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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

ArtSpeaks: Africa #7 – Senegal: "It Takes a Family”

Updated: Jun 10

Painting - “Large Senegalese Family 2” by Alioune Diagne, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 297 x 207 cm (Museum of Black Civilizations, Dakar, Senegal)

I have been repeatedly asked, “How has your visit to Senegal gone?” I often respond that it has felt like the entire country knew in advance that I was coming, and opened its arms wide to bless me beyond all imaginings. Words do not do justice to the inestimable gift that Senegal, my heart’s home, has given me on this visit. I experienced so much kindness, comfort, peace, laughter, goodness, and inspiring strength.


The Senegalese are some of the most welcoming, all-embracing, accepting and hospitable people. I have had the gift of spending time with childhood friends, some whom I have not seen for over 30 years. I also have made many new friends throughout the country. It is absolutely remarkable that during three weeks in Senegal, not one time was I ever asked about what I do. In Senegal, it is all about who you are, as opposed to what you do. Your occupation or career is not a critical part of your identity, as it would be in the West. What matters to them is who someone is at their very core, which is something they sense instinctively. It is profoundly liberating, as they genuinely relish each other’s company.

There is a humorous Senegalese proverb in the Wolof language that translates, “If you have a monkey for your friend, you will never get your loincloth stuck in a tree.” In other words, it is all about whom you know during times of difficulty that makes all the difference. In a communal culture like Senegal, one’s “family,” biological and/or relational, is assured to come alongside you to provide support whenever needed. During a recent period of trauma that I experienced, I learned very clearly who my friends really were – or as the Senegalese would say, “who were family.” Equally true, one also discovers during difficult periods who isn’t part of your own soul-safe community - even though one may have lived under an illusion of being “safe” within it for years. Senegal is truly a soul-safe place.

Alioune Diagne, Grande Famille Sénégalaise 2, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 297 x 207 cm

Museum of Black Civilizations, Dakar, Senegal

The celebrated Senegalese artist Alioune Diagne’s painting at the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal, spoke powerfully to me of the support, safety and security that can come from true community, whether family or friends. Titled “Large Senegalese Family,” it is a beautiful example of his unique style, which combines abstraction and figuration in his work. The painting depicts an extended multi-generational family in a rural village in Senegal.


Diagne has recently been launched onto a global platform as he is representing Senegal during their first showing at the prestigious Venice Art Biennale this year. A graduate of the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Dakar, Diagne has become known for his distinct artistic style which he has termed “Figure-Abstro” – i.e. depicting figurative scenes by employing abstract signs. These “signs,” when seen close up (see photos) are motifs that unconventionally convey meaning and solicit emotion, speaking what one may experience as a mysterious visual language. Speaking of his inimitable style, Diagne shares, “Each sign that I come to rigorously paint on the canvas carries its own emotion.” These thousands of motifs form the foundation of distinct shapes and figures that become recognizable from a distance, creating a powerful visual experience. Diagne’s work is often seen differently if you squint your eyes. His work has a spiritual luminosity to it, as he typically focuses on Senegalese daily life, or cultural, economic and social challenges among his people. The development of his painting style was in itself a sort of spiritual revelation for Diagne. His motifs, while in some ways resemble Arabic lettering as found in the Qur’an, are in his words an “unconscious and universal language, that everyone perceives and reads as they feel, according to their own perceptions.”

I experienced “Large Senegalese Family” as a contemplative visual meditation on the beauty and importance of community – of “family” in the fullest and healthiest sense of the word. In Senegalese culture, often a reference to someone being a “brother” or “sister” doesn’t mean a direct sibling, but rather someone more distantly related, or not at all related; a brother and sister in the truest sense of those terms. Typical greetings in Senegal entail inquiring for several minutes about the other’s well-being, and also of the wellness of members of one’s family. In Senegal, one need never experience aloneness, as one will always be supported by family, relatives, friends, elders, members of one’s spiritual affiliation, etc. Community is everything, and the culture inherently breeds it. As another Senegalese proverb goes, “Don’t tell me who you are. Tell me who your friends are.” The individual is seen as inseparably linked to others.


In front of Diagne’s large canvas painting, I found myself reflecting on all those in my “family,” figuratively speaking, who have been there for me of recent. Their soul-safe support has been life-giving, making all the difference. I am reminded of Beatrix Potter’s marvelous line in her children’s book: “Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement…”


It takes a “family.”


By Paul G. Chandler

For more info on Alioune Diagne, see his website ( ) or read a marvelous profile and interview with him by DakArtNews ( ).

NOTE: If you visit Venice, Italy before November 24, 2024, plan to visit Alioune Diagne’s inspiring artistic installation at the Senegalese pavilion titled “Bokk Bounds,” that focuses on various aspects of society and challenges that Senegalese have in common. It entails 17 paintings and a broken pirogue – a Senegalese wood fishing boat (see photos below).


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