Between Frankfurt And Dakar:

The passion of two pioneers

El Hadji Sy and Friedrich Axt published an anthology on contemporary art practice in Senegal.

The passion of two pioneers

El Hadji Syworks from Dakar at the Weltkulturen Labor, October 2014, Photo Wolfgang Günzel

By Yvette Mutumba

If one thing is important to me – aside from aesthetic value, because of course I’m an art lover in the truest sense of the word – then it is to illuminate the spectrum of artistic activity going on in Senegal today. It is simply still far too little known. The commitment of individuals is vital; without that, success and recognition are almost impossible to achieve.

Friedrich Axt, 1984

Picture a summer evening in 1984. Under a baobab tree in Dakar sit the Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy and his friend and patron Friedrich Axt. They have known each other for five years. The two men met in Dakar in 1979, and, as Axt puts it, ‘on était ensemble depuis’.1 Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Sy are discussing their shared passion – contemporary artistic production in Senegal. Since the resignation of the country’s president and great patron of the arts, Léopold Sédar Senghor, four years earlier, the situation for artists has changed dramatically. Senghor’s successor Abdou Diouf sees cultural policy as a matter of secondary importance, losing no time in evicting artists from their studios at the Village des Arts. On the other hand, Axt and Sy observe, opportunities are now arising for a new artistic independence, separate from Senghor and the ‘École de Dakar’.

‘We have to get history right’

Deep in conversation, Axt and Sy agree that Senegalese art has reached a new phase of autonomy. This will be an art that defines itself in relation both to colonialism and to tradition – because, argues Sy, whether they like it or not, Senegalese artists are born into a particular education and system of values. However, without state acknowledgement and promotion, the dissemination of art both at home and abroad is a difficult matter in the 1980s. The blossoming landscape of Senegalese art mostly remains hidden. True, there have been shows outside Senegal – such as the major touring exhibition in 1974 organised by the Senegalese Ministry of Culture, which opened at the Grand Palais in Paris before travelling to various cities across the Europe and the US – but this did not result in any genuinely critical engagement with the artists and their work.2 The friends conclude that it is high time to promote a more extensive appreciation of the Senegalese art scene. Sy and Axt have already begun to take up that challenge. Production has just finished on their television documentaries Reisewege zur Kunst, Senegal I and Reisewege zur Kunst, Senegal II for the regional state broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk and Transtel.3 With footage of studio visits and interviews with a range of artists including Philippe Sène, Théodore Diouf, Papisto Boy, Papa Ibra Tall and El Hadji Sy himself, the documentaries provide initial insights into the art scene of Dakar.

With these films completed, Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Sy plan a new and significant project: they decide to publish an anthology on contemporary art practice in Senegal. They are convinced ‘that modern Senegalese art of the last twenty-five years needs to be selectively summarized’.4 It soon becomes obvious that this book must not be merely informative, but needs to provide an arena for authentic voices from the world of Senegalese art and art criticism. ‘It was good to produce two films. But in the book, we have to write history correctly,’5 says Sy. Forty significant artists are presented together with short biographies and illustrations of their works. A range of authors are invited to write about the most important paradigms, models and trends. They are influential figures of the Senegalese art scene, and their texts cover the period from the beginnings of art education and cultural developments under Senghor in the 1960s until well into the 1980s. Key institutions and processes are described, such as the founding of the École des Beaux-Arts (1961), the Musée Dynamique (1966), the Manufacture de Tapisserie (1966) and the Galérie Nationale d’Art (1983). The book also covers the development of different media including painting, sculpture, print-making, ceramics, batik and reverse glass painting. Various authors write about the domains that they themselves represent: Khalidou Sy, director of the École des Beaux-Arts de Dakar; philosopher and music anthropologist Ousmane Sow Huchard (Soléa Mama), curator at the Musée Dynamique; Anne Jean-Bart, journalist and art critic; Djibril Tamsir Niane, former commissioner at the Ministry of Culture and responsible for exhibiting Senegalese art abroad; Ben Mouhamed Diop, one-time general secretary of the Senegalese artists’ association A.N.A.P.S.;6 Issa Samb, philosopher and member of the Laboratoire AGIT’ART. The remaining contributors are textile artist Aissa Djionne, reverse glass painter Sérigne N’Diaye, educator Pierre Lods, Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Sy himself. Senghor’s role in the anthology project is impossible to ignore. Axt and Sy decide to pay tribute to him by asking him to write an introduction. Senghor agrees and contributes the foreword.

With the support of Makhily Gassama, Minister of Culture, Axt and Sy’s concept is forwarded to the German-Senegalese cultural commission, which recommends it for funding. Further, the cultural section of the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) expresses its willingness to finance research for the anthology. This first success is important, and certainly not a matter of course. The year is 1984, when the ‘global turn’, soon to change the international discourse of art, is barely on the horizon. Major West German art and cultural institutions show no interest in non-Western contemporary artists. As Evelyn Weiss, the deputy director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, declares in 1981: ‘They seem third-class to us because the art displayed here … however laudable its efforts may be, and often are … always lags behind. Any comparison with the international art scene is bound to show them at a disadvantage. They do not stand up to the critical and informed scrutiny of the art world here, and thus they are – let me put it harshly – superfluous’.7

Once the Foreign Office has agreed to fund research for their anthology on Senegalese artists, Axt and Sy begin to seek a production partner. Aware that the Frankfurt museum of ethnography (today the Weltkulturen Museum) has been collecting contemporary art since 1974, Axt speaks to its director, Josef Franz Thiel, about El Hadji Sy and the planned anthology. Thiel reacts with enthusiasm – he has only recently decided that contemporary art should become a focal point of the museum’s collecting policy. He offers Axt and Sy the chance to publish the anthology through the museum, and goes one step further: Would it not make sense for the two men to put together a collection of works by contemporary Senegalese artists for the museum? . . .

This article is an excerpt from the comprehensive monograph published by diaphanes in English and German. It includes manifestos and newspaper cuttings of the period, together with newly commissioned essays and interviews by Hans BeltingClémentine Deliss, Mamadou Diouf, Julia Grosse,Yvette MutumbaPhilippe Pirotte and Manon Schwich.

El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, 05 MARCH – 18 OCTOBER 2015, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt a. Main, Germany. The exhibition tours to the National Gallery in Prague/ Narodni galerie v Praze and to the Centre for Contemporary Art Warsaw Ujazdowski Castle/Centrum Sztuki Wspo?czesnej Warszawa Zamek Ujazdowski in 2016.

1 ‘We have been together ever since.’ The French phrase expresses the deep affinity between the friends. Axt returned to Germany in 1979 after five years teaching German in Senegal, where he worked on a survey of teachers and students that investigated the history and current state of employment opportunities for the Senegalese population. Axt met President Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Senghor’s philosophical reflections played a crucial part in his study. His research culminated in a PhD thesis on Senghor and Senegalese education policy: Friedrich Axt, Léopold Sédar Senghor und die Erziehungspolitik in der Republik Senegal (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1979).

2 It came to Bonn and Saarbrücken, West Germany, in 1976.

3 Transtel produces documentaries and infotainment for the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The documentaries Reisewege zur Kunst, Senegal I and Reisewege zur Kunst, Senegal II were made in collaboration with the editor Gerd Albaum.

4 Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Sy, ‘Vorwort der Herausgeber’, in Anthology of Contemporary Fine Arts in Senegal, ed. Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Sy (Frankfurt am Main: Museum fur Völkerkunde, 1989), 9–10, here 9.

5 El Hadji Sy in conversation with the author, Frankfurt am Main, 25 July 2014.

6 Association Nationale des Artistes Plasticiens du Sénégal (A.N.A.P.S.).

Evelyn Weiss, quoted in Hans-Gert Braun, ‘Afrikanische Kunst – Zum Schwerpunkt dieses Heftes’, Internationales Afrikaforum 3, no. 34 (1998): 199.



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