The 72-page slim book, a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of paintings, is divided into four major sections preceded by a foreword by Faustino Quintanilla, the Executive Director of the Queensboro College Art Gallery of the City University of New York, host of the exhibition. It highlights the sociohistorical significance of Victor Forestier Sow's paintings in the context of postcolonial Mali of the 1960s.
The book begins with Austin C. Imperato, Pascal James Imperato's son, reflecting on his personal childhood encounter with Sow's paintings, which he says filled all the rooms in his family house, including his own bedroom. Those paintings, he says, “provided me with a window into a faraway place and time that enriched my father's life and the life of our family … paintings were visual reference points that offered me solace and comfort. They also revealed to me, at an early age, the power of art” (p. 1). As Austin became an art historian, one can see Sow as an early mentor, though far removed, and this is of particular relevance since it is an inverse one emanating from an African idealist who impacted a Western scholar. This counters the usual stereotype that Western values impact African world views.
Pascal James Imperato, the American physician who is responsible for collecting the largest number of paintings by Sow, provides “A Personal Remembrance of Victor Forestier Sow.” Imperato demonstrates his depth of knowledge as he historicizes the life, art, and aspirations of Sow, the Malian painter. His simple chronicle may be considered representative of the economic and sociohistorical realities with which most Malian artists in the 1960s likely grappled.
Imperato went to Mali in late 1966 as a physician with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the United States Public Health Service. He was there to help eradicate smallpox, measles, and other infectious diseases through immunization. He lived in the stone-built Quarter du Fleuve, a colonial legacy of the French meant to house French officials of that era, and this meant that merchants, middlemen, and artists often visited in the hope of selling works to him and others nearby.
It is in this milieu that, in early 1967, barely a year after his arrival in Mali, Victor Forestier Sow met Pascal James Imperato, offering his “very impressive” paintings for sale. Pascal describes Sow as having a striking physical appearance, standing about five feet ten inches tall. He was “extremely thin, had deep-set and large penetrating eyes, and shiny, straight black hair combed back on his head.” He spoke flawless French and Bamanan-kan, Mali's indigenous lingua franca. His skin tone and physical characteristics matched that of his Peul (Fulani) mother from Mali and his French father, once a colonial official (pp. 4, 5).
The healthy, cordial relationship that ensued resulted in Imperato collecting about seventeen of Sow's paintings, ranging from landscapes of Mali countryside, architectural structures and monuments, and nude figures. Imperato also commissioned portrait paintings, family banners and coat of arms.
In the chapter “A Short History of Painting in Bamako,” the art historian Paul Ramey Davies concisely illustrates how Malian painters generally operated, presenting the context under which Sow may have worked. He was involved in patriotic ventures (e.g., painting the Malian countryside and exotic landscapes of Malian monuments and historical sites or cultural activities) much like the other painters of his generation who had to grapple with a dearth of materials and reliance on improvisations, such as mud, wood glue, sand, and local pigments. Where possible they painted with Indian ink, oils, acrylics, watercolor, and gouache on paper surfaces, canvas, or hard boards. Many of Sow's paintings were done on Dutch wax fabrics and recycled banners, a method also adapted by other Malian painters of his generation.
The catalogue of paintings, illustrated in full color, runs thirty-one pages. A bibliography of roughly thirty-two citations is also useful. A vast majority of the paintings in this collection were done in the 1960s and 1970s, probably because those were the years Imperato worked in Mali and had direct contact with Sow. The oldest paintings are dated 1968, others 1969, 1970 and the most recent are dated 1971. There is an earlier painting by Victor Forestier Sow which dates as early as 1963 but does not form the Imperato collection; this is A Young African Girl in the collection of Amadou Seydou Traore (p. 19).
Sow employed grid lines on his painting surfaces to ensure accuracy in resemblance since he relied a lot on copying images from post cards, stamps, currency, and magazines. This explains why the compositions look stiff, a feature characteristic of his paintings. This system also meant he could repeat themes he had earlier painted to satisfy his clients’ taste.
A most remarkable painting is entitled Dr. Pascal James Imperato Vaccinating a Maure Nomad Against Smallpox in Timbuctoo (1968), where the fine arts is seen to be in the service of science. In light of how several infectious diseases have ravaged the continent, and continue to do so, considering the preponderance of malaria, Ebola, and Lassa fevers, the potency of the painting is not merely archival but effectively contemporaneous.
This book is crucial to understanding West African visual arts. Its relevance to twentieth century African painting is great, especially because its time period is characterized by massive sociocultural change and political dynamics that resulted in self-determination and independence from colonial strictures.
The artist's relationship to the patron is clearly defined in this book. Imperato decided the subject matter of several of Forestier Sow's paintings, and in many instances Sow himself read his patron's expectations. So there was continuous, healthy dialogue between the two, be it loudly pronounced or covertly implied.
What remains a mystery, however, is the fact that the Imperatos were unable to unravel the true personality of the artist. Who he was deep inside is not conveyed. Documents recording salient aspects of his life may yet surface to add to our understanding of such an important modernist of Mali.