Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 19, 2018
Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba, eds. El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics Exh. cat. Zurich: Diaphanes, 2015. 408 pp.; 300 color ills. Paper $50.00 (9783037348413)
Exhibition schedule: Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, March 5–October 10, 2015

El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics was published to accompany an exhibition of works by Senegalese painter, curator, and cultural activist El Hadji Moussa Babacar Sy, generally known as El Hadji Sy or El Sy (born Dakar, Senegal, 1954). El Hadji Sy has been a key player in the complex contemporary construction of African artistic thinking and practice ever since the Senegalese government under Léopold Sédar Senghor (President of the Republic of Senegal, 1960–80) became heavily involved in the promotion of the country’s culture within the conceptual framework of négritude, first developed in Paris in the 1930s by black intellectuals who sought to assert black identity and pride. El Hadji Sy has remained deeply conscious of négritude as the self-affirmation of black peoples and, more specifically, of the uniqueness of the experiences and expressions shared by Senegalese artists. However, he also became critical of what he saw as excessive state interference in the arts under Senghor. For instance, in the interview given to Julia Grosse published in this book, he criticizes the tapestry manufactory initiated by Senghor in Dakar in the 1960s and 1970s with a view to promoting the systematic state acquisition of artists’ designs (maquettes) and turning them into finished tapestries. To El Hadji Sy this kind of state cultural enterprise amounted to nothing less than state exploitation (42). Aware of deep differences between African and Western contexts in the processes and significance of artistic production, he has consistently sought to integrate Senegal’s art and artists more closely into the late twentieth- and twenty-first-century globalized environment.

El Hadji Sy’s collaboration with Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) has been an important part of this internationalization of Senegalese art. Under its former name, Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology), it initiated its pioneering approach in 1974 when Johanna Agthe began to add works of contemporary African art acquired in Kenya to its ethnographic collections, hoping to go beyond any essentialist idea of “Africa” as a culturally monolithic, ahistorical, and unchanging continent. In 1985, the museum began to strengthen ties with Senegal and commissioned El Hadji Sy to collaborate with German linguist and art patron Friedrich Axt in adding Senegalese art to its collections and editing a trilingual anthology on art production in Senegal (Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Moussa Babacar Sy, eds., Anthology of Contemporary Fine Arts in Senegal, Frankfurt: Museum für Völkerkunde, 1989), which remains an important reference work. The artist’s collaboration with the museum led to his appointment as artist in residence in 2014, followed by the exhibition El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, which presented a selection of his mixed-media artworks.

The publication produced to accompany that exhibition is edited by Clémentine Deliss, director of the Weltkulturen Museum (2010–15), and Yvette Mutumba, research curator for African art. It contains seven newly commissioned essays and interviews, which effectively place the artist’s thirty years of practice as a painter, performance artist, and cultural activist within a larger social and cultural context. The nature and importance of El Hadji Sy’s political, conceptual, and artistic activism is discussed by Mamadou Diouf, who points out the complex nature of the artist’s response to Senghor’s ideas and his proposal that activists should, in today’s postcolonial world, seek to “decipher society’s urges” and identify its “political and moral” conflicts, rather than mechanically continuing the previous submission to state intervention. Diouf’s essay establishes the fundamental parameters of the artist’s personal, political, and aesthetic identity, and helps elucidate El Hadji Sy’s approach to the globalized world. In so doing it provides a major interpretative axis tying together other analytical avenues explored in the book. Complementing Diouf’s paper, the introduction by Deliss and Mutumba’s contribution emphasize how El Hadji Sy analyzes African artists’ global role and the relationship between African artists and past and present museum practices. Extending the scope of Deliss’s paper, Mutumba explores El Hadji Sy’s increasing involvement with the European cultural and artistic context from the 1980s onward, and in particular his relationship with Axt and the Weltkulturen Museum.

Manon Schwich’s essay further explores the long relationship between El Hadji Sy and Axt, as expressed through decades of correspondence, and its importance as a catalyst for the artist’s fiercely independent resistance to political interference in the cultural environment of his native Senegal. Against Axt’s advice, for instance, as Schwich points out (352), El Hadji Sy even refused to take part in the Dakar Biennale of 1992, choosing instead to figure in the Dakar special issue of the prestigious publication Revue Noire (7, Dakar, 1992/93). Philippe Pirotte examines El Hadji Sy’s work from a phenomenological, rather than a historical, sociopolitical, and aesthetic perspective, and offers an illuminating interpretation of the relationship between his artistic practices and bodily movement. Pirotte looks in particular at the concept of glissement (sliding), which El Hadji Sy associates closely with his responses to the traditions of African dancing. Such practices may superficially recall images of Jackson Pollock dancing around his huge Abstract Expressionist canvases; however, they clearly stem from a very different, African environment. In addition to these essays, the interviews conducted by Julia Grosse and Hans Belting offer a less mediated insight into El Hadji Sy’s own ideas, as they give the artist an opportunity to take control of the critical discussions about his own African context and his perception of his position in the contemporary globalized art scene, providing a welcome source of original material about the artist and his career.

The multifaceted critical studies in this book constitute a welcome addition to the comparatively scarce in-depth studies of the Senegalese art world since the beginnings of négritude, such as Elizabeth Harney’s In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960–1995 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). The topics developed in El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics are woven around the importance of the contemporary links between African and Western art practices. The need to rethink the role and significance of ethnography in the context of Western museums and—most importantly—to provide a platform for African artists and scholars to participate in and actively contribute to these discussions provides a common thread running through the entire book, making it a timely contribution to postcolonial discussions that will be suitable for both specialists and educated art lovers. The arguments throughout are generally convincing and the language used is mostly clear (apart, perhaps, from the ambiguous use of the term “cardiology” in Schwich’s essay, which obscures rather than illuminates her otherwise cogent arguments). There is also ample visual material illustrating the scope of El Hadji Sy’s artistic production. The useful and relevant but relatively small bibliography only demonstrates how much still needs to be done in this field and further indicates the extent to which the present publication makes a key contribution. The book will be invaluable for those interested in the relationship between art and globalization, the Senghorian and post-Senghorian social and artistic context in Senegal, and the significant aesthetic and artistic contribution made by El Hadji Sy to Senegalese and world art.

Tania Tribe
Senior Lecturer, Department of History of Art and Archaeology, SOAS, University of London