West Africa’s first underwater museum sheds light on environmental issues

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Waves crash onto the beach outside Oceanium, a scuba diving center and environmental organization in Dakar’s southern Plateau district. About 100 meters offshore and 5 meters below, eight sculptures rise from the ocean floor.

Dutch and Italian artists Mischa Sanders and Philipp Putzer created the sculptures during an artistic residency in Dakar.

VOA and other media were unable to visit the sculptures during a visit scheduled for Monday due to poor visibility and rough seas.

A sculpture by artist Fabrice Monteiro at the Oceanium in Dakar, Senegal, aims to raise awareness of the importance of protecting marine environments. (Annika Hammerschlag/VOA)

The works debuted at the Dakar Art Biennale, which runs until Tuesday. The aim is to raise awareness of the pollution that surrounds the sculptures, and thus encourage a conversation about the environment.

Charlotte Thomas is Oceanium’s communications manager.

“You see, here in Senegal, pollution is everywhere,” Thomas said. “You go to Dakar and you see litter all around you. And with the rainy season coming, it’s going to go into the sea. So if we don’t protect our land, we can’t protect our sea.”

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In addition to Senegal’s endemic plastic pollution, a wave of development projects over the past decade have transformed the coastline and eroded fragile ecosystems. Fish stocks have plummeted as commercial and artisanal fishing boats continue to use unsustainable fishing practices.

In 2015, the government passed a law banning single-use plastics, but it was never enforced. Since then, versions of the law have been passed, including in 2020 when the legislation specifically targeted plastic cups, straws, plates, bags and bottles, but these have never come into force either.

Rodwan El Ali, director of Oceanium and the underwater exhibition in Dakar, Senegal, poses for a portrait on June 20, 2022. (Annika Hammerschlag/VOA))

Rodwan El Ali, director of Oceanium and the underwater exhibition in Dakar, Senegal, poses for a portrait on June 20, 2022. (Annika Hammerschlag/VOA))

Born in Senegal, Rodwan El Ali is Oceanium’s diving director and underwater exhibition. He has spent much of his life diving in Dakar.

El Ali said in French: “I live under water, and I see that the regions that were so beautiful when I was young, today not only are there no more fish, but they have been replaced by plastic bottles, cans and all sorts of things. It’s painful for me.”

A diving flag on the left, about 100 meters offshore, indicates the location of the underwater museum in Dakar, Senegal, seen on June 20, 2022. (Annika Hammerschlag/VOA)

A diving flag on the left, about 100 meters offshore, indicates the location of the underwater museum in Dakar, Senegal, seen on June 20, 2022. (Annika Hammerschlag/VOA)

El Ali said he used to see lots of dolphins, whales and sharks and catch fish his size. Now, he says, there is almost nothing left.

“We are in a country where the environment is not a priority,” he said. “Maybe [politicians] mention it in speeches, but in reality they do nothing. Nobody watches, nobody does anything. You can go to sea and do whatever you want and no one will stop you.

Since the sculptures were placed underwater in December, they have given birth to their own ecosystem. The clay structures are covered with barnacles, shells and sea urchins. Fish visit frequently to find refuge and feed on algae.

Oumy Diaw is a contemporary art specialist. What she finds most interesting about the installation, she says, is that the statues look like coral – a unique sight in the arid waters of Dakar.

“The bay is just full of sand, there are absolutely no corals,” Diaw said. “So it’s interesting to see how contemporary art tries to mimic what nature can provide by exploring natural ingredients that can coexist with the environment.”

The fact that Dakar is the contemporary art capital of the continent gives the work a particularly broad platform, she said.

Organizers say they plan to commission local artists to create new sculptures that will be added to the exhibit over time.

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