Monday, 5 December 2016


Ousmane Sow with Massai Warrior

In many respects this is a sea-change in Art. What Ousmane Sow is explaining is that ancient Yoruba and Mali methods of sculpture are superior to those from Europe as they have more flexibility. Some of his later original sculptures are impossible to replicate in bronze or gold as the medium is too heavy and restrictive to display what is physically possible in sculpture. Sometimes the primitive is superior to what is considered by many to be civilized.

The controversial African artist, Senegalese sculptor, Ousmane Sow, has died at the age of 81. Sow worked continuously as an Artist; as a child growing up in Dakar he made action figures which he shared with his friends and used to make up elaborate fictional stories. He worked on model-making and animations in Paris for decades, even turning his physiotherapy office into his studio. He produced a short 16mm film about a group of flamboyant extraterrestrials visiting planet earth, but his career only started once he had returned to Africa and settled back into his beloved Dakar, in his early 50’s. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s Sow produced an immense body of work using African materials and techniques. His first major success came with his larger-than-life sculptures of the Nubian Sudanese Wrestlers, at the French Cultural Centre in Dakar in 1987. 

Massai Series

Zulu Series
Next came the Maasia, from Kenya and Tanzania exploring their exceptional hunting ability and their connection with the wilderness of the Serengeti and then the Zulu warriors from Kwzulu-Natal, South Africa and their strength and unity as one of the most resilient tribes in Africa. Last in this initial series, he explored the stunning beauty found in nomadic, Islamic Fulani people from the Sahel and West Africa, whose features are akin with those found in the Middle Eastern with their golden brown skins. The Nubian Series was an anthropological exercise by the artist and a broad look at the different varieties of peoples to be found on the Continent of Africa.

Fulani Series
Stirred by the German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl and her photographic books on the Nuba and the people of Kau from the Sudan. A series of images known as Mein Afrika was translated in 1982 into English and renamed, Vanishing Africa. To Sow, it seemed rather perverse for a German film-maker, that not only supported but created propaganda for Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, should be the artist to record the lives of Africans. Ambitiously he took on the vital role as an African anthropologist and quietly, and methodically decided to chronicle the multiplicity of Africa using ancient and modern African sculptural techniques and finally permitting an African perspective on African people. Over several years he created a series of huge sculptures exposing the diversity of the Continent.

Nubian Wrestlers
The naked wrestlers were quite shocking when first shown outside the French Cultural Centre in the Muslim city of Dakar. Their presence and majestic dominance won the artist great acclaim and by 1993 Sow was selected for Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the Venice Biennale two years later. Cosmic success followed and the public's response to Sow's works were more like fans at a rock concert or cinema-lovers watching their favourite movies from their best Directors. The works seemed to take on a life of their own and the reactions were deeply private and affected each person differently. In 1998 he took on his greatest challenge, the Americans and created, what many consider his Masterpieces, 35 works in his American Indians series, a few he placed on horseback, some with guns others with bows and arrows, all fighting for victory against General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.

Mother and Child
Born in 1935, Sow grew up in the vibrant neighbourhood of Reubeuss in Dakar. He was raised by his disciplinarian father, Moctar and his robust St. Louis mother, Nafi N’Diaye. At the age of 7 he attended a French Lycée and obediently practiced Islam after school and at the weekends. Later, whilst in France, he found solace in meditation and Hinduism with a profound belief in reincarnation. In the home that he built in Dakar he made the best room in the house his meditation room.

His interest in sculpture was evident from a young age. In his teens he explored different formulas with glues and melted materials to build up various figurines. In 1957, after the death of his Father, Sow decided to leave Dakar, even though he was penniless. Senegal at that time was a Colony of France and as a member of one of the French Departments Sow was a French Citizen. The artist’s attitude towards life is remembered by a conversation with the French journalist, Marie-Odile Briot. In his childhood when asked if he could catch the moon he jumped out of bed, put on his slippers and gave it his best shot.

Once in France, Sow found temporary accommodation in assorted police stations around Paris and gradually picked up fleeting jobs in order to get by. Having an interest in the human body he attended a course on massage, which earned him a diploma in nursing from Laennec Hospital. He then went on to study with Boris Dolto, a pioneer in orthopaedics and kinesiology therapy in France. His professional skills as a physiotherapist provided financial stability but also the essential understanding and working knowledge of the human body, which became so invaluable in his later life. 

Battle of Little Big Horn
Sow was a Master of exaggeration with a fundamental understanding of the human analytic anatomy. He was able to delve into his familiarity with restful muscles as opposed to those that contort. In many respects this artist was an enigma who found extraordinary global acclaim. His meteoric rise came out of nowhere but Sow had been patiently working on ideas since first showing his bas-relief entitled, Head of a Moor at the World Festival of Black Arts (FESMAN) in 1966. His works are authentically African taken from the different sculptural techniques from West Africa specifically, from the Nok artisans of Ife, Nigeria. Sow sculpted without a model and rarely made sketches. The secret to his success lies in the alchemy of his handmade medium, a number of highly prized ingredients such as red soil, sand, mother of vinegar and other confidential matter were placed into barrels, turned into pulp and left to brew over time. The whole process is an art form in itself, which gave the Artist as much pleasure as the creation of his massive sculptures. Once the models were dressed and stuffed he applied by hand, his mysterious toxic recipe onto a framework of metal, straw and jute, allowing nature to do her magic and giving the medium its own freedom to harden under the hot Dakar sun. This approach is inherently artistic, but also deeply rooted in Africa. In the first phase of his work, the Nubian Series, the gargantuan figures come across as rather harsh, the sculptures are smooth, solid and tense; their postures rigid and inflexible... almost obstinate. What is so impressive is that for the first time, we see an African Artist playing anthropologist, not only does he magnify those from the Continent but does so with ancient African traditional forms of sculpture that date back to the 11th Century.

Battle of Little Big Horn
In the second phase of his artistic life, Sow’s techniques changed slightly and in the Battle of Little Bighorn | The American Effect at the Whitney Museum in 2003 we see far rougher, coarser and more ambitious works on display. The figures are daring in their colour and Sow left holes in the frameworks and using his new burnt technique, was able to make the sculptures more malleable and dramatic. The grey matter on the horses comes from melting pieces of coloured plastics which create a remarkable finish. The end result is a magnificent production of 11 horses and 24 human figures in incredible positions never before seen. This gained Sow the reputation as one of the greatest sculptors of all time.

Ousmane Sow | Le Pont Des Arts
In the spring of 1999 at the invitation of Paris City Hall, the artist exhibited one of the most spectacular events in living memory, at le pont des Arts. The show attracted over three million visitors and the French media even warned that the influx of so many spectators would undermine the integrity of the bridge itself. The exhibition included seventy-five of Sow's colossal works featuring members of the Nubian Series, his American Indians and various iconic figures. These awe-inspiring works were on display between the Louvre and the Académie Francaise. This was an impressive show of epic proportions, which won the artist adoration and admiration from the French public.

Dancer with the short hair
After his successful 1999 exhibition, he began using a bronze foundry to cast some of his earlier works. The finest of which is Dancer with the Short Hair.  In the remote Kordofan region, in the south of Sudan, where the Nuba live, young virgins dance the myertum, the "dance of love". The young dancers smear their bodies with black or red earth to make themselves appear more athletic and desirable. They perform a special playful seductive dance for the victorious wrestlers, who sit in a circle, their eyes lowered out of respect, after the annual ceremonial combat.  Bronze is the perfect medium for this stunning Masterpiece, with its dark, shimmering quality and its refined finish, it is able to flawlessly replicate the natural beauty of the Dancer with Short Hair.

On 11th April 2012 Sow was elected to become a Membre Associé Etranger ("foreign associate member") of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France, replacing the American artist, Andrew Wyeth. He became the first African artist ever to be elected for membership.

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave
In the same year his sculpture “Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave” was the centrepiece at African Mosaic at the National Museum of African Art in Washington. This work was acquired by the Museum and featured in the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, the work celebrates Toussaint L'Ouverture who led a slave revolt in Haiti  from 21 August 1791 to 1 January 1804. 

His final work, The Peasant, a commission from the office of the President of Senegal. The work is to be cast in bronze and installed in front of the Abdou Diouf International Conference Center in Diamniadio, near Dakar. Ousmane Sow completed his last work just one month before he died. His incredible legacy is assured and his commitment to all things Africa will certainly go down in the African Art History books of tomorrow.

Ousmane Sow born 10th October 1935 to 1st December 2016 | He leaves behind a new generation of impressive sculptors from Senegal: Seni Awa Camara, N’Dary Lo, Mamady Seydi, Cheikhou Bâ, Henry Sagna and Abdala Faye.

Author: Keilah Wells

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