Earlier this month I went to Germany to undertake gallery-based research at the Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) in Frankfurt and spent time reviewing the temporary exhibition, El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics (5 March-10 October, 2015).
This detailed retrospective about the life and work of internationally renowned Senegalese artist-curator and activist El Hadji Sy (b. 1954, Dakar) features a series of thematic assemblages comprising carefully selected historical objects from the Weltkulturen Museum’s extensive ethnographic collections juxtaposed with a range of contemporary paintings and installations created by El Hadji Sy and a number of fellow Senegalese artists dating from the early 1970s through to the present day.
El Hadji Sy’s association with the Weltkulturen Museum can be traced back to 1985 when he was first commissioned by the then director of the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology), Franz Josef Thiel, to curate a collection of contemporary paintings by Senegalese scholars affiliated to fine arts schools such as the École de Dakar, as well as works by self-taught artists. This curatorial activity was later accompanied by a published anthology of contemporary arts practice in Senegal co-edited with German education scholar and art patron Friedrich Axt (Axt and Sy 1989). Their professional partnership, which began when both lived in Dakar, led to a long friendship, transnational correspondences over many decades and numerous collaborations on international arts initiatives that lasted until Axt’s death in 2010.
Presented in 13 rooms over two floors of display space the exhibition is illustrative of the way El Hadji Sy’s curatorial “alchemy of assemblages” communicate on several discursive levels: as a series of spatial and temporal conversations between the artist and staff at the Weltkulturen Museum; between objects and texts from the past and the present positioned in museum space; between Senegal and Germany at the level of transnational arts policy and exhibiting practices; and between Africa and Europe with regard to globalised, cross-cultural and geopolitical discourses.
In preparation for the exhibition El Hadji Sy was invited by the museum’s former director, Dr Clémentine Deliss, to undertake a research residency and participate in a programme of creative laboratories and educational events over several months throughout 2013-2014. During this time El Hadji Sy worked with three specific collections: the Senegalese contemporary art collection curated by him in the 1980s; ethnographic objects from historical collections acquired in Central and West Africa, Papua New Guinea and South America; and archival materials documenting his artistic work and political activism as co-founder of a number of influential arts movements. The archival documents focused, in particular, on El Hadji Sy’s involvement in the interdisciplinary artists’ collective Laboratoire AGIT’ART established in 1974, the ‘Tenq’ (Articulation) projects that ran in Senegal between 1980 and 1996, the Dakar-based Village des Arts first established with the support of Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the interventionist group Huit Facettes.
The photographs taken during my walk-though observations of the cultural objects and contemporary artworks reflect the beauty, complexity and poignancy of the displays – which began with a collection of painted crates and a large tarpaulin displayed at the entrance to signify the multiple journeys made by the artist in order to transport his artworks and engage in transnational, cross-cultural dialogues between Dakar and Frankfurt, Senegal and Germany, Africa and Europe, over a period of 30 years.
A variety of contemporary mixed-media works were positioned throughout each room – ranging from conventional oils and acrylics on canvas, delicate textile art on kites and banners, paintings on jute sacking, and experimental installations using double-sided painted mirrors.
Even the space above the central staircase was creatively utilised, displaying kites painted by El Hadji Sy that were once used in a music video for the song ‘Chimes of Freedom’ (1994) by Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’Dour.
The artist’s international activism and global influence were referenced throughout the exhibition via a display of posters designed by El Hadji Sy for exhibitions and events held in Paris and London, archival documentation about his curatorial contribution to international initiatives such as Art Against Apartheid, and also looped film footage and photographic stills taken from performances choreographed by El Hadji Sy: specifically, ‘SOS Culture’ presented alongside Issa Samb and other members of Laboratoire AGIT’ART on the opening night of the exhibition Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (1995) at the Whitechapel in London; the ‘Tenq’(Articulation) workshops of 1994 and 1996 involving artists from West and Southern Africa and Europe; and ‘Mémoire Fracturée’ (Fractured Memory) presented as part of the exhibition Laboratorium (1999) at the Musée de la Photographie in Antwerp.
This stunningly beautiful and informative exhibition, sensitively curated by El Hadji Sy in collaboration with former director Dr Clémentine Deliss, is a very good example of multi-vocal, cross-cultural and inclusive exhibiting practice that carefully balances the presentation of historical ethnographic objects with works of contemporary fine art and does not shy away from addressing the political and socio-economic complexities of these post-colonial and post-modern narratives.
El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics will be on display at the Weltkulturen Museum until October 2015, and then tours to the National Gallery in Prague and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw throughout 2016.
A full-colour catalogue of the exhibition – featuring interviews with the artist in conversation with Julia Grosse and Hans Belting, and scholarly essays by Clémentine Deliss, Mamadou Diouf, Yvette Mutumba and Manon Schwich – is available via Diaphanes (Deliss and Mutumba 2015).
Notes and references:
The phrase “alchemy of assemblages” is taken from Paul Basu and Sharon MacDonald’s book on Exhibiting Experiments (Macdonald and Basu 2007), which discusses the various assemblages of people, objects, ideas, texts and different media that are brought together during the process of curating museum and gallery exhibitions. For further details, see: Macdonald, Sharon, and Paul Basu. 2007. Exhibition experiments: new interventions in art history. Oxford: Blackwell (pp. 9-11).
Axt, Friedrich, and El Hadji Moussa Babacar Sy. 1989. Bildende Kunst der Gegenwart in Senegal = Anthologie des arts plastiques contemporains au Sénégal = Anthology of contemporary fine arts in Senegal. Translated by Christine Best. Frankfurt am Main: Museum für Völkerkunde.
Deliss, Clémentine, and Yvette Mutumba. 2015. El Hadji Sy: painting, performance, politics. Edited by Weltkulturen Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (distributed for Diaphanes).
Weltkulturen Museum website: www.weltkulturenmuseum.de/en