Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 707-720
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"Crushing the Pistachio":
Eroticism in Senegal and the Art of Ousmane Ndiaye Dago
T. K. Biaya
Translated by Steven Rendall
M. Dimé's sculpture Serer Woman, a work structured by a piece of Sene-galese erotic symbolism, puzzled art critics at the Biennial Exposition in Venice (1993) and at the Museum for African Art in New York (1994) (fig. 1). An overturned mortar forms the convex base of the sculpture; atop the mortar stands an erect pestle, the hammer end of which is decorated with bits of wood that suggest the head and braided hair of a woman. To Western eyes it might suggest the modern tradition of abstractly sculpted nudes, after the manner of Brancusi. To the African imaginaire, however, Serer Woman continues the tradition of erotic storytelling practiced by the Lawbé griots, presenting as it does, in allegory fashion, the anatomy of copulation. In this case, copulation is frustrated. The genital forms, despite their excitement, face away from each other: the penile pestle points upward, and the mouth of the vaginal mortar faces downward. The coitus implied by "crushing the pistachio"--that is, the penetration of the penis that causes the clitoris to be pushed inward--is impossible; just as, allegorically, no pistachio nut could be ground with a mortar and pestle so arranged. The work expresses a foiled desire, similar to the work of Ousmane Sow (Pivin and Saint Martin 1995). Genital sex itself is thwarted by means of the arrangement, and the sculpture would suggest to a Senegalese the public censorship of eroticism in Senegal. [End Page 707]
What is perhaps paradoxical about the censorship of eroticism in Senegal is that the body is erotically valued in African societies on the condition that it is not naked but accessorized, properly prepared. The body's beauty and erotic value are achieved not when it is stripped bare but when it is worked or denatured--for example, by excision, scarification, elongation of the clitoris, and so on. Such a body modified in accord with African canons invites the tactile and olfactory sensuality of an eroticism of the skin, of the senses of touch and smell (Biaya 1999: 19). Eroticism is the body's embellishment by methods that blend its accessories with its attributes, as flesh itself is worked in such a way that blurs the distinction of the cosmetic and the organic.
A logic similar to this formalism of the body has begun to structure a relationship of eroticism to the photography of the nude in Senegal. It would be fair to say that to this point Western photographers such as U. Ommer (1986, 1997) have pursued the art of photographing the nude in West Africa most successfully. African contributions, by contrast, have tellingly included postcard reproductions drawn from Ommer's books and sold in the streets and in the major hotels in Dakar. 1 In consequence, the existing body of work, assembled mostly by international artists who travel to Africa in search of "subject matter," has largely excluded the sources of sensuality and eroticism that decide the shape of the nude locally. The raiment, jewelry, and techniques with which the naked body is made [End Page 708] erotic are absent from the work of Ommer, who instead continues the nineteenth-century pursuit of premodern exoticism on Senegal's beaches. A similar claim might be made about figurative work in other media as well. The work of the painter Yacouba, for example, which is exhibited in Senegal's large, international hotels, serves tourists an exotic primitivism that bears the familiar influence of Matisse. In a very real sense, the African body--and, indeed, the idea of what it means for it to be naked or sensual--has been ignored by this body of work.
A recent break with this trend was made by Ousmane Ndiaye Dago, who has produced some of the most noteworthy and deeply erotic photography to be shot in Africa. While in the West the form of the nude may...