This 49 meters tall bronze statue is located on top of the Collines des Mamelles – one of the twin hills – in the Senegalese capital Dakar. It overlooks the Atlantic Ocean just outside the city in the Ouakam neighborhood.
The African Renaissance Monument was designed by renowned Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa following a recommendation from then-president Abdoulaye Wade and commissioned to the Mansudae Overseas Projects, a North Korean art production studio.
The construction began in 2008 after two years of site preparation. Initially, the work was scheduled to be completed in December 2009, but the delays stretched into early 2010.
The official inauguration took place on April 2010, which coincided with the National Day in Senegal, a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from France. Once completed, the African Renaissance Monument became the tallest statue in Africa and has attracted mixed reactions.
What does the African Renaissance Monument symbolize?
The monument portrays a man with a bare, ripped torso, holding an infant in one arm and guiding a woman with the other hand. The baby points ahead to signify the wonderful future. The woman extends her arm behind in a gesture to acknowledge the troubled past as her hair and the scant, gossamer-like dress are swept back by the wind.
Then-President Wade said1 that the statue symbolizes the triumph of African liberation from centuries of ignorance, intolerance, and racism. He hoped it would rival the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris as a tourist destination.
The monument, the largest in Africa, was intended to celebrate the achievements of the African people, particularly in regards to emancipation from colonial grip and slavery.
As the name suggests, the monument is based on the concept that the African people shall overcome the current challenges confronting the continent and achieve cultural, scientific, and economic renewal.
But it goes beyond just celebrating the achievements of African people. President Wade, under whose regime the monument was constructed, is one of the last African leaders centered on African unity and Pan-Africanism.
Throughout his stint as the head of the state, he showed a keen interest in moving the continent towards greater interdependence and unification. He is known as the “last great Pan-African theorist“2.
For that reason, Wade has stressed more often than not that the African Renaissance Monument is not just a monument to the Senegalese people or Senegal. Instead, it is a symbol and representation for all the African people.
He even suggested that the monument represents all the black populations of the world. And that is why during its inauguration and dedication, President Wade invited not only the head of state from all African countries but other influential black leaders, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson and musician Akon.
The use of a father, mother, and baby in the monument is because the family is the central nucleus of all African societies. The gigantic monument can also be translated as a symbol of the “new” African family, with future generations (depicted by the infant) rising and leading the continent into the modern world.
Moreover, the upward ascent of the monument suggests the course of upward movement on the African continent, leaving behind the dark past.
The family portrayed in the monument is only focused on moving forward, thus representing the future. In addition, the portrayal of the family emerging from the rocky base suggests that Africans are chipping away from the fragmented and terrible past into a free and glorious future.
According to President Wade3, the message of the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal is about:
Africa emerging from the darkness, from five centuries of slavery and two centuries of colonialism.
The original idea of African Renaissance
Additionally, the African Renaissance Monument is also slightly an intended revival of ideals and values of the African Renaissance itself. The concept of the African Renaissance was originally conceived and popularized by the late President Thabo Mbeki4 of South Africa in the late 1990s.
While this movement gained a great deal of momentum in the 1990s and a little bit in the early 2000s, it was somewhat forgotten with the introduction and development of new technologies in the modern age.
Having been a product of the ideals and era of the African Renaissance movement, he theorized the monument in the hope of breathing a new life into an important and unifying movement.
Another meaning of the monument is to offer testament to the cultural legacy of the former Senegalese President Wade. He wanted, more than anything else, for the people of his country to remember him and his work developing and shaping the culture and arts of the country even after leaving public office.
Journalist Gilles Delafon, who co-authored Wade’s 2008 autobiography, said in Wall Street Journal interview5:
The problem of Wade for me is just one word: vanity.
It is obvious that the original aim and representation of the monument were based and encapsulated in the political philosophy and ideals of President Wade. And the controversy that it stirred after the inauguration was did not arise from the representations mentioned above. Instead, it erupted over differing opinions.
The African Renaissance Monument began to stir controversy even before construction began. Many people, especially President Wade’s opponents, argued that the colossal monument says more about poor governance than the African renaissance.
The opposition leader Abdoulaye Bathily said6 that the statue is the product of a power-drunk president:
The economy has collapsed …The education system is in a crisis. The health system is in crisis. And yet Abdoulaye Wade is squandering public money. So all these things, people are seeing it, and it is creating so much frustration.
An opposition group known as Siggil Senegal asked the Senegalese people7 to “refuse to associate themselves with a fraudulent scheme designed to satisfy the fantasies of Abdoulaye Wade and to lay the foundations of the dynastic reign of Wade on our country.”
The statue also stirred controversies in terms of expenses. Thousands of Senegalese went to the streets to protest against “all the failures of President Wade’s regime, the least of which is this horrible statue.8”
The monument has been sharply criticized for its cost of $27 million. The Deputy leader of the opposition at the time described it as an “economic monster and a financial scandal in the context of the current [economic] crisis.9”
According to Le Quotidien newspaper, the cost is equivalent to the debts of the capital’s public hospitals, which are forced to turn patients away because resources are scarce.
The editor of the newspaper lamented10:
Perhaps in 10 years’ time, we might appreciate the statue more, but at the moment, people are angry. All the resentments, all the frustrations of the Senegalese have come to the surface; people feel this monument is simply mocking them.
Bathily also had some sharp words for the president about the expense of putting up the statue. He said11:
He’s gone senile. Spending all this money when our education system is in crisis, when our infrastructure is crumbling, it’s outrageous.
The people living in the shadow of the colossal sculpture endure spiking food prices and increasingly frequent power outages, while those living in the poorer neighborhoods have their houses flooded every rainy season.
The issue soon spiraled further south when the president announced that he would take a 30% cut of any revenues the monument generated, pegging his “intellectual property rights” to an excerpt from a book published more than three decades ago when he pondered12:
If I were a sculptor, I would erect three personalities with their arms stretching out to embrace.
But opposition leaders sharply counteracted President Wade’s claim of 30% of the profits raised, insisting that the president cannot claim intellectual rights over ideas conceived as a function of his public office.
Style & working with North Korean artists
Having been built by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a North Korean sculpting firm known for producing numerous large-scale statues and other public projects across Africa, the monument had a very poor reception by art critics worldwide. Some compared it to the once-abandoned Christopher Columbus statue project by Zurab Tsereteli in Puerto Rico.
Senegalese journalist Ebrima Sillah stated that many local fine artists took offense to the fact that the president had commissioned a crew of 50 North Koreans to build the public sculpture. However, the president defended his decision of choosing foreign artists because they were known as experts in constructing large public monuments.
World-renowned Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, whose dramatic sculptures on the Pont des Arts attracted huge crowds in Paris, also criticized the use of the foreign workforce. He said that it was anything but a symbol of an African Renaissance and had nothing to do with art.
It’s a wasted opportunity. It’s an enormous canvas, but there is no detail. What we have ended up with is aesthetically childish and banal in the extreme. It is anything but a symbol of African renaissance and is nothing to do with art. The president’s motivation is totally personal; it is about leaving something behind. He’s not been brilliant on the political playing field, so instead, he has opted for a concrete legacy – literally.
President Wade also attracted criticism for this monument in the form of imams, who termed it idolatrous. Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country, with up to 96 percent of the population estimated to be Muslim.
Some Muslims said that the monument, featuring a well-toned, bare-chested man sweeping a scantily dressed woman, revealing part of her breasts and thighs, and holding up high a nude baby, breached Islamic teachings by presenting the human form as an object of worship.
In deflecting criticism from Islamic religious leaders, President Wade argued that Christians prayed to a “man called Jesus Christ14“. Still, he had to put out some more fires, this time from Senegal’s Christian community, for likening Jesus to the statue.
One of the locals, 16 years-old Aisha Ndow, felt the statue is un-Islamic, inappropriate, and aesthetically un-African. She stated15:
Look at the woman; half her body is uncovered. You can see her breasts and her bare thighs. That’s not good for a Muslim. Really, this is not a good example for Africa – especially the way they are dressed. The father, you can see his body. The Child is completely naked. There’s too much nudity. The woman should be wearing something more proper, to show how Africans really dress.
African Renaissance Monument location
The monument is located atop one of the twin hills known as Collines des Mamelles, in the Ouakam suburb of Dakar, Senegal and dominates the area around Les Almadies.
Address for Google Maps: PGC4+V2M, Dakar, Senegal
Nearest roads: Rte de l’Aeroport / Ave Cheikh Anta Diop / Rte de la Corniche Ouest
Nearby: Within walking distance from the Mosque of the Divinity and Quakam Beach at the west Atlantic Ocean
Easily accessible by local bus / minibus (100-300 CFA)
Coordinates: 14°43′20″N 17°29′42″W
Hours: Sun-Fri: 9:00 – 18:45h, Sat: 9:00 – 19:30h
Recommended visit time: Visitors have reported that the monument deserves a 1-2-hour visit
Facilities: Has toilets and a small cafe at the top
For aged or deserving people: A road leads up about 3/4 of the stairs behind the statue
At night, the monument is illuminated by a series of floodlight lamps surrounding it at the base as well as on both sides of the stairs leading up to the statue, making it fully visible even in the dark. Visitors have called the lights spectacular, mentioning the impressive view of Dakar with all its lights on from the top of the hill.
What is the size of the monument?
The African Renaissance Monument stands at 49 meters (161 ft) tall on a 100 meters hill, making it the tallest statue in Africa.
When comparing it to only the copper statue of New York City’s Statue of Liberty itself at 46 meters (151 feet), the African Renaissance Monument is slightly taller. However, the entire Statue of Liberty, including the pedestal, measures 93 meters (305 feet) from the ground level to torch, more than twice the size.
In comparison, Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer is 28 meters (92 feet), roughly 43% smaller than the African Renaissance Monument.
Walking up the 198 steps to this publicly accessible statue is free. However, you will have to pay around CFA6,500 or US$11 to take the elevator to the statue’s head, thereby contributing 30% towards Wade’s pension fund.
Foreigners/non-residents have reported varying entry fees, ranging from 5 USD (3,000 CFA) to 11 USD (6,500 CFA) per person. According to reviews16, Senegalese nationals get to enjoy the monument for about a third of those prices, making it considerably cheaper.
The admission price includes a guided tour, with the guide speaking French or English. You’ll get a chance to visit all the floors and finally enter the observation deck inside the head of the man, using an elevator to go all the way to the top. The vantage point provides an unobstructed view of the entire city from the highest point in Dakar.
Inside the statue
Visitors can pay to go inside the male statue and take the elevator to the giant head for some stunning vistas across the city and the Atlantic Ocean. Inside, the man’s hat also provides the views of the westernmost point of the entire African content.
Inside the base is an exhibition space dedicated to celebrating great African leaders and other influential figures of African origin. There are also several artworks on view with visions of the continent’s prosperous future. You will also find an exhibition by local artists that gets replaced every three months.
In 2016, South Korean artist Onejoon Che presented a replica of the African Renaissance Monument at the Things Fall Apart17 show at Calvert 22 Foundation in London. It was among the many series of photographs and models of African monuments displayed by the South Korean artist and looked very similar to the original statue standing in Dakar.
The replica is part of Che’s documentary film entitled Mansudae Master Class18 (2013/2015), which was on view at the Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art and consists of a series of video installations and miniature replicas of “the propaganda sculptures”.
Despite the controversies around the construction of the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal’s capital Dakar, the statue is still standing tall today and offers one of the best views in the city, if not the continent.