As we were nearing press time a few days ago, it occurred to us to try and capture one specific example of China’s waxing presence in Africa, the Parc Culturel et ses Sept Merveilles de Dakar, near the Senegalese capital’s bustling seaport. There, Chinese laborers, backed by Chinese investment and in keeping with Chinese foreign policy, are working to build the nation. The park starts with the basics: a national theater, national archives, national library and a museum of black civilization. The designs—except for a music hall shaped like kora—are reminiscent of those found on the main square of any second- or third-tier Chinese city. The digital renderings, if one had to bet, were done by Crystal CG. And yet among these technocratic fantasias, one of these “miracles” picks up on a form less Chinese than global: a Museum of Contemporary Art to be housed, where else, in a former train station.

It’s the perfect image for this, our third issue, and not just because of the extensive coverage we devote to China’s emerging relationship with Africa or our feature on how museums are hewed from former industrial and infrastructural spaces. It works not just because it shows the prime position that contemporary art has come to inhabit in this civilizational order, or the acquired, but now seemingly immanent affinity between new culture and old buildings. It works because it shows that the world system, like that school in Queens or that power plant in Southwark, is being remade.

Two years is a long time in the Chinese art world. The third Hong Kong Art Fair opens next week (for which we have produced with this issue a special LEAP Guide to ART HK 10), making me think back to the show’s first edition in 2008, when my brother, whose article appears on page 72, made the trip from Dakar, where he lives. He arrived in Hong Kong, but was rejected there for an onward visa to Beijing. Twice. It is an unremarkable story; every Chinese artist worth his salt has at least a few rejection stamps in his passport. But it was a revelatory incident because it shed light on how the geopolitical tables were beginning to turn.
LEAP 3 is about cultural mobility in the context of that turn. Sure, China is rising and its cultural influence will only expand, in Africa as elsewhere. And yet the vehicles of that influence, at least on a symbolic level and in the art context, may do less to push a specific national agenda than to spread and develop forms, like the train-station-turned-museum, that we just might all be able to agree on.

May 21, 2010