really the matter here. It is also without any doubt that this monument will contribute to tourism in Senegal and West-Africa, many ambulant merchants, taxi drivers and local stores will benefit of it.

Still, I am sad that so many chances have been missed and that it is strained with financial scandal. It’s true that any big project, in any country in the world would have been a point of controversy. Even New York’s Statue of Liberty was not void of controversy when planned and build. I just hope that the African Renaissance Monument can be a symbol of African unity rather than political greed and that it will get a bright future in the history of Africa and its diaspora. Only the future will tell.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I am very interested in design imperialism as an aspiring social entrepreneur of an ethical fashion brand and researcher of creative enterprise-based solutions to poverty. After reading Bruce Nussbaum's "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?" and "In Defense of Design Imperialism" by Robert Fabricant I was very curious about African design firms. Initially, I was unaware that the monument was funded by North Korea and it's bewildering. Are you familiar with African design firms? This blog is very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    The Ethical Fashion Missionary
    Ethos Diseño
    Washington DC/Seville, Spain

  2. I just found out about this statue and i have to say it is absolutely beautiful and inspiriing. Bravo to Kim John Il and the President of Senegal for this breathe taking monument.


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