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Reviewed by:
  • El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics ed. by Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba
  • Joseph L. Underwood (bio)
El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics
Edited by Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba
Zürich, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2015.
408 pp., 404 color ill., 95 b/w ill. English/German; $50.00 paper

Beyond a traditional exhibition catalogue, El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics offers not only the typical curatorial/contextual essays, but also the original source materials pertaining to this pioneering artist. In fact, the publication’s greatest contribution might be its assemblage of archival photographs, posters, invitations, newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and other ephemera related to Sy’s career. These accompany the sumptuous, full-color photographs of paintings that represent the artist’s thirty-five years of activity. As the curators—Clémentine Deliss, Yvette Mutumba, and Philippe Pirotte—and guest essayists recount Sy’s wide-reaching impact on the artscape of Senegal—including Dakar’s École des Beaux-Arts, Laboratoire AGIT’ART, Tenq workshops, the Huit Facettes collective, and both iterations of the Village des Arts—these ephemeral, peripheral materials from personal archives richly animate Sy’s prolonged engagement with politics and art. His engagement rever-berated internationally, particularly with multifaceted German networks of collection, exhibition, and criticism. The solo exhibition at the Weltkulturen Museum (Frankfurt) sprang from an earlier collaboration: the museum’s publication of Anthology of Contemporary Fine Arts in Senegal (1989), co-edited by Sy and Friedrich Axt. Though the 2015 exhibition was the result of an artist residency where he staged interventions with his own paintings and the museum’s ethnographic collections, the catalogue smartly takes more of an historical lens to Sy’s contributions as artist, curator, and activist.1

Mutumba’s enlightening essay gives the context for Afro-German exchanges from the 1980s, detailing how the two German states sponsored artistic programs and exhibitions that advanced their respective ideologies (e.g., a 1983 exhibition of Ethiopian students mounted in Berlin to champion socialist revolution). The unique relationship between Sy and Axt, who taught German in Senegal (1974–1979), is the starting point for Mutumba’s genealogy of collaborations between Senegal and Germany. Axt shared Sy’s conviction that the cultural moment in Senegal was significant, as governmental patronage waned and the arts were liberated from Senghor’s dogmatic vision of postcolonial culture. After creating video reportages on contemporary art practice, they undertook the ambitious project of anthologizing Senegal’s spaces, practices, and artists, featuring trilingual contributions from artists, critics, and even Senghor himself. With the sponsorship of the Federal Republic of Germany, they approached Josef Franz Thiel of the (now) Weltkulturen Museum to publish it. Thiel had recently changed the museum’s policy, making it the sole European institution with a formal mission to collect contemporary art from Africa. Ultimately, Thiel printed the anthology and commissioned Axt and Sy to buy fifty works for the museum, making Sy the first African curator whose independent vision was welcomed by a European institution and audience. Through the partnership of two men with a passion for recasting stereotypes of African art, Mutumba proposes the larger network of Senegalese-German exchange as a model for unpacking the complexities of other Afro-European relationships.

Manon Schwich elaborates on Axt’s financial and material support of Sy’s practice as he coordinated exhibitions in Germany and built an archive of Sy’s paintings from different periods (p. 348). Navigating challenges across Franco-German structures (mail, currency, publications, sponsorships, etc.), the friends worked to exhibit and sell Senegalese artwork outside of governmental interference, organizing “projects that had been left too systematically to foreign diplomatic missions” (p. 353). In his constant lutte for artists’ rights to create and exhibit beyond the nationalist or ideological boundaries of state patronage, Sy was a mediator, or “counterweight,” to structures in Senegal (p. 348). For Schwich, Sy’s politics of resistance were never prescriptive, but discursive, and the artist was leery of working with any actors whose frameworks did not align with his personal convictions.2 In both his painting and [End Page 95] curating, Sy provided a new angle of analysis by introducing doubt and questioning extant systems—from state patronage, to...


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pp. 95-96
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