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African Renaissance Monument

African Renaissance Monument

African Renaissance Monument

On the shoreline of the Ouakam neighborhood of Dakar, two volcanic hills called les Mamelles (the breasts) rise above the flat expanse of the city. One mamelle features an iconic lighthouse built in 1864the other serves as the platform for the African Renaissance Monument(ARM), constructed in 2009 and dedicated in 2010. Billed as the highest (not to be confused with the tallest) sculpture in the world, the 164 feet of steel frame and bronze bodies atop the 300-foot-high hill creates a towering ensemble that is visible from most parts of the city.


The work depicts three figures—a man, woman, and child—emerging triumphantly from the interior of a craggy metal volcano that is itself an extension of the mamelle. The male figure, at center, looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. He is clothed only in a kufi-style hat with a wrap around his waist, revealing his swollen chest and superhuman musculature. With one arm, he embraces the female figure, who stands on the balls of her feet, throwing her right arm behind her. Her hair blows in the breeze, and her sheer windswept wrap leaves much of her body exposed. Seated on the man’s left arm is a child whose gesture guides the viewer’s gaze toward the water,

At the monument’s dedication ceremony, Senegal’s then president, Abdoulaye Wade, who held the office from 2000 to 2012, called it a memorial for the past, a celebration of the present, and a beacon for the future, symbolizing the “triumph of African liberation from five centuries of ignorance, intolerance, and racism” as Africa “emerges from the bowels of the earth to leave darkness behind and move toward the light.” According to Wade, who commissioned, and ostensibly designed, the monument, the sculpture’s orientation overlooking the Atlantic is meant to connect Black populations in continental Africa to those in the Diaspora, specifically in the Americas.

While the dedication of the ARM was scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence, the event also included symposia, performances, and speeches centered around the United States of Africa, a hypothetical federation of African nations that Wade has championedHe wanted the ARM to rival landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, but as an emblem of Pan-African rather than national pride.

Indeed, the monument itself is rooted in the “African Renaissance” political philosophy, a Pan-African concept initially developed in a series of essays by Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop, written between 1946 and 1960 while he was studying in Paris, and revived in the mid-1990s by South African president Thabo Mbeki. At the core of this loosely defined philosophy is the “rebirth” of culture and development. Many proponents emphasize the need to find Afro-centric solutions to issues of poverty, education, and self-governance rather than relying on external support. The African Union, a coalition of 55 member states on the continent established in 2001, in which both Wade and Mbeki were actively involved, employs the African Renaissance as its guiding philosophy.

In a 2010 essay published in the journal Politique Africaine, cultural historians Ferdinand de Jong and Vincent Foucher astutely observed that the ARM is a strategy for Wade’s Senegal to take the role of porte-parole speaking on behalf of the African Renaissance movement and, by extension, Africa in general. At the monument’s dedication ceremony, Wade led a group of dignitaries, including 19 African heads of state, Reverend Jesse Jackson, North Korea’s then President of the Presidium Kim Yong Nam, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, rapper Akon, and a coalition from the NAACP, in singing the “African Renaissance Anthem”—which Wade also wrote.

While the ARM renewed interest in Pan-Africanism as a means of championing unity and modernism as tools for progress, many leading African cultural theorists expressed caution. In a 2012 article on the monument in frieze, art critic Sean O’Toole quotes curator Simon Njami lamenting that “we are looking backwards again” by leaning on the outdated ideology of the African Renaissance. “We are sick of all those old people thinking old things in old terms,” Njami said. As political scientist Patricia Agupusi argues in her 2021 article “The African Union and the Path to an African Renaissance,” the philosophy comprises platitudes about unity from men who came of age in the independence era, and whose political programs are little more than “a repackaged neoliberal post-Washington idea infused with ownership,” despite its ostensible emphasis on the “relationship between the state, the private sector, and civil society in Africa.”

The controversy surrounding the ARM also extends beyond debates over political ideology: it has become a lightning rod due to concerns over its muddled authorship, unconventional financing, and confusing stylistic choices. Wade claims to have designed the monument decades ago. Upon assuming the presidency, he worked with a number of artists to draw up preliminary sketches. The commission for casting the colossal statue in bronze went to the Mansudae Art Studio of North Korea, with Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa appointed to supervise the project.

But as plans for the monument and its installation were released, questions and critiques from local stakeholders quickly emerged: Why was the figures’ physiognomy so squat and caricatured? Why, in a predominantly Muslim society, were they depicted mostly nude? Why was such a landmark public project outsourced to the Mansudae Art Studio, which has little involvement with African artists? And, given the larger societal ills and immediate needs of the Senegalese people—among them the lack of electricity in the Ouakam neighborhood and the soaring cost of food across the nation—who approved a public sculpture with a $27 million price tag?

While these concerns are not unfounded, popular media outlets—staffed primarily by American, European, and Senegalese reporters—have oversimplified the issues and sensationalized the monument: Wade did not pull the funds directly from the treasury, but instead gave 67 acres of land to Mansudae, which the studio then sold to recoup payment. Additionally, the ARM was built just as Senegal was named a beneficiary of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government-funded United States foreign aid agency that combats poverty through farming, construction, and health initiatives, all issues that were addressed at the symposia during the monument’s dedication weekend. The five-year award totaled $540 million, significantly exceeding the sculpture’s cost.

Those who sensationalize the ARM overlook two crucial unresolved questions: Who is the real artist behind the monument? And what does its contested authorship tell us about the idea of an “African Renaissance” in the 21st century?

Senegal has an outsize cultural footprint relative to other African nations. Since 1960, when the nation won independence from France, Dakar has served as both a hub and a launching pad for African artists involved in a variety of cultural activities, from the First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966) to “Art Contemporain du Sénégal,” which traveled to 24 venues in a dozen countries between 1974 and 1984, to Dak’Art, founded in 1989, the longest-running and most significant biennial exhibition on the African continent. With the President’s title and constitutional duty including “Protector of the Arts,” every leader has left an impact on Dakar’s cultural landscape, though few projects have been as hyper visible as Wade’s ARM.

The monument’s authorship became a key point of debate when Wade claimed a portion of the revenue it generated in perpetuity, calling the design his intellectual property and the product of his own artistry—a bold “Stalinian gesture in a neoliberal epoch,” according to de Jong and Foucher. While it may be tempting to treat the ARM project as the megalomania of an incompetent or wasteful leader, a more compelling line of inquiry is how the contested authorship unmasks an interconnected web of competing interests and influences.

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