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El Hadji Sy from Senegal

Disso – Concertation (2016) - Installation with Paintings and Sound

Flashback to a meeting with El Hadji Sy in his studio in Dakar in the early 1990s: I have trouble photographing his pictures individually. Sy directs my gaze so that in each shot an excess drawing, another work emerges - explicitly positioned over the larger painting that I'm after. In addition, the person of the artist himself - a human figure that moves, breaking the spatial axis of the various static elements. The result is blind spots from which incongruent signals flash - signals that, in turn, oscillate between different art histories.

El Hadji Sy - The Fisher from the cycle Disso-ConcertationAs a painter, curator and activist who has always remained true to his native Senegal, Sy, born in Dakar in 1954, stands for a position that is free of any isolationist genealogy. His first solo exhibition abroad took place in Chicago in 1981 in Paul Wagoner's unconventional art spaces. At that time, Sys's work was in confrontation with the normative genre of painting proclaimed by Senghor's cultural regime of the 1970s. For ten years he insisted on painting with his feet. At the same time he founded several art collectives (Laboratoire Agit'Art, Tenq and Huit Facettes Interaction) and occupied buildings built by foreign powers - French colonialists and Chinese Communists.

As early as 1988, Sy published the first art-critical anthology on contemporary art in Senegal and put together a collection of new works by his male and female artist colleagues for a German museum. His recent retrospective at the same institution (El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 2015) not only demonstrated the breadth of his practice, but also his perception of the challenges associated with ethnographic collections. For example, the artist refers to these discrete artifacts as "pitfalls of conscience" and speaks of the horror emanating from these objects - objects that challenge the ethical stance of the viewer and require a semantic upgrade that is capable of breaking the boundaries of anthropological discourse.

Sys's unruly stance still stands for an aesthetic struggle at the agonistic crossroads between community involvement and solitary self-denial. "How do we socialize the production of the mind?" asks the artist, whose current conceptual work in Dakar combines large-format choreographic paintings with radio broadcasts that he heard as a boy. These programs were addressed to farmers and fishermen and dealt with urgent questions of development policy in a post-colonial Senegal. Sy extracts the radio jingle, which - like the fleeting trace of a fragrance - recalls a specific moment. This gestural renewal links the iconic with the acoustic, the synesthetic with the political, awakens superimposed memories and condenses the performative knowledge of the past with unresolved problems of the present lifeworld.

- Clémentine Deliss

Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpt from the documenta 14: Daybook

El Hadji Sy - The Fishers from the cycle Disso-Concertation

"The Fishers" (Les pêcheurs), acrylic on canvass with cords and other mixed media, 2.1 x 3.5 m.

El Hadji Sy - The Drowned from the cycle Disso-Concertation

El Hadji Sy - The Drowned from the cycle Disso-Concertation, acrylic on jute