The cacophonous dusty streets of Dakar are winding and never-ending, yet tastes of colourful African garments, enrapturing seaside views, and the catchy beats of a stereo sitting somewhere endow the chaotic city with much magic. And this was the scene I experienced as I made my way to the Ouakam Asecna Quartier where the celebrated Senegalese painter Soly Cissé has his studio.
A few interconnected low-ceiling rooms presented a hodgepodge of paints and the artist’s electrifying Expressionist canvases, where figures from this world intertwined with those from the next in his typical gestural, collage-style canvases. I’m then brought to an empty villa belonging to one of Soly’s family members where the artist is in the midst of hanging his paintings for an upcoming exhibition. A variety of workers gather around, ferociously unpacking and displaying his artworks.
Stationed nonchalantly along the pathway to the home are several of his bronze sculptures. Part animal and part human, it’s hard to know whether to be fearful of their long beaks, pointy ears and long fangs, or to be enamoured by their otherworldly vision. As soon as the door is flung open, Soly’s gregarious, larger-than-life personality lights up the space. His infectious life and expressive personality align with his art—the mythical scenes decorating the bare space, detailing imaginary and realistic scenes in a marriage that ignites a magical dream world.
Artist Soly Cissé
“I began to paint when I was very young,” says Soly. “I always had a passion for trees. Each time I saw a tree or images of trees in a newspaper I was immediately captivated and lured by the colours and forms. I became entranced—it just made me want to paint the world around me.” The trees held something magical about them; there was imagination and freedom.
Yet Soly’s father, a radiologist, wasn’t supportive of his desire to become an artist. “He didn’t find it practical and I am a very free person,” he laughs. The artist ended up studying mathematics at the Lycée Lamine Guèye de Dakar but his heart was always in art. He continued to draw and paint—creating his art on the walls at home, on tables and chairs, everywhere he could. “In the beginning I drew more than I painted—that was my preference.
Painting for me required more skill in order to capture certain scenes and subjects. I needed training.” And one day Soly got up during his mathematics course and walked out. This caused an outrage at home. “‘How will you earn a living? You will die from painting with no education,’ my father told me. And I simply said, ‘It’s my life’.” Eventually, his father recognised his gift and told him he was free to do as he wished.
Untitled - Triptych. 2017. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 140x215x15cm;
After failing the first competition to enter the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Dakar because he submitted his application late, he decided he would try the next year and in the meantime enroll in a drawing course, one for architects, which led him to work at the Bureau d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme de la Ville de Dakar.
His dream of entering the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts was finally realised and he passed the entrance test, completing his studies from 1992 to 1996. “There I studied what I loved,” he smiles. “And this led me on so many roads. I had made the right choice. A few years later he won an international competition for photography organised by the French Cultural Centre in Dakar. “They sent me to France. It was my first trip to Europe. I had taken my future in my hands.”
The artist’s work has now been exhibited across the world in exhibitions including Lumières d’Afriques, African Artists for Development (2015) at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris; Lost World (2012) at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle; and Solycolor (2009), Musée des Arts Derniers, Paris. Since 2000, he has regularly exhibited at biennales in São Paulo and Havana, and at the Dak’art biennale, also featuring in the travelling exhibition Africa Remix, curated by Simon Njami. His work is currently represented by London-based gallery Sulger-Buel Lovell.
At once profound and otherworldly, Soly’s oeuvre explores notions of tradition and modernity, the spiritual and the secular, and the imaginary and the real. The artist’s mythical visions create a host of anthropomorphic shadows that render other depictions of the self. These are shapeless human characters, on the verge between human and animal, as can be found outside this villa in Dakar, where we don’t know what we will find: a portal into this world or the next?
Untitled I. 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 120x120cm;
Through gestural brushstrokes of vibrant colouring, drawings, drips of paint and collage work, figures emerge—referencing in a subconscious way the politics that surround our world, the translation of our current realities with that of our dreams.
“When I paint, I am in my own universe, in a world that we don’t speak about anymore,” he reflects. “I am someone who likes to create things—new things. Whether it is fashion, art or design—it’s the aesthetic that pulls me.” The artist grew up during a period of intense political transition in Senegal, from its independence as part of the Mali Federation to establishment as a republic under President Leopold Senghor and his multi-party system, the influence of socialism and the Senegambian Confederation formed in 1982, which meant the country was in constant search of a political identity.
The country’s continuous political and cultural transitions are found in Soly’s work through his mythical creations and abstract expressionist style. “I am 49-years-old and have lived more than my age,” he laughs. “I think and reflect a lot on humans and their relationships. Relationships between humans, the confrontation between humans and nature, humans and religion and then I challenge myself and experiment.”
In an untitled work made in acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, four abstract figures with their faces barely visible, stand in a line. Of varying heights, their bodies seem to rise and fall, the vibrant colourings and markings which appears like indecipherable writing, endow them with a vibrating energy. They seem to move in and out from a real and dream state, interacting with each other as they do with nature—one of Soly’s biggest inspirations. “A big problem in Africa is its relationship with nature and the destruction of nature. The architects you find in Africa are not trained to respect nature like in other places or to work with nature.”
Issues pertaining to globalisation and modernity are constant themes in the artist’s work—Soly paints nature’s beauty as much as he alludes to its destruction and the mythical world that comes to reality’s rescue when we realise that all will be gone someday.
Soly Cissé. Untitled III. 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 80x80cm
Just two years ago Soly had a brush with death. He developed an illness that caused him to have his leg amputated. When I meet him in Dakar, the missing leg has been replaced by a plastic one. Still, he walks around the villa hanging his works, smiling and laughing, as if nothing has changed.
And it hasn’t. “I spent 17 months in the hospital and underwent 16 operations,” he recalls. “Everyone was praying for me but I always retained my smile and my strong mind.” They removed his leg but not his spirit. “I never stopped painting and drawing during this period; I never stopped creating. My sickness made me stronger; it made me never stop creating my art even if I was living in physical horror.”
We’re sitting inside one of the villas many rooms. Soly’s paintings align the wall and illuminate the space with warmth and light despite the horror of what the artist has recently gone through. “The day they cut my leg off the doctor came to me and said, ‘Now we will cut your leg,’” remembers Soly.
“I laughed and said, ‘Okay, but next to it is another leg and you must not cut this one.’” In love with his own storytelling, Soly’s laughter almost throws him off the chair. “The doctor went home almost in tears,” he recalls. It’s a story of resilience, fortitude of thought, and also the world that Soly has created through his art where reality easily turns into the mythical—the imaginary world that endows all beings with a continuous sense of hope.
“I am from a very simple city and in the beginning people couldn’t understand my artistic extravagance.” Pulsating painting, expression and magic emanate from Soly’s work as much as they do from his personality. Do we create our own reality? Yes, we do, says Soly, through his practice. His prolific art has created a new and magical realm.