The practice of Italian Senegalese artist Adji Dieye (b. 1991), based in Zurich and Dakar, Senegal, is dedicated to the themes of postcolonialism and nation-building. From an Afro-diasporic perspective the artist examines how language and the urban landscape function in the writing of history, whose linearity becomes the focus of her critical enquiry. At the centre of Dieye’s exhibition is the video-based work Aphasia (2022), newly produced especially for Fotomuseum Winterthur during an artist residency of several months in Dakar. The work allows Afro-diasporic communities and Black identities to express themselves as living archives by giving them agency and a voice.
The loss of language is the conceptual starting point of the cross-disciplinary work Aphasia, which uses the interplay of photography, video and performance to unveil the contradictions of national knowledge production. The term ‘aphasia’ (deriving from the ancient Greek word αφασία for speechlessness) describes a cognitive language disorder in which individuals are often unable to remember or communicate words. In Dieye’s work, however, the term is appropriated and transferred into a cultural context through a speech-based performance in different public spaces in Dakar. We see the artist sitting on a rooftop, a stack of pipes or a huge mound of building sand, with buildings and construction sites in the background mostly wrapped in fabric or covered in scaffolding.
Absentmindedly, she leafs through a manuscript, mumbling sentences in broken French – excerpts of presidential speeches, written in French, that have been delivered to the public since Senegal’s independence in 1960 and which Dieye has arduously researched in the National Archives of Senegal.
In citing these addresses, the artist finds herself confronted with a certain speechlessness: she attempts to express herself in the official language imposed by a former colonial power that only parts of the population can actually understand in its institutional form. A seemingly neutral language, French continues to operate as a language of business, politics and education in Senegal – even after the country’s decolonisation –, holding on to the space on the country’s history shelves that it gained by gradually replacing vernacular tongues throughout the last century.
As the urban settings of the video-based work continue to change, so does the sound of the artist’s voice, whose tone audibly changes several times until it is no longer the artist’s own voice reading the sentences out loud but rather multiple voices of friends and people with a similar background that Dieye added during post-production. In this way, Aphasia engages with the artist’s biographical background, making use of language as a polyphonic tool to uncover submerged Afro-diasporan and Senegalese voices while reimagining the country’s eclectic cultural identity since its independence in the 1960s.
Aphasia therefore unearths larger cultural and political structures in Senegal’s ‘post’- colonial identity and the heterogeneous use of languages in the country. In doing so, the work also highlights the importance of oral storytelling as an alternative knowledge system
while pointing to the gaps in institutional archives.
‘Aphasia looks at different formulations applied in shaping a national identity and Black epistemologies in the public space.’ Adji Dieye Dieye’s artistic study of Dakar’s rapidly expanding urban environment also invites us to actively listen to the deeper truths and subjectivities of the diasporic and native community the artist is closely connected to because of her own background. Although Aphasia takes the loss of language as its conceptual starting point, it unfolds into a soundscape that gives agency and voice to both the Afro-diasporic community and the artist’s Senegalese kin, whom we see chanting, ultimately emerging as a polyphonic canon and therefore allowing Black identities and spiritualities to express themselves as living archives.
This exhibition project was developed within the framework of Photographic Encounters, a format staged every two years by Fotomuseum Winterthur in conjunction with Christoph Merian Verlag. Photographic Encounters makes it possible for photographers and artists to put on an exhibition and produce an accompanying publication, thereby supporting the production and presentation of a long-term photographic project. Adji Dieye was selected for the first edition.
The Photographic Encounters format has been initiated by the Christoph Merian Foundation and enabled by the Geissmann Scholarship for Photography.