Sy studied at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Dakar from 1973 -1977. He belongs to the second generation of Senegalese artists who came after the renowned École de Dakar. In defiance of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s cultural régime, Sy painted with his feet for 10 years, refusing to be part of received art historical canons. At the same time, he organized the takeover of a disused colonial military building in the centre of Dakar. The space became the headquarters for an entire generation of Senegalese artists including musicians Baaba Maal.
Together with filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, dramaturg Youssoufa Dione, and philosopher Issa Samb, Sy founded the trans-disciplinary art collective Laboratoire Agit-Art, where he was responsible for the spatial environments and visual language of their performances. As a curator, artist, and activist, Sy has been central to the development of a number of artists’ collectives including Tenq and the interventionist group Huit Facettes, that was presented at Documenta 11. In 1996, he took over a Chinese workers village in Dakar and transformed it into another space for artists. This second “Village des Arts” was closed on April 4th 2021.
Sy’s first solo show abroad was in Chicago in 1981 at the unconventional space run by Paul Waggoner. There he connected to the African-American scene and became friends with several artists including Joe Overstreet. In 1988, at the cusp of the global turn in art, Sy was commissioned to curate a collection of contemporary Senegalese art for the ethnographic museum in Frankfurt. To compliment these new acquisitions, he edited the first art-critical anthology on contemporary practice in Senegal with texts by leading artists and writers. This pioneering curatorial project became the basis for a major retrospective held at the same museum in 2015 curated by Sy together with Clémentine Deliss, Yvette Mutumba and Philippe Pirotte (El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 2015, monograph published by diaphanes). For this exhibition, Sy integrated several artifacts from the museum’s collections into his installations, thereby challenging their conventional mode of display. 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 ethnology. Sy’s curatorial work places him at the forefront of interventionist models of social engagement and collaborative practice.
El Hadji Sy is primarily a painter. Since the mid-1980s, he has used jute rice bags as a surface on which to paint with mixed media including oil, acrylic, tar and wax. Paintings are hung across ceilings, placed on floors, as well as on walls. Sometimes he produces stand-alone paintings on frames, such as could be seen in his installation “Disso-Concertation” for documenta 14. With a swirling script of signs and figures, Sy’s visual language reflects a decidedly performative style. Committed to crossing the boundaries of class and education, he has repeatedly exhibited his work in the streets of Dakar, choosing working class neighbourhoods with their hustle and bustle of daily life. As people walk past his paintings, they become actors against the extended backdrop of his canvas. Mystical and compelling, Sy’s paintings predate the current interest in Black figuration. Connected to gestural abstraction, his paintings reveal an indexical trace of the artist’s body as if he actually entered the substance of the work. Many shapes emanate from botanic or vegetal forms, and this ecology of representation underlies his desire to capture the moods of people and the times in which we live. Sy represents a leading and original voice from the African continent, known for his transformative style of painting and the original variety of media he works with, including frescoes and mosaics for public art commissions, metal sheeting, through to surfaces such as butchers’ packaging paper, kite silk, mirrors, and glass.
His work has been shown at the IFAN Museum of African Arts Dakar, the 31st Sao Paolo Biennale (2015), U-jazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw (2016), Documenta 14 (2017), and the Whitechapel Gallery. He has collaborated with many artists and curators including Clémentine Deliss, who has followed his work for 30 years, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Alison Gingerich, and Peter Pakesch.
A group of El Hadji Sy´s works from the early 1990s is currently on show at Kunstverein Hamburg in the group-exhibition “Carnivalesca, What Painting Might Be”, curated by Bettina Steinbrügge (extended until beginning of July).