- Dakar’s cultural inheritance was shaped by Senegal’s first President, who was committed to making it the cultural capital of Africa
- Its new Grand National Theatre and Museum of Black Civilisation were both funded by the Chinese government
- Dak’Art is Africa’s oldest bienniale, drawing participants from around the world
City data: Key facts
Geographical area: 32 sq. km
Total population: 2,470,000
Total national country population living in the city: 25.28 %
Education level - with degree level or higher: 6.4 %
Dakar was originally settled by the Lebou people. In the 14th century, when part of the Wolof Empire, it became a centre for the Portugese and Dutch slave trade. In 1840 Senegal became a French possession, and remained one for the following century. This period – during which Dakar was called ‘the Paris of Africa’ had a major influence on the city’s culture; French remains the only official language.
Since Senegal’s independence from France in 1940, Dakar has enjoyed the stability created by an unusually strong democratic tradition. Its first President, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was an poet and leading intellectual, one of the founders of the philosophy of négritude. His dedication to culture – and to making Dakar the cultural capital of Africa – was so strong that he directed 25% of the national budget to the Ministry of Culture. Senghor’s influence has helped to make Dakar a cosmopolitan and culturally rich city.
Today Dakar has a population of just under 2.5 million people. It continues to grow rapidly, both due to migration from rural areas and high birth rates among residents. High levels of migration poses challenges for the city, as does a ‘brain drain’ of more educated residents moving abroad.
A port city located on a peninsula, Dakar is known for its beautiful natural setting and high quality of life. It is also known for its safety, compared to other African cities. Nonetheless it faces important challenges: its location on a peninsula means that there is little space for development, and large amounts of traffic have led to pollution and lower quality of life. Dakar is now making major efforts to improve its infrastructure. Engineering projects have greatly reduced the flood risk in the city’s outer suburbs, and a new fibre optic link in 2012 brings new digital possibilities.
Many of the city’s cultural institutions were created during the Senghor era, particularly when Dakar hosted the World Festival of Black Arts in 1966. A more recent wave of cultural infrastructure creation has been driven by Senegal’s close relationship with China, which funded the creation of a $30 million Museum of Black Civilisation, planned to open in 2016. China has also funded the $36 million Grand National Theatre, completed in 2011, to replace the Senghor-era Daniel Serano Theatre.
Culture is a priority for the city of Dakar. It has inaugurated a new fifteen-year strategy for culture, Development Programme and Animation Cultural and Artistic (DACAR). This strategy includes several different strands. First, nineteen community centres located across the city will be reorganised, each to specialise around a specific artistic discipline (dance, music, visual arts, cinema and theatre). Each cultural centre will offer training and generate income through its speciality, while also offering activities in a secondary discipline. Second, the city has created a new training programme for the crafts arts in order to make up for the limited technical training opportunities currently available in the city. These courses will last for three years and will not require a diploma for entrance. Third, the city has established a fund – with an annual budget of 150 million CFA francs – in order to support artistic projects being carried out in Dakar. Projects will be assessed, and grants awarded, by a jury of professionals, rather than by the municipal administration.
One of the centres of cultural activity in Dakar is the Village des Arts, an artistic cluster supported by the Ministry of Culture. The first Village des Arts was founded by the artist El Hadji Sy in 1977, in a squatted former military barracks in the centre of the city. Six years later the artists were forcibly removed by the military. Village des Arts was formally resurrected in 1998, in a new location outside the city – a former housing camp for construction workers on the nearby sports stadium. The camp had been used as a venue for the 1996 Dak’Art Bienniale and was subsequently squatted by El Hadji Sy and other artists. Today the Village des Arts is one of the main cultural attractions in Dakar, drawing tourists and visitors from across the world.
Dak’Art is the longest-standing Bienniale in Africa - established in 1990 – and perhaps the most important. Although focusing on African art, it takes a global perspective and draws artists from around the world. Festivals held in Dakar include RIBIDION, a festival of contemporary and urban arts organised by the city every December; FANAL, a festival of traditions, intended to preserve the city’s intangible heritage; Festi Graff, Africa’s leading graffiti festival, which draws upon Dakar’s rich street art scene; and the Senegal International Film Festival.
Although Dakar has a strong film history, the film sector has been hit hard by a decline in state support over the past twenty-five years. While there were 35 cinemas in Dakar in the 1970s, there are only a dozen now. Cinema-going has nearly disappeared in the city, although there are now some signs of a revival. A public-private partnership is supporting the Cinema Complex Ousmane Sembène. The city has also created a ‘mobiCINE Program,’ supporting a private company to show films in neighborhoods, in schools, and on the beaches during the school holiday period.
One of the major heritage attractions in Dakar is the Île de Gorée, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This island was a site of the slave trade, although historians disagree on its level of importance to the trade. It was, however, the site of a European colony, and retains its eighteenth-century architecture. Its House of Slaves, first opened as a museum in 1962, is a major tourist attraction and focal point for the remembrance of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.
Dakar is one of the cultural capitals of Africa, with a rich and cosmopolitan cultural inheritance shaped by the influence of Senegal’s first President. Though it faces challenges, such as infrastructure and migration, it is committed to using culture to strengthen the life and image of the city.