Omar Blondin Diop and Issa Samb’s Senegal

Mustapha Saha
Sara Hanaburgh

Activist Blondin Diop and artist Samb are exemplars of Senegal’s post-independence promise and crisis, marked by the global uprisings of May 1968. Mustapha Saha was a friend to both of them.

A still of Omar Blondin Diop and Mustapha Saha in the film Mai ‘68 à Paris by Alain Tanner and Jean-Pierre Goretta.

When I remember Omar Blondin Diop and Issa Samb, I can only write in the narrative present. Upon his return to Paris after the lifting of his residency ban in September 1970, Omar talks about innovative, promising artists, eager to defolklorize African art. To me, he is someone who has an eye for talent, in search of an irrecoverable change of course through art. Senegal’s May 1968 is a bloodbath. Must one prove that an African can create beauty based on the Western model?

Omar constructs bridges between cultures. He wants to make Dakar an interactive matrix. He gathers information about the global avant-gardes. He maintains relationships with journalists, artists, and American intellectuals. He goes with me to Croissy, to the home of my friend, actor and filmmaker Pierre Clémenti, a precursor to the French underground. I recall a memorable evening with Julian Beck, Judith Malina, and the Living Theatre the night before their event in Nanterre University’s large amphitheater. They are rehearsing their show, Paradise Now, for the Avignon Festival. Pierre Clémenti is reciting Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and the Plague, a text written in 1934 which recalls the Great Plague of 1720 in Marseille. I recently reread the book; odd parallels between 1720 and the situation in 2020. Omar is a man of the theater—in the way he dresses, speaks, his posture, with his intimidating dignity. A few days later, he is immersed in Antonin Artaud’s complete works. He is part of our “Coupole” (French for cupola) gang, where nights begin at the brasserie on the Boulevard de Montparnasse and continue till morning at Rosebud, the American bar on Rue Delambre. Omar develops project after project—a radical critique of hierarchical society, the totalitarianism of the state, brainwashing by the education system, film synopses, outlines of theatrical plays, and drafts of books. I would be delighted if we could find written, photographic, or film archives from between 1968 and 1969, when Omar is sowing situationist seeds.

We must restore Omar’s philosophical, literary, and artistic personality. In 1968, I kept a diary where I documented juicy, interesting adventures and misadventures, striking meetings, and restorative exuberances. Omar writes a lot, takes notes in carefully kept notebooks. I am appalled that I can only find two or three photos of him in May 1968. What happened to his writings, his photos, apart from those his family has preserved? I know, having witnessed it in London between June and August 1968, that Anne Wiazemsky photographs him often. She gives him a Beaulieu Super 8 camera right in front of me. Jean-Luc Godard is insanely jealous. Omar tells me that he is the sole author of his contribution to La Chinoise (The Chinese Girl). His style and words are easily recognizable. Jean-Luc Godard is happy to just jot down a few questions. And yet, the filmmaker appropriates the entire script and its dialogues. The two surviving actors are Jean-Pierre Léaud, who I bump into from time to time at La Closerie des Lilas—he is still affectionate toward me, still withdrawn, and permanently confined in his inner delirium—and Michel Séméniako, now 80 years old, a world-renowned photographer who specialized in light painting. He gives me all his archives on the film La Chinoise, including the daily call lists showing that Omar often needed to be present—whereas in her biographical account, Une Année Studieuse (A Studious Year), Wiazemsky says that Omar only participated in the film on the day he performed.

Omar’s current political exploitation would have unnerved him. The enfant terrible of the undefinable revolution loathes protocol, distinctions, honors, and special treatment. One day, in the pleasantly cramped quarters of the Café Old Navy on Boulevard Saint-Germain, where we rub shoulders with Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, and Arthur Adamo, Omar spends a long time scribbling incomprehensible pages of numbers and letters. I finally ask him what he is doing. He replies: “I’m trying to balance the revolution. It is not easy.” What revolution? A revolution fashioned after Western concepts, where capitalism changes according to the situation: wild capitalism, fascist capitalism, monopolistic capitalism, global capitalism. Capitalisms which are protected, in each case, by an impenetrable arsenal of laws. Justice, in this system, has no meaning. The philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) makes this instructive observation: “The Greeks had no conception of rights. They had no words to express it. They were content with the name of justice.” The Romans invented the legal system. Rights only produce and reproduce injustice.

A stay in Dakar with economist Samir Amin. Regular visits to the studio of Issa Samb, also known as Joe Ouakam. He says to me: “Sorry about the street’s name—Jules Ferry—it was not my choice. The colonialist choice of Versailles racism crushing the municipality alone shows the criminal aberrations of the ideology of Négritude.” He shows me his tree, an enormous rubber tree, maybe a thousand years old, heaven’s messenger. A chorus of birds. An unbelievable clutter drowned in greenery. An open-air studio. A planetarium. A real flea market. Trinkets, decorations, figurines. Hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes. Dusty jackets hanging from the branches. They welcome friendly ghosts at dusk. Decrepit specters. Ernesto Che Guevara, Amílcar Cabral, the Black Panthers. Collages. Scarecrows. Simulacra. Daily palavers on wobbly chairs. The world comes together and falls apart away from public view. Voices from elsewhere. A perceptible presence of undetectable visitors. Interconnected paradoxicalities, between daily complexities and cosmic jaunts. Suspended time. Consolidated space. Quantum escapades. Ancestral orators, tricksters, and mocking blackbirds invite themselves into the courtyard. Joe betrays himself when he points his gaze toward the imperceptible, or when he perks up his ears for no apparent reason. He is in dialogue with the invisible. His wooded life in the heart of the city punctuates his silences, his verbal witticisms, his dance steps. Joe wears Omar Blondin Diop’s absence like an open wound. We share our inconsolable sorrow. When we express our nostalgias for 1968, he intersperses the exchange with the leitmotif, “A shame Omar is gone.”

The Agit’Art experiment and Tenq workshops in Dakar bring together artistic practice and the history of Chinese immigrants. “Tenq” means connection in Wolof. A camp near the airport, turned creative space. The former cafeteria is now a gallery. The Tenq 96 manifesto is posted on the huts. Several unifying figures: the philosopher, poet, and artist Issa Samb (1945-2017), the artist El Hadji Sy (born in 1954), the filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945-1998), the photographer and filmmaker Bouna Medoune Seye (1956-2017), the painter and sculptor Amadou Sow (1951-2015). And still others. An entire generation of exceptionally talented intellectuals. The group is opposed to the neocolonial ideology of Négritude that Léopold Sédar Senghor promoted. It develops new forms of expressions. The event receives media coverage, goes international, and perpetuates. Among the main facilitators, El Hadj Sy is invited to the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt for an exhibition titled, “Painting, Performance, Politics,” between March and October of 2015. In June 2013, at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway in Oslo, Issa Samb is offered a retrospective, which brings together emblematic works of his previous twenty-five years: paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, installations, and performances. The daily, mythological, empirical, and phantasmagoric worlds merge together. Enigmatic, sibylline, cryptic works. The formalism of the École de Dakar is obsolete. The abstract aesthetic is under attack. Spontaneity and experimentation are grounded in social realities. Public involvement is required. Its credo: give, receive, detoxicate, reconcile, heal, witness, popularize, perpetuate, act, interact, imagine, conceive, produce. Learn, create, and pass it on. Communicate with the wisemen of the sacred forest. Free the masks, totems, effigies, and fetishes from the museum’s incarceration.

Issa Samb aka Joe Ouakam. Portrait. By Mustapha Saha ©.

Le Politicien (The Politician), a satirical weekly created in exile by Mam Less Dia in the 1970s, alludes to this. Support for disobedient writers, artists, and journalists. Clandestine correspondences. Remote letters, internal replies. In Dakar’s Plateau District, Issa Samb’s address is unmistakable. The weekly writes: “The district was called Plateau. It was the occupier’s district, the collaborators’ district. It became the district of the bourgeoisie, the district of those who had means, the district of those who had influence, the district of cedar and scabbard fish. It was the district of the people of renown ascendency and descendance. The district of the people nominated ex-officio. The Plateau district had not moved. It was emptied of its former occupants, who had left for elsewhere, farther away, leaving room for Cape-Verdean immigrants, Joe the Philosopher and rue Félix Faure’s philosopher’s apprentices. The Plateau district had been cornered by its own fortification which plunged into the ocean and thus had kept all its distinction as a private district.” We occupy a house, a ruin, a courtyard and deconstruct its past, create a new existence, with a new ethnic belonging, a new valuation, a gratifying trajectory. We sink into it. We mold into it. We feel alive. We recover the fragrant plants, essential emotions, mental delight. Agit’Art launches the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), freedom through the artistic creation of an urban space, the transfiguration of ordinary life through inventions, collective innovation, exhibitions, performances, and video projections. Restoring art to its original form: life. The residents are actors, creators, designers. The title of my ‘68 poster: “Beauty Is in the Street.” The residents of Rue Jules Ferry, renamed Rue Joe Ouakam, mobilize.

On February 17th, 2022, the municipal council of Ziguinchor, the largest city in Casamance, decides to rename the streets bearing the names of French dignitaries. Rue du Général De Gaulle becomes Rue de la Paix. Avenue du Capitaine Javelier is changed to Avenue du Tirailleur Africain. Rue du Lieutenant Lemoine henceforth bears the name Thiaroye ‘44, after a locale near Dakar where African soldiers, who had fought for France, were gunned down in December 1944 for demanding payment for their services. Rue du Lieutenant Truch is changed to Rue Séléki, in memory of a battle won in 1886 by resistance fighters from that village against French colonial troops.

The COVID crisis revives writing surreptitiously. Hey Joe, civilization is dying. Merchants are closing shop. Beggars are leaving the city. Cats, rats, cockroaches are running away. Factories, offices, mosques, and churches are shuttering their doors. Imams, priests, marabouts, griots, and sorcerers are cloistering themselves. At the Vatican, the pope is at his window praying alone. Shielding measures. Prophylactic distancing. The streets are desolate. Theaters are empty. Under the kapok trees, the palaver continues indefinitely (passage inspired by an Agit Art text from November 2020).

Issa Samb is a psychic artist. He navigates endlessly between immaterial entities and their symbolic incarnations. He is a soothsayer of poetic inspiration, artistic vision, and scientific intuition. When he is trusting, he speaks with ease about clairvoyance, retrovision, telepathy, and divination. He is given to inhabiting his astral double at will, navigating his intellectual automatism unguarded, deploying his imagination uninhibited. His lapses, from medications, from cogitations, from cognitive urges, are translated into images. Installation materials pile up, magnetize, hypnotize, and exchange their messages through vibrant undulations. Art is a semiotics of terrestrial, cosmic, and psychic causalities. A painted lady landing on a fragile stem without disturbing its balance. A spring murmuring underground. Quantum mechanics. A theory of dynamic systems. Art adventuring into the mathematical universe. Infrareds. Holograms. Spectrograms. Astral travel. Returning to Earth.

We go back to the idea of a collective project about Timbuktu and Tamasheq in Amazigh, founded by the Tuaregs in the 11th century by the name “Tim Buqt,” which means distant well. Long discussions. Joe is walking a tightrope. His studio does not belong to him. He knows he can be thrown out at any moment after his owner-friend has passed. “Everything which has the effect of uprooting a human being or of preventing one from becoming rooted is criminal” (Simone Weil again). For Joe, art is turbulence, buoyancy, a metamorphosis of quotidian burden. He wants to avoid commercial vampirization. Nomadic atavism. I take a stand against perishable, degradable, preemptive culture, which mirrors consumerism.  To go beyond the ephemeral, putrescible, destructible, provisional installation, pathetic performance. To immortalize the trace. Transmit memory. The very purpose of these lines. For our project on Timbuktu, Joe would have fashioned sculptures—out of papier mâché, out of clay, cast in bronze if possible—books, papyrus, parchment, palimpsests, idols, tablets, and hands in the writing position. Figures of scribes, calligraphers, ideographic writers, hieroglyphics writers, graffiti artists, taggers walking around in the air. I would have made paintings and corresponding texts. Timbuktu, the cultural capital of West Africa in the 15th century. Tens of thousands of manuscripts, copies of ancient books, of all the sciences, in Arabic, in Hausa, in Peul, a significant number of them on Moroccan culture. Books scattered throughout family libraries. Mali’s population mobilized in 2012 to save several hundred thousand manuscripts from public burning. We have this premonition. Joe makes some installations with bundles of newspapers and masses of books. He makes a throne out of them and sits on it. Our project could not see the light of day because once again, that same year, 2012, I was called as a sociologist to advise the presidency of the French Republic. I painted Joe’s portrait to make up for it.

I see Joe again in 2012 during his exhibition at Documenta 13.  The event excites him, but at the same time, it bothers him. He is afraid of being appropriated by neoliberalism. I say to him: “Joe, look at yourself in the mirror. If there is one person on this earth who cannot be appropriated, it is you.” Documenta was created in 1955 by Arnold Bode (1900-1977), an anti-fascist architect-designer born in Kassel who wanted to reconcile the Germans with international modern art after Nazi isolation. The exhibition is held every five years. It is shown throughout the entire city of Kassel, which was destroyed by British bombs during World War II, in preserved historic sites; in sacralized ruins; in memorial buildings; in parks: Wilhelmshöhe Park, Karlsaue Park, Schönfeld Park; in Hauptbanhof Central Station; at the Orangerie, a history museum; at the Ottoneum, a former theater, today a natural history museum; at the Neue Gallery; at the Friedericianum, one of the oldest European museums, renovated in 1982. The more recently built Documenta Hall stands in contrast, with its glass and iron architecture. Joe, whose curiosity is insatiable, is as interested in urban history as he is in the monuments and visual art.

Kassel, the former capital of the Kingdom of Westphalia (1807-1813) ruled by Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoléon’s brother; the city where the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, as the court’s librarians, collected and universalized old folk tales. “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Valiant Little Tailor,” “Tom Thumb.” An artist’s vigil. This recalls the African legend of the sorcerer from Niamina. The story goes back to time immemorial, when Heaven lived on Earth. The Earth bore a daughter, Mahura, who, among many qualities, had one shortcoming: she worked too much. She ground millet from morning to night. Her pestle constantly knocked at Heaven’s door. One day, exasperated from receiving those blows, Heaven wrapped itself in clouds and floated higher and higher until it was far, far away. Mahura was in despair for having separated Heaven from Earth. She tried to rectify her error. She sent two sumptuous gifts up to Heaven, a gold nugget and a silver pebble, which expanded in the celestial vastness and became the sun and the moon. But Heaven refused to return to Earth.

The commissioner of the exhibition, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curator of Rivoli Castle in Turin, fêtesJoe. She invites him to meetings with journalists, to receptions, and to discussions. The estate is scintillating with a thousand enchanting lights. Beyond the spectacle, stimulating perceptions, sensations and emotions. In his signature patchwork jacket, his midnight-blue beret secured tightly on his head, Joe arranges his installation around a tree, a faithful reproduction of a corner of his courtyard in Dakar. He shows me his new shoes; “works of art,” he tells me. Senegalese fabrics, red boubous hanging on branches, kola nuts, gourds, bits of wood, an open suitcase, crosses, dolls, everything brand new, specially crafted for the event. The fabrics and foliage flutter in unison. The vivid colors are imprinted on your eyes as if they were flowers. The sensations render any commentary futile. A poet, dramaturge, actor, sculptor, painter, prehistorian, Trans-Saharan traveler, phalansterian, marabout, sorcerer, exorcist, prophet, witch doctor, geomancer, and magician, with his rebellious faluche, his Sartrean pipe, and his Guevara-esque nonchalance, Issa Samb has made a religion out of total art. He is a charismatic, magical artist, a centrifugal force endowed with wisdom and perspicacity.

About the Author

Mustapha Saha is a sociologist, poet and painter and co-founder of the Movement of 22 March and historical figure of May 1968.

About the Translator

Sara Hanaburgh is a scholar of African cinema and literature and a literary translator. She teaches at Fordham University.

Further Reading

Beware of martyrs

The Senegalese state’s quest to crush the opposition has caused massive unrest throughout the country. A regime that blows on the embers fans the flames.

The Senghor myth

Once you’ve exhausted all the Negritude quotes, you have to confront the fact that Leopold Sedar Senghor ran Senegal as a repressive, one-party state.