“At first I thought this was dancing. Then I realised that I wasn’t dancing but kicking,” says El Hadji Sy, Senegalese artist, curator, and activist (b. 1954). Since the ’70s, El Sy literally kicks the canvas, and the gesture of kicking has become an important part of the overall economy of his actions. “My foot became a brush with which to paint a systematisation of the trace of the body. […] The Western understanding of painting often revolves around the notion of the eye and the hand. I wanted to kick out this tradition like a football, with one violent gesture.”
El Hadji Sy is one of the key figures of the art scene in West Africa after it gained independence. His numerous activities always seemed to balance between belonging and escaping, whose subject could both be the postcolonial heritage of Senegal, the ideology of “negritude,” as well as local traditions, global markets and, in the end, any systems, including those internally governing art.
The forming map of political, ideological, economic, and social relations, under whose frames the new Senegalese identity was developing after 1960, as well as developmental dynamics, modernization and changes in the metropolis, which Dakar was becoming, defined the benchmarks for the methods of operation of El Hadji Sy and artistic groups with which he was associated (Laboratoire AGIT’ART, Tenq, Huit Facettes). These groups, connecting artists from various fields as well as intellectuals, based on radical theatrical and social experiments, sought hidden correspondences between the different mediums and a new language of art, as a tool for criticism and making changes in reality. Emerging from the individual and group practices of El Sy is a socio-artistic project, which is based on the community.
Although he enjoyed the support and admiration of President Senghor—the first president of independent Senegal—El Hadji Sy openly protested against the cultural policy of the nation, creating along with other artists their own, grassroots initiatives and structures. Even though his paintings were valued and presented on the international scene since the late ’70s, he was able to boycott the prestigious events to which he was invited to partake in (e.g. he refused to take part in an exhibition organized by the Centre Pomidou, Magiciens de la Terre, in 1989). In the mid-90s, together with Clémentine Deliss, he prepared the exhibition Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (Whitechapel Gallery, Malmö Konsthall). In 1997, they participated in Documenta 10 in Kassel as a part of the program 100 Days—100 Guests, and for the next edition of Documenta (2002) the group Huit Facettes, which was co-created by him, was invited. In 2015, he was invited to partake in the Biennale in São Paulo. In response to a question about the assessment of the contemporary art situation in Senegal, he says that no matter where on the globe, “art always has the same problems: to propose models, distribute and introduce them into international critique.”
The exhibition at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw wants to look at the models proposed by the artist and a specific cultural experience, the frames in which they arose as well as the possibility of their universalization. Over 100 paintings, objects, posters, and documentation (archival records of performances, photographs, manifestos, the magazine Metronome), as well as a performance created especially for the exhibition will help investigate the models of performativity and processuality proposed by El Hadji Sy and the surprising place in which the body, object as well as the global flow of people, goods and meanings are found within its frames. It’s the process that fascinates the artist, not the finished object. The role of the object or installation is actually subordinate to some degree to the process itself. It is the process with its hidden musical, rhythmic structure that strongly transforms and bends reality. In some ways it embraces objects in its possession—with the trend expanded by them—to flow further in the direction of the community, and to test the limits of its causativeness.
Searching for new, organic relationships between the body, the world, objects and materials as well as translating them into the language of artistic activity is part of the process that El Hadji Sy calls the “visual syntax.” Through it, he transforms experiences into paintings using his own body. It acts as a kind of transformer, strongly transfiguring the structure which he utilizes. The visual syntax becomes a way of deliverance from the excess of images and meanings flooding us every day, hoping to find our singularity within the newly conceived communities.