The Disordered Beauty of Senegal

Wabi Sabi in Senegalese art and culture

My most vivid memories as a child visiting senegal was the sand that spilled out onto the roadsides near my grandmother's house in Niary Tally, creating a distinctively unfinished, but unmistakably senegalese look to the roadside. Growing up in suburban jungles of Silver Spring Maryland, where the is no sand, no unstructured lands surrounding the roads, a testament to developed world infrastructures, coming to Senegal energized me to see something that wasn't perfect. Senegal is unique in the adjacency of the spectacular and the disordered. Sparkling sea scapes overlooked by towering cliffs in Dakar's peninsula are abruptly obscured by crumbling walls who's only purpose often seems to contain the natural beauty, which peeks through intermittently. Even in modernity there is this quality of imperfection; gleaming modern luxury condos are sprouting like mushrooms, bolstered by scarce land, and monetary stability, overlook bumpy roads. Ngor island, a Catalina like resort separated from the mainland by a swimable turquoise sea animated with life abundant rocks like coral reefs, sheltering parrot fish from the harsher seas, is accessible only via a terrible road, strewn with rubble and with seeping runoff and dead sheep. There is a wabi sabi in Dakar's imperfect beauty, that conveys a message of freedom, forgiveness and laxity, enhancing the aesthetic with energy, uncertainty and surprise. Perhaps this is what draws tourists in like fly traps; attracted at once to the freedom of disorder and the stunning beauty. Baobab trees once punched the sky, herding in fantastic forests, now abatted by housing developers. Boulganvilier flowers align walls strewn with rubble discarded by the builders. Thousand kilometer coastlines backdropped by weather worn concrete houses. People walk dusty roads attending ceremonies in brilliantly colored clothing. I asked my uncle whether there was a word in senegalese culture for the lived-in hand wrought feel of local design and art, where hand drawn lines wiggle on uncopiable Bogolan prints, corners are never ninety degrees and styles are never harmonized. He confirmed the existence of the thing without naming it. I know there's a name, but its meaning, at a human scale, that draws in the surfers, that is forgiving and breathtaking at the same time, is clear.