The body in flight

The 14th edition of the Dakar Biennale puts up the first significant survey of Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy’s work in the city.

Installation view of "Now/Naaw" at Selebe Yoon. Photo credit Serubiri Moses ©.

Inspired by a play on the Wolof word meaning “to fly,” the exhibition Now/Naaw features the work of important Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy (born 1954). The exhibition, currently installed at Selebe Yoon, a gallery in the Plateau, Dakar, is organized in the context of the Biennale de l’Art Africain Contemporaine de Dakar. In its 14th edition, the Biennale—known simply as Dakar Biennale, or Dak’Art—opened on May 19th of this year. Led by scholar Dr. El Hadji Malick Ndiaye and funded by the government of President Macky Sall, this year’s edition has been long-anticipated, given that the recurring event last took place in 2018 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Ndiaye’s exhibition framework focused on the importance of African epistemologies as an energizing force following the pandemic’s spiritual and economic toll on a planetary scale. Curated by Jennifer Houdrouge, director of the Selebe Yoon gallery and residency space, Now/Naaw was championed as the first significant exhibition of the artist’s work in Dakar in decades. It included at least 30 artworks, including many recent works installed on wheels in the style of “moving artworks.”

Some of El Hadji Sy’s accomplishments include his membership—starting in 1974—in the Senegalese art collective, Laboratoire Agit’Art, which was founded by famous filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety and artist and philosopher Issa Samb. This group was considered a crucial site of intellectual opposition to former Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor and to the national art school, École de Dakar, led by Pierre Lods. Sy also initiated and administered the Village des Arts de Dakar, an important hub for Senegalese artists beginning in 1977. Sy’s other contributions include his curatorial contributions to the 1995 landmark exhibition Seven Stories of Modern Art in Africa at the WhiteChapel Gallery in London. In 1999, Sy received the National Order of the Lion, Senegal’s highest honor, from then-President Abdou Diof. He has had several solo retrospective exhibitions in Europe, but the Selebe Yoon exhibition is his first in Africa.

Installation view of “Now/Naaw” at Selebe Yoon. Photo credit Serubiri Moses ©.

Once you arrived at Selebe Yoon, you were greeted from the bottom of the stairwell with  incredible pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the winding staircase. They were several meters long and bore painted surfaces at the top. In the exhibition catalog, Bassam Chaïtou described this artwork as recalling “rhythm, dance, spontaneity, imagination, communion and commitment.” At the top of the winding staircase, you were greeted by another striking artwork: standing upright at human scale, autonomous in the middle of the room and liberated from the white walls, this work was neither painting nor installation. It evoked the sense that the artist aimed to annihilate the “hand-eye” definition of art in the West by making work that one could touch, reorder, and walk through like a portal.

Further down the hall, you encountered something that looked like a pinball machine with wheels; it had a wooden structure at the top that recalled a well-chiseled relief sculpture, and a flat surface for the glass painting adjacent to it. It felt like a treasure. I especially remember its piercing golden yellows. That color seemed to recur in the exhibition, sometimes contrasted with blue and green. At other moments, such as in a secluded gallery with pared-down lighting, the works were colored in a deep red. This latter section of the exhibition was the most moving, as it took me on an introspective—if not spiritual—journey.

Installation view of “Now/Naaw” at Selebe Yoon. Photo credit Serubiri Moses ©.

The context and ideas of El Hadji Sy’s work stood out to me. One artwork I saw in the exhibition—“La Vache” (“The Cow”) (2016), made of acrylic painting and rope on a jute sack—recurs in my memory, but also in his various exhibitions. I saw it for the first time in Kassel in 2017 during Documenta. That presentation, which seemed chaotic (to use a term that is little understood in the framework of Western art), arranged the artworks on movable wheels that stood in the exhibition hall and congregated around a disco ball. Documenta that year sounded a very serious decolonial note, so what kind of fête took place in the middle of this critique? The work reminded me of the clever aphorism by Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Sy’s presentation at Documenta 14 asserted unsparingly that such a decolonial revolution in art could not take place without the body.

In an interview with Julia Grosse published in the catalog for his 2016 retrospective at Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, Sy said, “At first I thought this was dancing. Then I realized that I wasn’t dancing but kicking. After that experience, kicking became an instrument within the general economy of composition. My foot became a brush with which to paint a systematization of the trace of the body.

This quote has been interpreted and reinterpreted multiple times since it was first printed. However, I would like to add to its many interpretations by holding two images together. The first image is that of Sy working in his studio in Village des Arts de Dakar and literally walking on the canvas beneath him. This image illustrates not only the importance of the body for Sy’s philosophy, but also for the making of his artworks. It reminds me of visiting the Village des Arts de Dakar in late May and seeing an artwork in a Dak’Art-affiliated exhibition by Senegalese artist Ismaïla Manga (1957-2015) that showed a similar attitude to the use of soil and earth in art making. Both artists, Manga and Sy, held long-standing studios at the Village, and both made this connection to the ground: Sy via “kicking” and “stomping,” and Manga by letting his works rot and rust under collected metal and mounds of red earth.

Installation view of “Now/Naaw” at Selebe Yoon. Photo credit Serubiri Moses ©.

The second image that I have is that of Sy’s painting of a cow from 2016, shown in the Selebe Yoon exhibition and at Documenta 14. This image recurs within this exhibition and is refracted in a series of striking red paintings that were mostly of cows. These paintings were installed in a separate room with deliberately paired backlights.

El Hadji Sy’s artwork seems to align so perfectly with the ethos of this year’s Dak’Art, which argues for “epistemic disobedience” and “the subversion of models already served.” This alignment reveals how challenging it is to view his work from within the strict discipline of Western painting. It calls for an alternative history of creativity, thought, and practice. But I am most drawn to this position visually and through the context of Dakar, Senegal. In a video promoting his solo exhibition in Warsaw, El Hadji Sy said that he is originally from Dakar. This statement may appear mundane, but given Sy’s push to shift the articulation of art in his home country toward the environment surrounding his studio in Dakar, and given how the place itself acts as a foundation for a variety of collective practices, I am reminded of Sy’s relationship to the land and the place.

In a recent talk titled, “Land, Language, and Life,” Kenyan philosopher Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o said that “our body is the primary source of knowledge.” If this statement recalls Sy’s interventions into painting by centering the body, what Ngugi said next elucidates the subject of Sy’s art: “[T]he next primary source of knowledge,” he said, “is our body’s interaction with the environment, the land particularly. The body needs the land for its sustenance: land as the space for hunting, herding cows and goats and sheep, and of course for planting food crops.”

El Sy’s portrait of Issa Samb (1945-2017) and founder of Laboratoire Agit Art. Photo credit Serubiri Moses ©.

When I first saw Sy’s art during Documenta, I immediately noticed the 2016 painting “Les Pêcheurs” (“The Fishermen”). This picture appeared to me as a reflection of the Lebu fishermen who inhabited the Cap-Vert peninsula and who, after migrating to the area, established the city of Yoff in 1430. Similarly, the cattle in Sy’s art recalled the various nomadic communities in the region and their care for these nonhuman beings. This showed how historically rooted in place Sy’s art is. Further, as a viewer from Uganda, I couldn’t help but relate Sy’s pictures of cattle to the artwork of Ugandan artist Jak Katarikawe (1940-2018), which represents the cattle in human character. Katarikawe’s cattle are fondling each other, making love, dancing, and sleeping, as well as dreaming. The figure in Sy’s painting also reminds me of the foundational myths of various East and Southern African communities involving cattle.

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