A New Wave of Creatives Is Transforming Dakar, Senegal’s Capital City

Dakar is the gateway to Africa. It juts into the Atlantic Ocean, hemmed by water on three sides. The farthest westerly point on the continent, it is closer to Lisbon than to Cape Town. The first thing that strikes you is the teranga. The Wolof word translates loosely as “hospitality,” but it’s more like a way of life—one that goes beyond the smiles and “Ça va!”s on the streets to encompass sharing, inviting, and including. It’s teranga when the surfer you catch a break with insists you chat afterward over bissap juice somewhere along the waterfront Corniche, or when bartering for wax fabrics ends with attaya tea with the vendor.

In recent years, Dakar’s friendly reputation has quietly grown around the world. It started with the surfers, who loved the city for its waves; the music lovers, here for Mbalax and the mighty Youssou N’dour; and the fashion scene, drawn by the vibrancy of its fabrics. Historians deserve credit for shaping the way we think about Dakar today. As a main departure point in the trade of enslaved people, Senegal carries four centuries of traumatic history in its cells.

Many from throughout the Senegalese diaspora have returned to the land of their ancestors to be culturally and spiritually enriched, and to enrich. Many other passers-through fall so hard for the place, they never end up leaving. This is most obvious in the city’s arts scene, where transplants have teamed up with locals to create exciting entrepreneurial projects, making what is quickly becoming the most dynamic multidisciplinary arts hub in sub-Saharan Africa. Large-scale projects such as Black Rock, the artist residency opened by American portraitist Kehinde Wiley three years ago in Dakar’s Yoff Virage, and Dak’Art, Africa’s largest art biennial, which takes over the city this month, have pinned Senegal firmly on the global map.

But Dakar’s creativity is in its genes. Women wear flowing boubous in bold oranges, purples, and greens. Humble fishing boats are striped like rainbows. The vividly painted central Médina area is like an open-air museum. “Everyone has their own relationship with art here,” says Sarah Diouf, a former Marc Jacobs executive who left Paris for the Senegalese capital six years ago. As Dak’Art launches this month, we meet a cohort of makers and visionaries writing the city’s next chapter.

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