El Hadji Sy

Dancing in and out of Painting

Philippe Pirotte takes a closer look at the sublte performative painting practice of Senegalese artist

Dancing in and out of Painting

El Hadji Sy painting a banner in the Weltkulturen Labor_ 2014_ Photo: Wolfgang Günzel

By Philippe Pirotte


One might wonder why El Hadji Sy chooses painting as his preferred medium to develop his artistic research, to negotiate his multiple identities, or to conduct his ideological battles. Painting had no tradition in Sy’s native Senegal, where music, movement, performance, clothing and speech were and are the most popular cultural expressions. Painting, as an art form and a discourse, was introduced by the country’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. Promoting an École de Dakar loosely based on the École de Paris – a ‘school’ which allied painting, sculpture and crafts to the literary movement and ideology of négritude – was an attempt to assert a distinctively ‘African’ voice in the arts, free of, if borrowing elements from, the traditions of colonial nations. The new president wanted to develop an aesthetics of africanité, and he encouraged artists to craft a distinctive visual vocabulary through which to share and celebrate a newfound understanding of ‘Africanness’.1 El Hadji Sy, though educated within the contradictions of Senghor’s invented tradition, felt uneasy with the beliefs of the négritude-influenced École de Dakar from the start. It is no coincidence that some of Sy’s earliest experiments in painting were performed by dropping the canvas on the floor and stamping on it. Leaving imprints of his naked feet, these ‘foot paintings’, which index a rhythmic beat, a schlep, or a careful arrangement, can be seen as a provocative gesture against a specific tradition of Western painting, namely easel painting as a product of the eye-hand relationship.

By painting with his feet, El Hadji Sy acted against received art history as if against an authoritarian father. Trampling on a canvas, inflicting thumps with naked feet on an often abstract composition of colours, became a gesture of anarchy. Notwithstanding the potent action, some of the paintings bear aesthetic characteristics reminiscent of the École de Dakar. But other works from Sy’s earlier years also remind one of the AfriCobra movement, an intentional TransAfrican painting style developed in the United States by Jeff Donaldson and other artists. Some of the works El Hadji Sy painted in the early 1980s possess a similar vibrancy, achieved with the use of bright flashy colours and striking patterns to create eye-catching, visually stimulating work. The contrasts made within the bold colour palette are paired with a rhythmic dimension of style and bring to mind Donaldson’s concept of ‘picture-plane compartmentalization’.2 Colours seem to dance, conveying the notion of a rhythmic motion that was integral to TransAfrican work. However, El Hadji Sy’s early painting is more fractious than the often refined decorative characteristics of both the École de Dakar and the AfriCobra movement. It is the testimony of a fight against oneself, against one’s education, and against the idea of decorative painting within its own tradition. El Hadji Sy tries to exorcise aspects of the École de Dakar aesthetics and the echoes of geometric shapes that reflect TransAfrican ways of depicting rhythms and motions, using a violent and particularly personalised interpretation of gestural abstraction. At the same time, there is an apparently cultivated nonchalance: his resistance to painting as a ‘grand narrative’ is coupled with a desacralisation of the medium. In contrast to Senghor’s objectives in cultivating an African postcolonial painting, El Hadji Sy stresses the ephemeral nature of his work. After working for a number of years in oil on canvas and on paper, he decided to paint on rice sacks, in a manifest disavowal of another École de Dakar phenomenon, the designing of tapestries.3 Though sometimes working on a monumental scale, El Hadji Sy never produced compositions for tapestry. He never wanted to make a decorative design that would be enlarged, but always insisted on the unique work, on an endeavour animated by the labour of his own body.



In some ways El Hadji Sy’s paintings can be connected with gestural abstraction, but they never become a form of abstract expressionism. Even with paintings that appear as abstractions at first sight, one mostly finds an indexical trace of the artist’s body and, just as often, detects a fragment of reality. This representation, which in most of the works springs from a vegetal form, becomes part of the human body, or a kind of portrait. The gestural is an important aspect of El Hadji Sy’s work, but his painterly concerns are prompted by a more ‘performative’ approach to expression. In his own words, when painting he ‘enters the pictorial fact’, less as an author than as a corporeal participant. One could say that he is improvising in some sort of painterly choreography, building up towards a theme. He always begins with a gesture that is larger than the consummate deliberation of wrist and fingers, extending into the drama of gesticulations with his arms and the rest of his body. Though this gesture is light and delicate, it is also selfassured, with a dimension of intention as if the movement carries intelligence or knowledge from within. It ends up becoming an organic form that, in turn, hints at the human body. These curlicues, reminiscent of a botanic form and present in his paintings over so many years, are used by the artist more deliberately when painting human faces. Repeating the wreath-like gesture is an act of insistence for El Hadji Sy, not mere repetition. It is a way of finding a ‘painterly grammar’ by trying to recognise the knowledge concealed in his body language.

The curving, curling formation is drawn with large elegant movements, an effortless effort that involves the whole body in a balancing act, in the mobilisation of a studied carelessness. Again, one might call this choreography rather than expression. El Hadji Sy extends the painting into the material world of both the painter and the beholder, and in so doing he shifts the basic relationship between painting and vision towards painting and the diligent body. We can dream up all the moves – the choreography – when looking at a painting by Sy. And although the images are traces of performance, for the viewer they are fully perceptible, in what Norman Bryson called the space of spectacle, the space of the Gaze.4 At the same time, the strokes also exist in another space, convergent with the body of the painter, his space. According to Bryson, it is exactly this choreographic space, the space of the studio, which Western painting negates by positing the body ‘only as content, never as source’.5 In the West, we are given the body to consume as picture through the Gaze: ‘the Gaze takes the body and returns it in altered form, as product, but never as production of work.’6 This choreographic space is also opened up for the participant-observer, the viewer, who is invited to abandon his place as a spectator and become the painter’s partner. The painter appears to give him his oeuvre as a terrain of play. But in order to be allowed to participate, the spectators must become players or dancers in turn. They must, metaphorically, learn to dance with the painting. …

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. MainGermany. 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 This aesthetic was to be centred on recognisable pan-African motifs in a decolonising exercise, but ironically the main protagonists Iba N’Diaye and Papa Ibra Tall, both educated in France, personified opposed ideals. The first warned of the danger of ‘Africanness’ sliding back into a simplistic Noble Savage self-parody, while the second felt that African artists must ‘unlearn’ Western habits and tap into instinctual African creativity, exemplified by the pursuit of this ‘instinctive’ Africanness.

2 Jeff R. Donaldson, ‘AfriCobra and TransAtlantic Connections’, in Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, ed. Clémentine Deliss (Paris: Flammarion, 1995), 249–51.

3 Anne Jean-Bart, ‘The Workshop of Senegalese Decorative Art’, in Anthology of Contemporary Fine Arts in Senegal, ed. Friedrich Axt and El Hadji Sy (Frankfurt am Main: Völkerkundemuseum, 1989), 71–72.

4 Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 163–71.

5 Ibid., 164.

6 Ibid.



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