Recall to the early 1990s and a meeting with El Hadji Sy in his studio in Dakar: I remember having difficulty photographing his paintings in isolation. Sy engineers my vision so that every shot contains a surplus drawing or additional artwork positioned explicitly over the larger painting I have in focus. Then there is his person: the human figure moving around and breaching the spatial axis of the different stationary elements, producing blind spots that flicker incongruent signals that commute between art histories.
As a painter, curator, and activist, born in 1954 in Dakar and committed to staying in Senegal, Sy’s position bears no trace of an isolationist genealogy. His first solo show abroad was in Chicago, in 1981, at the unconventional space run by Paul Waggoner. At the time, Sy’s work confronted the normative genre of painting heralded by the Senghorian cultural regime of the 1970s. For ten years, he persisted in using his feet to paint, while simultaneously setting up artists’ collectives (Laboratoire Agit’Art, Tenq, and Huit Facettes Interaction) and squatting buildings constructed by foreign powers, both French colonial and Chinese communist.
As early as 1988, Sy edited the first art-critical anthology on Senegalese contemporary art and collated a collection of new works by fellow artists for a German museum. His recent retrospective at the same institution (El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 2015) demonstrated not only the breadth of his practice but also the challenge he recognizes with regard to ethnographic collections. Referring to these secreted artifacts as “conscience-snares,” Sy speaks of the anxiousness emitted by such objects that question the ethics of the onlooker and necessitate a semantic rearmament capable of transgressing the discourse of anthropology.
Today, his restive stance continues to articulate an aesthetic battle situated at the agonistic crossroads between communal engagement and lone diffidence—“How do we socialize the production of the mind?” he asks. Recent concept-works in Dakar combine large-scale choreographic paintings with radio broadcasts he heard as a boy. Aimed at farmers and fisher-folk, they address the burning issues of development politics in post-independence Senegal. Sy extracts the radio jingle, which like the elusive trace of a scent recalls a specific moment in time. This gestural remediation combines the iconic with the sonic, and the synesthetic with the political, evoking superimposed memories and condensing a performative know-how from the past with unresolved environmental conditions of the present.