Beyond a traditional exhibition catalogue, El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics offers not only the typical curatorial/contextual essays, but also the original source materials pertaining to this pioneering artist. In fact, the publication's greatest contribution might be its assemblage of archival photographs, posters, invitations, newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and other ephemera related to Sy's career. These accompany the sumptuous, full-color photographs of paintings that represent the artist's thirty-five years of activity. As the curators—Clémentine Deliss, Yvette Mutumba, and Philippe Pirotte—and guest essayists recount Sy's wide-reaching impact on the artscape of Senegal—including Dakar's École des Beaux-Arts, Laboratoire AGIT'ART, Tenq workshops, the Huit Facettes collective, and both iterations of the Village des Arts—these ephemeral, peripheral materials from personal archives richly animate Sy's prolonged engagement with politics and art. His engagement reverberated internationally, particularly with multifaceted German networks of collection, exhibition, and criticism. The solo exhibition at the Weltkulturen Museum (Frankfurt) sprang from an earlier collaboration: the museum's publication of Anthology of Contemporary Fine Arts in Senegal (1989), co-edited by Sy and Friedrich Axt. Though the 2015 exhibition was the result of an artist residency where he staged interventions with his own paintings and the museum's ethnographic collections, the catalogue smartly takes more of an historical lens to Sy's contributions as artist, curator, and activist.1
Mutumba's enlightening essay gives the context for Afro-German exchanges from the 1980s, detailing how the two German states sponsored artistic programs and exhibitions that advanced their respective ideologies (e.g., a 1983 exhibition of Ethiopian students mounted in Berlin to champion socialist revolution). The unique relationship between Sy and Axt, who taught German in Senegal (1974–1979), is the starting point for Mutumba's genealogy of collaborations between Senegal and Germany. Axt shared Sy's conviction that the cultural moment in Senegal was significant, as governmental patronage waned and the arts were liberated from Senghor's dogmatic vision of postcolonial culture. After creating video reportages on contemporary art practice, they undertook the ambitious project of anthologizing Senegal's spaces, practices, and artists, featuring trilingual contributions from artists, critics, and even Senghor himself. With the sponsorship of the Federal Republic of Germany, they approached Josef Franz Thiel of the (now) Weltkulturen Museum to publish it. Thiel had recently changed the museum's policy, making it the sole European institution with a formal mission to collect contemporary art from Africa. Ultimately, Thiel printed the anthology and commissioned Axt and Sy to buy fifty works for the museum, making Sy the first African curator whose independent vision was welcomed by a European institution and audience. Through the partnership of two men with a passion for recasting stereotypes of African art, Mutumba proposes the larger network of Senegalese-German exchange as a model for unpacking the complexities of other Afro-European relationships.
Manon Schwich elaborates on Axt's financial and material support of Sy's practice as he coordinated exhibitions in Germany and built an archive of Sy's paintings from different periods (p. 348). Navigating challenges across Franco-German structures (mail, currency, publications, sponsorships, etc.), the friends worked to exhibit and sell Senegalese artwork outside of governmental interference, organizing “projects that had been left too systematically to foreign diplomatic missions” (p. 353). In his constant lutte for artists’ rights to create and exhibit beyond the nationalist or ideological boundaries of state patronage, Sy was a mediator, or “counterweight,” to structures in Senegal (p. 348). For Schwich, Sy's politics of resistance were never prescriptive, but discursive, and the artist was leery of working with any actors whose frameworks did not align with his personal convictions.2 In both his painting and curating, Sy provided a new angle of analysis by introducing doubt and questioning extant systems—from state patronage, to viewers’ passivity.
At times, the curators overstate the role of the Weltkulturen Museum in framing this project's historical aspects. Deliss, in particular, is prone to inflated conceptions of the institution; for example, she notes its “exceptional legacy” of looking to contemporary artmaking, “pioneering” a trail that starkly contrasts with Europe's other ethnographic museums (p. 6). Her own essay is also self-referential, recounting the activities of the Laboratoire AGIT'ART and the Tenq workshops through her eyes as a participant, sponsor, or fellow artist. In a tangential aside, she references the Weltkulturen Museum as space “which, in a strange turn of fate, I now direct.” She participated as a “co-opted” member of the Laboratoire in 1995—though her status as the only white, non-Senegalese initiate out of the score of named participants was unique—after following Sy and Issa Samb through Dakar since 1992 (p. 192). As Sy reformulated the Tenq workshop from Saint Louis (1994) to Dakar (1996), Deliss states the Minister of Culture invited “Sy and me” to repurpose a camp near the airport, which later became the second Village des Arts (p. 192). Where this essay excels, though, are the author's descriptions of significant performances, like SOS Culture, Sy and Samb's piece for the opening of Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (1995). Deliss also provides insight into the group's blend of experimental psychiatry with their theatrical art practice, based on readings from Antonin Artaud, Surrealists, and Sufism.
An anomaly in the catalogue, Pirotte's is the sole essay to analyze the artist's paintings at length, with special focus given to Sy's performative process as a painter and the viewer's response as “participant-observer” (p. 91). Though Pirotte incorrectly asserts the absence of painting as an artistic tradition in Senegal, he creates a compelling lineage of artmaking that situates Sy against Senghor's aesthetics of Négritude and as an African complement to the “TransAfrican painting style” of AfriCobra.3 As a young artist, Sy saw countless paintings created along Senghorian themes for reproduction as tapestries. Eschewing a system he saw as exploitative, he reveled in the materiality and uniqueness of individual creations—even hanging some of his large unframed paintings as a mockery of tapestry (p. 42). In the act of creation, Sy is not authorial, but a participant who enters the painting. The canvas, frequently laid on the floor, meets his body and the improvised gestures leave “traces of performance” that manifest, what Pirotte terms, Sy's “painterly choreography” (pp. 91, 90). According to Pirotte, the viewer might then become a “participant-observer,” invited to echo the artist's dance. With unconventional installations—placing his unframed canvas on the floor, hanging it from the ceiling as a kite, mounting it on a stretcher—Sy implicates the viewer's body, invoking our awareness of the ground on which we stand, the corporeal manipulations required to achieve flight, or the sensation of bodily envelopment. Certain canvases are even hung in strips, or in dense proximity, denying the viewer's passivity and activating the paintings through corporeal interaction. With compelling descriptions of Sy's canonical foot paintings (c. 1975) and recent installations, namely Archéologie marine (2014) for the Bienal de São Paolo, Pirotte's chapter gives due attention to Sy's method of expanding painting.
Mamadou Diouf also positions Sy's painting against Négritude while noting it was still “in dialogue with Senghor and his modernist aesthetic” (p. 134). As noted by Schwich, Diouf observes that Sy's engagement in local politics comes from a desire to unravel the status quo and articulate a web of alternatives. The sociopolitical events of the early 1980s triggered new rapports between individual artists and the Senegalese state, exemplified by Sy's practice of liminality; he stood against both the “economic disengagement” of Diouf's regime and Senghor's Négritude as the lens for postcolonial creation (p. 136). Alternating between anger, irony, or even complicity, Sy's confrontations were, in reality, dialogues with Senghorian thought that used theater, speech, and noise to disrupt the veneer of order and bring the artist into contact with the city. Deliss calls this embrace and breach of painting Sy's “détournement or subversion” (p. 10). He eschewed high culture, party politics, didactic pedagogies, and placed “the subaltern” at the center of the narrative (p. 139).
The catalogue also features two artist interviews, conducted by art historians Julia Grosse and Hans Belting. Grosse's interview reads more like a Q&A session wherein the artist explains his interest in the durational instability of his materials, the Brechtian notion of distance, and the African tradition of communal artmaking. In conversation with Belting, Sy recounts his amicable relationship with Senghor, even as they strongly diverged in opinion on cultural affairs. As Sy recalls his education at Dakar's École des Beaux-Arts and his goals as an agitator with Laboratoire AGIT'ART, Belting offers linkages to larger artistic and ideological movements, including Jackson Pollock, the colonial nature of a gallery, Pan-Africanism, and modern vs. indigenous art. Sy expresses hesitancy for these categories and undermines the comparisons, instead reorienting the conversation to his practice and personal experiences. Sy consistently refuses to recognize difference in how art operates, citing the universality of obstacles for any artist, from Dakar to Johannesburg and Paris.
The publication joins the ranks of similar large-scale monographs—like the Tate Museum's Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist (2013)—and accomplishes the exhibition's goal: to signal an “alternative perspective on the synergy between Africa and Europe” and counter the mythology of the “one-sided relationship of affinity between Europe and Africa” (p. 6). Mutumba's essay, in particular, shifts the (Western) institution's historic narcissism as a pioneer to allow for the agency and grit of an African artist-curator to be credited as a seminal organizer of this exceptional collection. Through interviews and artwork analyses, the political motives of Sy are carefully unpacked, demonstrating how Sy and the Laboratoire AGIT'ART were not against the École de Dakar, but fought for the people's right to “criticise and develop actions and ideas” (p. 303). Excepting the occasional turn to self-congratulation, the catalogue represents thoughtful new criticism and extensive archives on the work a significant African artist and curator of the late twentieth century.
For this exhibition, Sy used contemporary art to help the public “find new optics” for the ethnographic objects that suffered from displacement as “migrants” (p. 11). Bringing these into his installations, the artist acted a barrier between authoritative (colonial) knowledge and the foreign objects, effectively silencing the curator p. (43).
For example, Sy avoided participating in biennials and did not attend Documenta when invited as a member of Huit Facettes; he also ignored messages from critic Jean Loup Pivin and curator Okwui Enwezor.
There is a strong tradition of souweres painting dating back to the nineteenth century, which Sy emulated in a 2013 series, and of painters, like Iba N'Diaye, from the preceding generation (p. 90).