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Senegal calling: Anna Ehrenstein’s collages from the future

The German artist’s whimsical photo collages at C/O draw on the rich art scene of Dakar. Our art editor hears about her process.

Image for Senegal calling: Anna Ehrenstein’s collages from the future

German artist Anna Ehrenstein draws on the rich art scene of Dakar with her whimsical photo collages set in a bright, surreal future. Photo: Anna Ehrenstein, 360° Oral and Visual Video Work Research, 2019 © Anna Ehrenstein . Courtesy Office Impart and KOW Berlin

The mainstream perception of African immigration is of overladen, rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean or the perilous Eastern trek to the Gulf States. The truth is very different, and for artist Anna Ehrenstein, it is a misconception that’s highly problematic “I find it deeply annoying, because 90 percent of migration on the African continent is actually within Africa and across land borders.”

Ehrenstein’s show at C/O Berlin tackles this misperception head on, upturning external Western perspectives and creating a tapestry of local visual and oral narratives from the migrants living in Senegal’s capital city of Dakar.

Born in Germany to Albanian parents, Ehrenstein, who often travelled back and forth between the two countries, understands what it means to be a migrant: “It was a hard contrast and you have to be fluid to fit into both societies.” After hearing about the Dakar Biennale from a curator friend, she began contacting artists and entrepreneurs living there via Instagram.

Dakar is a vast multicultural city, with Senegal’s liberal visa policy ensuring there is a constant influx of new migrants. Her conversations with the migrants quickly turned into collaborations as they began putting together their own hybrid projects that would become the basis of this exhibition.

Image for Senegal calling: Anna Ehrenstein’s collages from the future

Franceline II, 2019 © Anna Ehrenstein . Courtesy Office Impart and KOW Berlin

Ehrenstein’s resultant artworks are loud, full of life and colour, and reveal the “beautiful cultural creolisation” of African society. In interviews, digital and physical collages and textiles, she has produced strange, futuristic scenarios that have been described as drawing from the “digital utopia of global connectivity”. Like photo collages showing the nonchalant man in a tie-dye shirt floating in a soup of glitchy cryptocurrencies, or the woman surrounded by drones in the midst of the shimmering light of a pool with repeating body parts.

The title of the exhibition, Tools for Conviviality, is taken from a work by Ivan Illich, the priest and social critic, who argued that the tools of technological innovation only subjugate us rather than make our lives easier. This does not reflect Ehrenstein’s own view, who welcomes the possibilities engendered by smartphones and social media: “But the technology needs to be transformed to provide more freedom in its use.”

She highlights the work of one of her collaborators, the Dakar-based fashion label Donkafele, who Ehrenstein says “are working on an app to resell clothing and reduce the colonist structure that lets the West import second-hand clothing to the African continent, without being active in the process.”

Originally planned for October last year, the show reopened in late March, and Ehrenstein is quietly delighted to get the chance to enact the “performative programme” she had planned with her collaborators. “Now that it’s staying open until September, there is a hope that Germany will open its borders again to Africans.”

Tools for Conviviality |Through September C/O Berlin, Charlottenburg