Daniel Horn on El Hadji Sy

Can you critique a work of art like you would an entire city? In El Hadji Sy’s multifaceted practice, where does one end and the other begin? “I am a pure product of Dakar”, he once declared, and his biggest gallery exhibition to date, organized in his hometown, asked the question: what Dakar and, what is more, what heritage does he claim? The gallery occupies a central Art Deco-style building dating from 1953, a former department store whose former splendor and colonial heritage remain palpable. Entering via a grand marble spiral staircase, viewers encountered banner-like paintings – flowing from the ceiling – which lent their title, Now/Naaw (kites), 2022, at the exhibition. This juxtaposition exploited a tension between arrival and a sense of escape, as Naaw can mean “to fly away” in Wolof.

Inside, the show was mainly composed of paintings replete with countless eyes of basic characters drawn from daily life in the city, among them migrant peasants accompanied by their belongings, myths and circumstances. Sy frequently paints their portraits on canvases resting on wheeled scaffolding, which here gives the viewer the feeling of wandering around a dissolving parade with the art stopped in its tracks. More faces appeared on score screens, such as Talibé Tidjiane2022, which refers to the ubiquitous presence of the holder talibés—boys from rural parts of the country who are sent to the city streets to beg on behalf of their Koranic schools. Another wide-eyed boy’s face painted on papier-mâché has been roughened by the texture of this surface. Simply titled The soldier (The Soldier), 2022, the image imbues Sy’s overall image of community and nation with an ambivalence that borders on unease. In a surprising diptych asking Who is here ? (Who’s There), 2022, the figure on the left was more naturalistic, dark in ochres, while the figure on the right had been abstracted in a neon mush, visibly twisted.

Confusing by mixing, combining and messy media and meanings is one of Sy’s strongest moves. A bust of primordial form with a mother-of-pearl coating placed on a worn plinth was titled Coco Chanel2021. The hairdresser (The Hairdresser), 2021, featured another unstable object: a convertible display table that opened to reveal one of Sy’s typically rudimentary but vibrant faces. The reverse of the lid bore a scarified and tinted “paint” that channels post-war tachism a la Wols. Such a brutal interface between styles could also constitute a postcolonialist gesture within postmodern painting, alluding to the historical extraction of Africanness by European abstractionists that continued until the end of the colonial period. Picasso in particular maintains a notable presence on the Dakar art map, hanging around as one of those stores that constantly advertise clearance sales but never make room for new merchandise. In Blued shadows (Bluish Shadows), 2020, Sy cited Picasso’s now well-established proto-Cubist reconfiguration of the adapted portraiture of West African Kota figures, piling flora and fauna motifs on one of these faces appropriate.

More enigmatic were the wall works in which seashells were assembled in Sy’s eye and flourish shapes, ominously titled the viewer (The Observer) and The power (The Power), both from 2022, the latter evoking a ceremonial staff. A room has been converted into a memorial space devoted to Sy’s trajectory as an artist, curator, performer and cultural ambassador, as he represents arguably Senegal’s most important artistic position since the decadence of the Ecole de Dakar at the end of the 1970s. Videos, laminated press clippings and photos of his collaborative projects, sometimes pop-cultural, always multimedia and extra-institutional – such as the Laboratoire Agit’Art collective initiated in the 1970s, or Tenq, artistic workshop touring founded in 1996 – traced their exhilarating content. Placed with The Last Commander (The Last Commander), 2020, a portrait of the late Issa Samb, pioneer of the city’s avant-garde and a key contributor to Sy for decades, the archival presentation also superfluously hit the heavy note of a irrevocable musealization. Less cloistered of the new works presented, this avalanche of images and actions would have conveyed the full extent of their enduring formal innovation and their challenge to the legacies of discriminating Western reception and valorization.

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