While visiting the Things Fall Apart exhibition (part of the recent “Red Africa” season) at Calvert 22 in London, I was intrigued by Onejoon Che’s model of the African Renaissance Monument. This was one of a series of models and photographs of African monuments on display by the South Korean artist. Firstly, I was struck by how closely the design for the monument mirrored Soviet statuary and monumental sculptures erected under other Communist regimes. Several examples have previously been featured on ESPIONART, such as the golden statue in Vieng Xay District, Laos and Choi Young-jeep’s Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. What led this statue to be built in Dakar, Senegal as recently as 2010? And then there was the small matter of the North Koreans. While the sculpture has been credited as being based on an idea of President Abdoulaye Wade and designed alternatively by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby or Romanian sculptor Virgil Magherusan, the object itself was built by a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Projects. I decided to investigate further.
Standing 49 metres tall and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from a scenic hilltop, the African Renaissance Monument looks as though it has been in place for many years. The tallest statue in Africa, this imposing bronze effigy is of a scale and spirit that is rarely seen in 21st-century statuary (although China recently bucked the trend with a 32-metre high bust of a young Chairman Mao that was unveiled in 2009). But in fact the African Renaissance Monument is a very recent addition to the Senegalese landscape, with construction only beginning in 2008 and the formal dedication taking place on 4 April 2010, to commemorate 50 years of independence from France.
The statue consists of three full-length figures in deep bronze, that appear to depict an idealised African family group. On the left, a scantily-clad young woman leans against a rock, her head tilted back and her arms spread behind her in a submissive pose; in the middle, a muscular young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and a traditional kufi cap straddles the rock, his right arm around the girl’s waist, and a small child held aloft in his left hand; on the left, the naked child sits perched on the man’s shoulder and points westward towards the sea, with the direction of his arm completing the upward trajectory of the entire scene. All three figures stare upwards with determination, a common trope in Socialist Realism.
The statue was unveiled in front of 19 African heads of state, in recognition of its status as a symbol of the African Renaissance, a campaign for postcolonial African nations to work together to achieve success. President Wade announced that after “several centuries of imprisonment in the abyssal depths of ignorance, intolerance and racism,” the statue “brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”. Yet despite this utopian proclamation, riot police had to be deployed to control a protest by thousands of Senegalese citizens who denounced the use of US$27 million of public money to build the “horrible” statue. In a 92% Muslim country, the colossal display of naked flesh also provoked uproar. Some Senegalese opposition leaders even labelled the sculpture “Stalinist”, acknowledging its similarities to works such as Vera Mukhina’s iconic statue of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, first displayed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937 and now once again erected in Moscow.
Also in attendance at the opening ceremony were representatives of North Korea. Mansudae Overseas Projects is the international division of Mansudae Art Studio, run by the North Korean government and responsible for numerous propaganda monuments across the secretive nation. In recent years, the Pyongyang-based company has produced a number of monuments across Africa celebrating independence from European colonial powers. Other works, also reproduced as models by Onejoon Che, include the bronze Three Dikgosi Monument that was unveiled in Gaborone, Botswana in 2005, and Heroes’ Acre, a war memorial erected in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Other projects include a statue memorialising the 19th-century King Béhanzin, on display in Abomey, Benin. The involvement of North Korea in the construction of the African Renaissance Monument was previously explored in Frieze Magazine, while other statues built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects can be seen in an article on Quartz.
It has been reported that as a reward for its involvement, North Korea was granted a large portion of state land in Senegal, meaning that a statue purported to celebrate freedom from colonisation has ironically resulted in yet another non-African nation securing land rights in Africa.
Images: Onejoon Che, Model of the African Renaissance Monument, 2014. Fibre-reinforced plastic. Courtesy the artist; African Renaissance Monument, 2010. Bronze, 49 metres. Dakar, Senegal; Vera Mukhina, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 1937. Stainless steel, 24.5 metres. Moscow, Russia.