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Senghor and the rise of a Senegalese cultural philosophy

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Dialoguing with his fellow intellectuals of The African Society of Culture and publishing in the group’s journal Présence Africaine, Senghor was part of a community that placed artists and cultural producers at the fore of the struggle for independence and its aftermath. Elizabeth Harney describes this time in the following way: 

The very establishment of a society of intellectuals and activists, a publication house, and a set of organized forums that could nurture burgeoning political and cultural philosophies afforded the arts and artists central roles in the processes of postcolonialism. At conferences, art was envisioned to be in the service of a variety of pressing pursuits, acting as a means of exploring and expressing newfound senses of cultural nationalism, shared racial consciousness, and philosophy. 

Here we see the germination of the cultural ideology that would come to fruition in independent Senegal under Senghor and that would come to define cultural production up to the present day. At the second Congress of Black Writers and Artists in 1959 Senghor declared, “writers and artists must play, do play an essential role in the struggle for decolonisation.”

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 Once African countries were free from the cultural strictures of colonialism, they would be able to produce “true” black art and culture, which, in Senghor’s view, would provide a unique dimension to the cultural hybridisation in which all countries could now freely participate. For centuries world culture had been lacking the characteristics inherent to Africa due to colonial suppression. Now Africa could offer those aspects—in particular rhythm and emotion—to all countries and allow them to appreciate and assimilate them. This process, in Senghor’s view, would result in the civilisation of the universal. 

With the arrival of decolonisation and independence, Senghor was able to put this philosophy into meaningful practice through his cultural policy in Senegal. Harney writes: 

Senghor became a great patron of the arts in his newly independent nation. He viewed art and politics as handmaidens in the struggle toward economic development and, by extension, the artists as cultural workers…He believed that Negritude, acting as the people’s cultural repository, could illustrate the rich potential in Senegalese society and thereby motivate individuals to strive for greater production. Its promotion was not simply a luxury but crucial to the success of Senegalese state building.

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Funds—as much as 25 or 30 percent of the state’s budget—were allocated to the Ministry of Culture and were used to build presses, theaters, museums, art schools, archives, and workshops. Senegal “hosted annual salons, sponsored internationally traveling exhibitions, and provided a generous system of bursaries and civil service jobs” within the visual arts community. The National Dance Company and The National Ballet were formed in the year after independence, drawing from different ethnic groups and regions to foster a sense of national unity and identity. Troupe members quickly departed on overseas tours, acting as ambassadors of Senegal. In 1966, Senghor organised The First World Festival of Black Arts, whose purpose was to promote Senegalese art to the world, as well as to further the articulation of a pan-African aesthetic. 

From these early manifestations of Senegalese post-independence culture I want to identify and look more closely at two principles that run through all of them, proving to be defining and enduring characteristics of Senghorian cultural policy, of enduring Senegalese cultural philosophy. The first is the expression of an inherent identity through culture, and the second the engagement of this expression with an international audience. Souleymane Bachir Diagne shows that the “natural” state of African cultures was inscribed in the cultural policy as a counterpoint to colonial nation formation, making postcolonial culture an essential component to postcolonial national identity: “the primary goal of cultural politics was to forge a national consciousness for nation-states that had inherited borders that rarely followed ethnic and cultural coherency established by precolonial history.”

Writing in 1973 for a study prepared for Unescoon cultural policy in Senegal, Mamadou Seyni M’Bengue, an adviser in the country’s Ministry of Culture, emphasised the importance of organizing new cultural forms and institutions around “authentic” African civilisation: 

It was, indeed, in this heritage of the past, embodying our most authentic values of civilisation, that the new cultural system had to be rooted. It was in the heart of this parent-stock full of life-giving sap that the future grafts of modernity and enriching new contributions had to be implanted…Our new cultural system was, therefore, to reflect our vision of the world, our constant preoccupation with man, our desire to organise life according to our own criteria with regard to the beautiful and the useful, so as to revive in the world a sense of aesthetic values, to make it hear the profound message of Africa, conveyed by the regular rhythm of the tom-tom.

Such ideology had a profound impact on the practices, products, and success of those actually creating artwork shortly after independence. For example, Ndiouga Adrien Benga reveals the expectations placed on urban musical forms, writing: “Senghor determined precisely what suited him and what was important therefore to support. Urban music was not exempt from this. It was supposed to protect national languages through appropriate compositions and adaptations. In addition, it was supposed to be concerned with the creation of an authentically local music.”

In the visual arts, this “life-giving sap” took the form of recognisably pan-African images: masks and carved statues, for example. 

These “authentically” African art forms were then sent out to the world, demonstrating the inherent characteristics of African society and arguing for Africa’s place among the world’s leading nations. This second component of postcolonial Senegalese cultural ideology was essential in order to harness the nationalism that had been provoked by cultural productions within the country and to use it to elevate Senegal’s global standing. Again, examples abound of cultural producers who were developed under Senghor’s cultural policy to be eventual representatives of Senegalese culture and society for a worldwide audience. Benga cites the example of Lamine Konté who came from a family of griots and wrote songs based on African or Afro-Diasporic poems and texts with traditional instruments like the balafon and the kora. His music was supported and promoted by the government’s cultural institutions and was embraced by primarily European listeners. In regards to visual art, Harney notes, “the arts infrastructure remained essentially export-oriented, promoting an image of the nation and its aesthetic abroad.”

 The promotional value of cultural products for Senegalese national identity was facilitated by the fact that the State controlled every facet of the art world, from production and selling, to curation and criticism. Due to the government’s active development of consistently identifiable cultural productions and its insistence on exporting those productions outside of Senegal for nationalist and political ends, creating an aura of cultural exceptionalism around the country, during Senghor’s presidency it was difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the art world and the political sphere. Culture became the de facto tool in Senegal for engaging with global, national, and local political issues. Diagne emphasises the overwhelming influence that Senghorian cultural strategies have had on Senegal up to its present day: 

Senegal’s emphasis on the idea of cultural politics since its independence, which differentiates it from many other African nations, is well known. This emphasis is so significant that the idea itself must be understood to mean that true politics can only exist through culture and for culture. The immense shadow of President Senghor, of course, hovers over this perspective.”  

Despite Senghor’s obvious dedication to the arts and his continuing influence over that domain of Senegalese society, the cultural policy that he instituted contained within it some obvious contradictions and tensions. His desire for artists to emphasize authentically African motifs in their work has led to criticism that Senghor was, in fact, accommodating and reinforcing French colonial ideology. Harney notes that masks and statues were “commodified signs of l’art primitif within the European marketplace and imagination.”

Senghor’s focus on the exportation of Senegalese cultural products and knowledge has also been criticized for leaving Senegal’s own general populace bereft of these art forms and know-how. Politician Abdoulaye Bathily has said that Senghor “acted more internationally than nationally…his cultural policy really did not have an impact on the mass of the people.” Harney argues that Senghor’s tactics left “a larger Senegalese public with little guidance or incentive to acquire the kind of ‘cultural capital’ needed to serve as an active consumer or patron class for these new arts.”

State patronage itself, whatever the preferred motifs and targeted audience, was problematic as it pressured artists, whether directly or indirectly, to conform to expectations. As a result, a diluted body of national artwork was created due to the patronage system giving the same support to all artists who were willing to meet stylistic demands, regardless of their differences in skill and technique. Benga details the dilemma faced by urban musicians during Senghor’s presidency. In order to earn the meager living that was available through music during that time period, musicians had to base their songs on “praises for some marabout or member of the establishment.”

Musicians who bridled against such exigencies were faced with censorship. Filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, an outspoken critic of many aspects of Senegalese politics and society under Senghor, received funding from the Senegalese government, yet also had to endure censorship of some of his films. 

Senghor’s cultural policy, then, unquestionably birthed a concept of cultural exceptionalism in Senegal that has infused the country’s various postcolonial cultural scenes, producers, and productions. Yet, just as certainly, it promulgated a cultural philosophy riven with tension between politics and the arts, between the cultural elite and the general populace, between national leaders and artists. Cultural exceptionalism is thus not an inherent, authentic trait of Senegalese society, easily accessible to all, but it is a program carefully and purposefully constructed, implemented, and maintained by Senghor to further specific political ends. Nevertheless, it has created a rhetorical and ideological space that cultural actors and producers, and their work, in Senegal must pass through, even those who strive to subvert normativity within the cultural and political spheres. Even these firebrands must work within the framework of Senegal’s cultural ideology instituted by Senghor, acknowledging it in order to distort it.


Devin Bryson is Assistant Professor of Francophone Studies at Illinois College, and his research topics include Francophone African migratory cultures and expressions, minority cultures in France, and the intersections between hip-hop and social activism in Africa. 


By Devin Bryson


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