The French professor went to see the Senegalese president in the summer of 1978 and they sat in his office, in Dakar, under the flowing colors and designs of giant tapestries. He was fiercely proud of them -- they were, he said, fine examples of contemporary African art. And the president, "a champion of Negritude and African art," according to Howard University French professor Daniel Racine, saw it as his duty to show them -- preferably in Washington, D.C. for starters.
Last night, the show previewed at the Corcoran Gallery: "Contemporary Art of Senegal." Complete with fanfare and a few tuxedos (on some of the most important guests) and a sumptuous buffet of things like meatballs and shrimp and Mumm's champagne.
The president, Leopold Senghor, couldn't make it and sent his regrets. But a delegation of 10 came from the government and another 26 dancers and drummers came from the Ballet Mudra Afrique, currently performing in town. Some came in long, thick brocaded robes that billowed like tents when they walked through the gallery.
The strains of their soft, elegant French floated through the halls.
"It's a delight to see this kind of art that I know so well," said Fedy Vieux-Brierre, son of the technical adviser to the Senegalese minister of culture, and a program assistant with the American Public Health Association here. "It's like a breath of fresh air."
It took President Senghor two years to get a Washington gallery interested in his breath of fresh air. Senghor told Marion Barry and his wife, Effi, a member of the Corocoran board, how disappointed he was that no gallery in the District showed interest. He told them this when they visited Dakar last summer, probably much the same way he told the French professor.
"We immediately came back to Washington and solved the problem," said Barry to the guests last night, but some commented that he and others had to do a lot of persuading first before the gallery took it.
Approximately 500 guests, by Corcoran director Peter Marzio's count, arrived at the gallery for last night's opening.They ranged from the members of the Senegalese delegation like Minister of Culture Assane Seck, who gave a long speech in French, mentioning that "les arts plastiques" had nothing to do with the modern-day throwaway culture's vision of plastic. It had, instead, everything to do with modern, innovative art.
"This is a nice mix of people," said artist Jane Dow, intently peering across the food-laden buffet table."Artists, dancers . . ."
"I see a lot of the workers," said Afro-American Newspaper's Roger Glass to the Museum of African Art's Amina Dickerson.
And many of those dancers were from the Mudra Afrique. Germaine Acogny, director of the school of dancers, her dark hair in straight tight braids, a wide-brimmed orange hat pulled down to eyebrow level, opened her eyes wide in astonishment when asked to talk about the school. She cried out in rapid French that it was impossible to talk about the school simply in a brief moment at an art opening.
Acogny said she has seen nothing of Washington. "I simply go from vehicle to vehicle."
In another room, Effi Barry, five months pregnant, found a lone chair under a huge gold and black tapestry and launched into enthusiastic discussion of the exhibit. "We have to bring in school-children to see these tapestries, not to emphasize any symbolism, but just to show them the colors."