@ Trade Fair Palace, Prague
6.2.16 – 22.5.16
Arriving on the top floor of the Trade Fair Palace (Veletrzni Palac) in Prague, the first retrospective of artworks by El Hadji Sy (b.1954) spills out across the connected rooms of the huge open plan museum. The space-hungry curation is fitting as one quickly learns by taking a look at the first works on display; Sy has been set on breaking out of the canvas his entire career.
The exhibition title hints at a keen disrespect for boundaries and the tenet of dissent is rightly emphasised as something that has driven his work throughout. Putting such radical and fluid values at the center of his creative methods gives us the highly physical and abstract paintings that make up the most of the exhibition, however Sy’s success lies in that he has not let his artworks take the place of action in the political and social sphere, elements of which run alongside his artworks in their themes and history.
Aesthetically the paintings are very much in line with the developments in painting that were
happening elsewhere in Germany, France and the United States. His opening early paintings share the same impulsive characteristics of the Tachisme that gave Wols or Karel Appel their house style.
Paint is pushed roughly across the canvas and at all times there is a level of childlike exploration that leads his brush, hands or feet intuitively from one colourful movement to the next. It wouldn’t be hard to go further and make some very tangible comparisons to Arshile Gorky or early Pollock, but it is not the transatlantic nature of the style that is really intriguing in the case of Sy. More so it is the glaring fact that his paintings as a Senegalese artist are so hugely unknown and uncovered by the eurocentric model of art history that dominates the textbooks, something made more striking by just how far Sy explores the same aesthetic realms as the abstract expressionists or members of Cobra. For example, the privilege that Karel Appel or Hans Hofmann afforded natural and improvisatory form is at work on equal levels in Sy’s 1980s works such as the Esprit de l’univers series and certainly conjures to mind the same processes of action painting that so served the artistic rhetoric of 1950s New York.
It is not hard to sense the lack of satisfaction with the ability of painting to push borders forward in Sy’s work and this premonition leads logically on to his efforts in performance, curation and large-scale works. These far less medium-specific works all carry a radical sense of community behind them, always expressed through a visceral and often critical link to the past.
It is here that Sy steps out of the model of painter looking to escape the canvas, something repeated since Fauvism, and becomes the critical historian-via-artist that marks him deservedly in the history of African contemporary artists. Sy engages this role mainly by taking artefacts from the history of tribal craft in Africa and forcing them into the present alongside his larger artworks, or simply juxtaposing them next to each other with curatorial boldness. Seeing the carved benches ordered across his large sacking action paintings creates an uneasy sense of culture that is aesthetically sound but historically opposed, each combination more like a statement of caution than anything else. In these pieces, Sy’s target is the hegemony of historical narrative, specifically when it is applied to the history of arts in Africa.
The sense of disconnect with the craft cultures of the past becomes clear as his curation begins to starkly place Gabon masks next to abstract portraits (Mere et enfant, 1987) with no focal center, nakedly revealing Sy’s critical stance on African history and culture. Firstly it is as if he is challenging the lineage that African artists are assumed to have with the art forms of the past by revealing an obvious difference in approach between two artworks across time. As his activism indicates, Sy is ill at ease with the various administrations and military groups that have come and gone from ruling positions in Senegal and elsewhere, culminating in the destruction of his art communes Village Des Art and AGIT’ART by militia. Equally he associates this blunt destruction with the ignorance of historical narratives that have been applied to African art history since the discovery of the ‘primitive’ in turn of the century Paris, communicated through the abrupt changes in presentation that are akin to squashing moments of history together into a small box.
The exhibition culminates in his filmwork that is projected alongside his large scale cut outs, concluding the exhibition-long conversation with his artistic past and the historical archives that have been available to him. His films indicate the same traits continuing through his paintings, texts and installations, emphasising the need for a malleable handling of African history.
The retrospective is a success in the sense that it does more than just detail the history of a
recognised Senegalese artist but reveals the development and forms of an interpretative lens that continually blooms when brought into new environments, as has been the case here and in its previous venue the Weltkulturen Museum. The records of his past activism sit well with the expressionistic traces of movement on his canvases, altogether providing a tangible image of an artistic career that is constantly in motion.