‘El Hadji Sy. At First I Thought I was Dancing’ in Warsaw: Process, Collectivity and Multiple Interpretations

AiW Guest: Karolina Marcinkowska

This week, AiW Guest Katarzyna Kubin continues her new series examining the relationship between Africa and Eastern/Central Europe, with this guest piece by Karolina Marcinowska about an exhibition by artist El Hadji Sy in Warsaw, Poland. 


Photo by Karolina Marcinowska

The exhibit titled El Hadji Sy. At first I thought I was dancing (16.06.2016-16.10.2016), was not only the first presentation of works by the Senegalese artist, curator and activist, El Hadji Sy, in Poland, but also the first time that a retrospective of any contemporary African artist was presented in this country. The exhibit took place at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (CCA) in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, and was inscribed into a broader question about the approach to contemporary global art, to which the CCA’s new Director and co-curator of the exhibit, Małgorzata Ludwisiak, draws particular attention.In art history, professional terminology and consequent worldviews are at risk of reinforcing imagined divisions, thus producing a fragmented reality that is strictly Eurocentric, often reproducing colonial dynamics. We might ask: where does Poland fit into this, given that the country was not a colonial power, but was itself controlled by foreign powers, and for a time practically did not exist on the map? What verbal and visual associations do people in Poland have with “African Art” today? El Sy’s residency at the CCA and his exhibit, as well as the educational events organized around them, draw attention to these important questions for the first time.

El Sy’s intuition about a difference of approach to African Art and Africa in general between the former colonial states and Poland was one of the main reasons why he accepted the invitation for a two-month artistic residency at the CCA (2.10.2015-21.11.2015). The subsequent exhibit, co-curated by Ludwisiak and El Sy, included over 100 of his works (paintings/performance objects), selected works by other Senegalese artists, as well as recordings of performances along with a rich documentation of El Sy’s individual and collective actions.


Photo by Karolina Marcinowska

The residency and exhibit are significant for three main reasons. First, they created the possibility for El Sy to share his language, which he refers to as “visual syntax,” with other artists and the general public in Poland. Second, El Sy could expose himself to the cultural, political and artistic context in Poland, while the public could create new ways of engaging with contemporary art. Finally, the curatorial concept of the exhibit, as a product of co-operation between El Sy and Ludwisiak, and including contributions from other Polish artists, was unique, different from earlier exhibits of El Sy’s work (e.g. at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main, 5.03.2015-18.10.2015, and at the National Gallery in Prague, 6.02.2016-22.05.2016. Both entitled El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics). Although the CCA exhibit was also a retrospective of El Sy’s work, it was intentionally not chronological, but developed in relation to themes and ideas (e.g. body, collectiveness, alchemy) that consistently appear throughout El Sy’s practice.

In terms of curatorial concept and artistic vision, the objective of the CCA exhibit, the accompanying educational events, and the closing conference From Collectivism to critique of Modernism (14-15.10.2016), was not only to challenge the boundaries that continue to replicate colonial dynamics in the art world, but above all to underline the importance of collective process in art creation and to help the public discover the idea that art objects are intrinsically imbued with stories and thus can be read and experienced in multidimensional ways. This objective was driven by a resistance to re-infusing the over-enchanted continent of Africa once again with magic and myth. It was about protecting the right of art and each individual artist to have their own personal language, rather than the notion of the anonymous artist and art as an ahistorical ‘tradition’ – both of which are commonly associated with ‘African Art.’


Three Keys. Photo by Bartosz Gorka

Performance art is at the center of El Sy’s practice, but in my opinion this term requires a broader interpretation than the existing theoretical definitions, which I consider to be Eurocentric. El Sy’s exhibit opened with a performance titled Three Keys, which developed out of his residency at the CCA. The paintings on view – the “keys” – could be read as references to the history of the circulation of goods, history and meanings between Africa, South America and Europe, but also as references to popular associations with Poland (e.g. Pope John Paul II), and to traditions of Islam in West Africa (e.g. the Cross of Agadez, the costumes used by young boys before initiation ceremonies, prostration during Muslim prayer). The main plot of the performance was staged by El Sy, but the collaborating artists (Małgorzata Lisiecka, Iwona Teodorczuk-Możdżyńska, Justyna Wencel, and Mamadou Diouf), were free to be inspired by what was painted on the canvas and to ‘give life’ to the paintings through their movements, as well as to interact with each other. Throughout the performance, differences of languages or cultural and political contexts lost significance and became simply different ways of reading, ‘revived’ by the movements of the artists’ bodies and their interactions.


Photo by Karolina Marcinowska

Another important artistic intervention that broke with traditional definitions and put into practice new approaches to contemporary art, was the integration of seven musical miniatures into El Sy’s exhibit, created by the Polish visual artist, Zorka Wollny. Visitors could listen while watching El Sy’s paintings. This collaboration offered a completely novel, multidimensional and universal viewing experience for the public, which was also uniquely intimate. El Sy also wanted the public to ‘feel’ the art with all their senses by making one of the possible entrances into the exhibit through the Door of Infinity – stripes of colorful cotton covered the door. As is typical of El Sy, this piece had layers of meaning: it not only created a tangible sensation of physically walking into the art itself, but also referenced the Door of No Return at the House of Slaves on Gorée Island in Senegal. Another example: kites with masks painted on them, which were attached to trees in front of the CCA. El Sy thus suggestively threw ‘traditional’ objects (i.e. masks) away from the contemporary art space.

Artists who happen to be born in Africa, might (but don’t have to!) operate in languages and ideas that are consistent with their heritage and worldviews, but this does not necessarily mean that only one interpretation of their art work is possible. My observations of reactions to El Sy’s exhibit in Warsaw, from visitors and critics alike, inspired an apparently simple conclusion: we have a chance at an infinitely more transformative experience if we listen, feel and interpret the languages and expressions of art, not through our own vocabulary and norms, but through what the work itself is saying.


This piece is part of a series curated by Katarzyna Kubin for Africa in Words.

Karolina Marcinkowska is an anhropologist (PhD based on field research in Madagascar) and founder of the AFRICA REMIX initiative, a cross-cultural communication trainer, and coordinator of cultural projects for art institutions and NGO’s. Assistant Curator of the exhibit El Hadji Sy. At first I thought I was dancing and Public Spirits at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Affiliated with the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute at the University of Warsaw, the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (Cultural Studies) and the Open University (lectures about Contemporary African Art).

More about the exhibit El Hadji Sy. At first I thought I was dancing and Public Spirits in the recent issue of a leading Polish Art journal, Obieg, in English here.

Want to promote your work or initiatives related to contemporary art in Africa, among the public in Poland? Contact Karolina through AFRICA REMIX on facebook or email her: marcinkowska.work@gmail.com

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  1. publikacje i teksty – Africa Remix

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