Senghor and the arts

David Tresilian , Tuesday 1 Aug 2023

First president of independent Senegal Leopold Sédar Senghor stood out among the African leaders of his generation for his commitment to the arts, as a new exhibition explains, writes David Tresilian

Senghor and the arts
Senghor and the arts


First president of the West African country of Senegal after its independence from France in 1960, Leopold Sédar Senghor is perhaps at least as often remembered today for his poetry as for his political career.

Though he served as president of Senegal until his retirement from political life in 1980, Senghor was never completely or only a politician, even if his two decades in power outdid the sometimes much shorter political careers of some of the other African leaders of his generation.

Senghor also never saw his poetry and other literary writing as a second-best option or form of relaxation from the pressures of political life. Had he not taken up politics, he might easily have found fulfilment as a writer of the type he had been in his early life or during his last two decades after the end of his political career.

Such thoughts might well strike visitors to the new Senghor and the Arts exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris that runs until November. The exhibition largely ignores Senghor the politician and examines instead his attempts to build a thriving cultural sector in Senegal during his presidency.

Senghor was a member of the founding generation of post-independence African leaders, men like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire, and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya. All of them took leading roles in the struggle against European colonial rule in the early and middle decades of the last century before becoming the first presidents of their countries on independence.

Senghor could scarcely have emerged as Senegal’s first president, or kept that position in the face of competition at home and abroad, had he not been at least as skillful a politician as his peers. Yet, perhaps unlike them he made great efforts to mobilise his newly independent country’s resources for the purposes of cultural development, on the way cementing the story of himself as Senegal’s poet-president.

This is the story told in the exhibition, which takes visitors through Senghor’s efforts to establish world-class cultural institutions in Senegal while at the same time hosting major international cultural events such as the Premier Festival mondial des arts nègres, the First World Festival of Black Arts. This was held in the Senegalese capital Dakar in 1966 with representation from African, European, Caribbean, and North and South American countries and presented the work of African and African Diaspora artists, musicians, and writers.

During Senghor’s presidency, particularly in the 1960s, Dakar carved out a space on the international cultural map that it had not had before. Senghor was committed to cultural policies that he thought would make the African arts better understood internationally while at the same time renewing them through contact with the international styles of the time in painting, music, and literature.

Visitors to the exhibition thus have the opportunity to share in some of the excitement and sense of cultural renewal that met the cultural events organised in Senegal during Senghor’s presidency. Photographs and documentary materials have been brought together to report on these, while other materials, gathered from private and public archives, present plans for ever-greater investments in cultural infrastructure.

These were all designed to make Senegal under Senghor the centre of a renewal of the African arts that would bring together artists working in traditional and modern materials and using both traditional and contemporary idioms. It would also not be restricted to West Africa and the Francophone African countries, since it would draw upon the talents and ambitions of the African Diasporas and people of African heritage in the Caribbean and North and South America as well as other African countries.

While some visitors to the exhibition may leave it thinking that Senghor was not entirely successful in his endeavours – some projects seem to have become white elephants even during Senghor’s own tenure and others were neglected by his successors as political winds blew in new directions – the cultural path taken by the new republic of Senegal after its independence in 1960 is striking testimony of the hopes and ambitions of the time.

Senghor’s brand of African socialism, his regime’s official underpinning, has long been out of fashion, and probably it was already creaking in the 1970s even before he left power. But like the similar political ideologies promoted in Ghana under Nkrumah, Nyerere in Tanzania, Kenyatta in Kenya, or even Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire, it was an important example of what was seen at the time as being Africa’s road to development.

This period and its characteristic ideologies are being actively re-evaluated by today’s African young people, not born at the time that such ideas were circulating as the countries concerned emerged from decades of European colonial rule. They are curious about the achievements of the founding generations and the now sometimes-traduced political, economic, and cultural ideologies of the time.

Senghor was not always appreciated as a politician, especially by those who saw his regime as doing little to break his country’s dependency on France. But few people leaving the Senghor and the Arts exhibition will do so without wanting to find out more about his many cultural contributions.


Support for Africa’s arts: Senghor is often most remembered outside Senegal for his literary works rather than his political achievements and particularly for the poems he wrote earlier in life illustrating his views on négritude – the outlook that he thought characterised the Sub-Saharan African peoples.

The exhibition gives the background to such ideas by beginning with Senghor’s student days in Paris before the Second World War when he was influenced by US writers like Alain LeRoy Locke, often seen as the philosophical architect behind the Harlem Renaissance that did so much to bring African-American arts to US and world attention after the First World War, and Carter G. Woodson, the US founder of African Diaspora studies.  

Senghor was close to other Francophone African writers and writers from the French-speaking Caribbean, many of whom were also studying in Paris. There was Aimé Césaire from the Caribbean island of Martinique, author of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, a sequence of poems exploring ideas of négritude, and later there was fellow Senegalese Alioune Diop, founder of the review and publishing house Présence Africaine, one of the most important outlets for African writing in French after the Second World War.

There were also smaller concerns such as L’Etudiant noir, La Revue du monde noir, and L’Homme de couleur, all circulating in Paris before the Second World War and featuring contributions by Senghor among others. The exhibition contains examples of these publications and summarises Senghor’s involvement in them.

The second section of the exhibition focuses on cultural policy in Senegal and the promotion of African arts. Some of this had already been suggested by events in Paris in the 1950s, with the first Congrès des écrivains et artistes noirs, held in the French capital in 1956 on the initiative of Diop and Présence Africaine, forming a kind of model for the later Festival mondial des arts nègres in Dakar.

With the greater resources available to Senghor after he became Senegal’s president, events could be organised on a much larger scale. The exhibition looks at the role of the School of Art built in Dakar in 1958 two years before independence, the Tapestry School at Thiès, built in 1964 to promote Senegalese and African weaving, and the National Theatre built in Dakar in 1965, today home of the Senegalese National Theatre Company and the Senegalese National Ballet. There are photographs of the Theatre’s early productions.

Part of Senghor’s aim in promoting such events and facilities was to stimulate the African arts and bring them into contact with the African Diasporas on the model of the Paris and Dakar congresses. Another part was to promote what might be called Senegal’s “soft power” abroad, with later events such as the Art senegalais d’aujourd’hui exhibition held in the Grand Palais in Paris in 1974 and presenting the work of two dozen Senegalese artists being an exercise in cultural diplomacy.

However, another important part, perhaps for Senghor even the most important, was what the exhibition calls his desire to “reinvent” or “reimagine” “universalism.” Senghor was not convinced that the path forward for Africa’s arts lay in the exploration of local African or black identity, as the earlier emphasis on négritude might have been taken as suggesting. Instead, he wanted the African arts to make claims towards “universalism” – to be at the cutting edge of international experimentation in the arts and to avoid the trap of nostalgia in the guise of authenticity or traditionalism.

As a result, the new institutions built during Senghor’s tenure as president of Senegal were as likely to put on shows by the leading international artists of the time as they were to host shows by local or African artists. The exhibition contains flyers for shows in Dakar in the 1960s by the leading French artist Pierre Soulages at the Musée Dynamique, for example. When Senghor was looking for artists to illustrate his poems, he chose Marc Chagall, Hans Hartung, and Zao Wou-ki, replacing négritude, or a focus on African artists, by what he hoped would be a new “humanism” or “universalism” that could be achieved by bringing together leading international artists.

All this, the exhibition says, was in line with his conviction that the future of the African arts lay in their joining – and leading – the international mainstream, rather than remaining wedded to preconceived notions of identity. It was a case of “giving and receiving,” Senghor is quoted as saying in the exhibition catalogue edited by curators Mamadou Diouf, Sarah Frioux-Salgas, and Sarah Ligner. This contains important essays by Senghor drawn from collections such as Nation et voie africaine du socialism and Négritude et civilisation de l’universel, as well as commentary by later African and Africanist writers.

The last two sections of the exhibition look at the way Senghor’s plans were perceived in Senegal and after his withdrawal from the country’s political life in 1980. Young people began to disengage from state-led projects, seeing them as promoting official views, and artists in Senegal chaffed in protest at Senghor and his ideas, now hardened into what they saw as an orthodoxy inimical to genuine creativity.

Cultural projects on an increasingly massive scale were still being built, and the exhibition contains the plans of some of these. There was the planned Musée des civilisations nègres designed by Swiss architect Jean Gabus that was perhaps fortunately never completed. It was abandoned when Senghor stepped down from power in 1980.

There is also a film of the present uses made of the Centre international du commerce extérieur in Dakar, built in 1974 to plans by French architects Jean-François Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin. This seems to have been taken over by local traders as part of the grassroots reuse of what could easily have turned into just another bureaucratic building.


Senghor et les Arts, réinventer l’universel, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, until 19 November.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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