C&: How did you start out on your professional/artistic adventure inDakar?
Mauro Petroni : It began in the 1980s. It was a cocktail of adventure and discovery, a desire to make things happen… There was no contact at all between the different cultures, so every step that allowed us to get in touch with each other was a source of wonder. I was lucky to be able to set up in this ceramics studio at the seaside where I am still based, and that I have managed to maintain it and keep it alive for so long…
C& : You initiated Dak’Art OFF. How long has it been going? What was your driving motivation for doing the project?
MP : During the year 2000 we realized that the Biennale was in the process of gaining a certain momentum. Alongside the interest of all the Senegalese operators it was getting more international attention. A smart trick had to be found to get everybody involved, and the easiest way was to boost the importance of the individual initiatives. My motivation was simply aimed at injecting more vitality into the Biennale, and through this, into the contemporary art scene I belonged to in Dakar. Remy Sagna and Ousseynou Wade, the two consecutive general secretaries of the Biennale during that period, both showed great intelligence. Giving a free hand to the initiatives and awarding them a label and status as an institutional “OFF”, a recognised fringe festival, was a clever twist! That allowed us to expand the scene with a minimum of expense.
C& : And how do you see the evolution of OFF – in terms of venues, participation and the formats on offer?
MP : The strategy was an immediate success. In the space of two Biennales we had more than a hundred exhibition sites at Dakar. But there was a great deal of criticism on the level of event`s quality. I always thought that wasn’t a fundamental criterion — an informed audience is able to make allowances. But I must say that over time the mechanism got rather rusty, the vitality was not really apparent, and the result was a large number of places, but three-quarters of them weren’t good showcases. Still, it has always been pretty effective at making young people live, work and dream, and there have always been a small number of good shows that restore full meaning to the event. Many Senegalese artists have grown up through the OFF.
C& : Who can participate in Dak’Art OFF? What are the selection criteria?
MP : It’s a known fact that everybody can take part and the only criterion to meet is to exhibit a work of contemporary art. Of course, we realize this principle opens the way to plenty of confusion, but we don’t have the means or the time required to check two thousand entries, three-quarters of which arrive after the due date! Anyway, we want to protect the spirit of freedom that goes together with improvisation and amateurism, but also with freshness and sympathy. There used to be a quality hierarchy—the “real” artists wanted to be in the IN. Today they’ve realized that the visibility is the same, and it’s clear to me that the quality of the OFF is improving.
C& : Dak’Art and OFF – are they rivals or allies? To what extent?
MP : We have realized that the two things are closely linked. I think anybody who tried to create a competition between these two events would be risking certain death! Some people say the OFF is the better part of the Biennale, yet it wouldn’t have been able to exist without the backing of the media and identity of the real Biennale.
C& : Ideas and predictions: How is Dak’Art OFF presenting itself this year? What can we expect?
MP : The best and the worst! There will be big, almost institutional exhibitions, such as those by Ousmane Sow and Iba Ndiaye, foundations such as Benetton or Blachère presenting their projects, and venues large enough to host several events at a time. We will also be present at festivals of street art, at the arts laboratory and at parades in public space. Saint-Louis has become a major location of the OFF and will be highlighted with very significant events. There are lots of entries from other African countries, from artists that come with institutes and delegations, but who from now on will be incorporated within the framework of OFF. And we have over 250 registrations!!! The problem is, everybody wants to hold his or her opening event during the first five days, and we’ll all have to run from one place to another!
Mauro Petroni, born in Lucca, Italy, has been living and working in Dakar since 1983. He is the founder of the ceramics studio “Céramiques Almadies.” Petroni has been the curator of environmental events at the Dak’Art OFF since 2002.