The exhibition “Now / Naaw” presented at the Selebe Yoon in Dakar, Senegal, until July 30, 2022, plays on the concomitant importance in Wolof of the word “fly“.

As a painter, El Hadji Sy‘s works are produced from a variety of materials, for example modern jute bags originally used to carry rice or sugar, kites, butcher paper and used paper, glass, shells, wood, tar – and all have a performative capacity.

Versatile as these props on a phase, semi-practical, blurring the lines between utility and style, her works transform into screens, entryways, windows, clothing, furniture and wearable designs.

His political positions appear in both metaphorical and conceptual canvases that convey a visual musicality where bodies and structures are exposed to an undulating and enduring cadence. Beautiful understandings of political occasions, renderings of everyday scenes, references to Dakar urbanism, representations of political, scholarly, whimsical or conventional figures, his works intertwine political-financial discourse and substantive reflections on the frameworks of cultural and globalized creation.

In the exhibition “Now / Naaw“, his new works imagined as assemblies of boards and sections on wheels with a variable compositional plan transform the space into a heterogeneous scene.

El Hadji Sy resists the institutional rule of museums not to touch the work and forces the viewer into a distant and insightful relationship. In this exhibition, El Hadji Sy, scenographer artist undermines the space, forcing a movement to the guest who must circumvent, contact, cross, open or close the work to approach it.

Naaw “fly” represents activity, opportunity and refusal to be lulled to sleep by institutions and doctrines: a place that has always been El Hadji Sy‘s. He who, after leaving the School of Fine Arts in 1977 in Dakar remained at odds with the political and cultural approach of the state and the stylistic norms of negritude, but obtained the help and esteem of former president Léopold Sédar Senghor with whom he continually exchanged and opposed. During the 1970s, he walked, moved, and painted with his feet on the material as a demonstration of breaking with the aesthetics of the Beaux-Arts.

Beyond the walls of institutions, he worked masterfully in convivial spaces, such as roads, clinics, and train stations, to draw a wider crowd and bring together his inclinations for teaching, improvement, and art.

The double phonetic meaning of “Now/Naaw“, the title of this exhibition, brings out the artist’s cherished rule of play and slippage. The juxtaposition of types, the synchronization of implications, the displacement of characters are visual devices he uses to evade inflexible characterizations of the world. In a post-independence era, this multidisciplinary knowledge also means avoiding the dangers of essentialization and exoticization of a supposed Africanness.

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Focused on improving independent infrastructures for Senegalese artists, El Hadji Sy realized studio complexes, for example, the first Village Des Arts from 1977-1983, from which the artists were eventually removed, and a second in 1996 in a former Chinese labor camp-the current Village Des Arts.

While the exhibition “Primitivism in the 20th Century” at MoMA opened in 1984, El Hadji Sy envisioned a collection of contemporary Senegalese art for the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt in the same year – a pioneering work that before long resulted in the main treasure trove of contemporary Senegalese art, presented by Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Keen to compose a non-Western and current history, he was welcomed by curator Clementine Deliss to co-curate the exhibition “Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1995 during Africa95.

In 2005, he benefited from an important review Painting, Performance, Politics coordinated by Clementine Deliss, Yvette Mutumba and Philippe Pirotte at the Weltkulturen Museum in 2015 where El Hadji Sy puts his works in dialogue with ethnographic works of the museum.

Between political rallying and withdrawal from public life, outreach work and isolation, provocative demonstrations and asocial character, the work and figure of El Hadji Sy are plural and essential for the history of Senegal. After several years of creation, one responsibility remains: to versify and shake the world through tasteful reinventions. 

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