Monday, January 16, 2017

Mor Faye's Journey to the End of Negritude. Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Judith Rottenburg

Mor Faye. Voyage au bout de la Négritude/Journey to the End of Negritude

For many the name of “Mor Faye” evokes immediately the figure of the artiste maudit (the cursed artist). Sure, when he died from cerebral malaria in 1984, he was only 37, the age when many martyrs, saints, revolutionaries are enshrined in eternal youth. Sure, he had spent most of the last five years of his life after 1979 in psychiatric hospitals, badly in need of care for mental illness. And sure, after the highly praised role his work has played in the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts and after his solo show at the Galerie 39 in Dakar in 1976, he had stopped participating in exhibitions and had withdrawn from the art world in Dakar under the patronage of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet-President of Senegal: when he was not incapacitated by psychiatric crises, Mor Faye devoted his day time to teaching art in a high school in Dakar and reserved his nights to his own artistic creation. 

All that being said, to consider him and his work only in connection with the “mythic status of a misunderstood, alienated artistic genius and a political martyr” does not help us see, hear, feel, enter what Mor Faye has to offer through his paintings: he does not need to be another Van Gogh for his work to manifest his genius. And it makes no sense to be lyrical about his supposed political martyrdom. Some critics looking for sensationalism have even attributed his death to his suffering under the official cultural policy and the system that had trained him as an artist. These types of narratives insist on inventing him as a radical genius who was marginalized by a rigid and ideological cultural policy and system of art sponsorship that ultimately ruined his mental and physical health. To pretend that he had to pay such a heavy political price for breaking away from the patronage of Senghor’s philosophy of Negritude or that he was arrested and sent to internment because he insulted the president is simply not true. There is indeed no need to fabricate a Mor Faye whose creation was the political threat - that it was not, to a cultural despotism - that Senghor’s Negritude was not.

In fact, if his total withdrawal from the Senegalese arts scene is at the core of the narrative on Mor Faye’s career and has established his reputation as an artiste maudit and a political martyr, a closer look at his works and his artistic developments will suggest that his relation to Senghor’s cultural policy and philosophy of Negritude is actually far more complex. 

There is first the fact that the meaning of Negritude itself as cultural policy is fluid and open. It is easier to state what it is not or what it refuses to be than to define it as a precise set of expectations or an official doctrine of what a work of art should be. Senghor has always insisted on the free play of rhythms and “rhythmic series” that constitute the art object and introduces us to the “sub-reality” of things. And he certainly agreed with his friend and accomplice Aimé Césaire who in his 1966 lecture on African Art during the World Festival of Dakar warned African artists not only against the imitation of models foreign to the fundamentally anti-mimetic tradition of art nègre but also against the imitation of any established pattern of Africanness to be followed and reproduced. Negritude is not an “essence” but an “existence”, Senghor had declared in his correspondence with his biographer Janet Vaillant in the early 1970’s, it is a continuously emerging “phenomenon” in the sense given to that word by Teilhard de Chardin. As a consequence, African art according to the philosophy of Negritude is and must remain an unpredictable élan vital, a continuously surging force, an insurgency of life force.

Of such an open ended “doctrine” if the word can be adequate, Mor Faye can be considered an enfant terrible certainly, but an enfant nevertheless. But the main reason to consider Mor Faye’s trajectory both a journey to the end of Negritude and a journey within Negritude is the work itself. A radical rupture with what has been labeled the “school of Dakar” has to be put into question, as it is not evident in his artistic work. Even if an important new development of his style can be retraced, following his retreat, neither his formal strategies nor his themes have radically changed as a consequence of his withdrawal and his crises. As Glenn O’Brien rightly said: “Mor Faye is the real Negritude movement.” 

It is time, and this is the move that the present exhibition invites us to make, to welcome the work of Mor Faye not from the perspective of his tragic death, not as negation, but as a poem manifesting the force of life and the power of affirmation. During his stays in psychiatric hospitals, he painted incessantly, obsessively, producing enormous amounts of works. Although he destroyed a considerable number of his creations during his breakdowns, about 800 works have been preserved. Mor Faye’s extraordinary productivity and creativity had even increased dramatically during his last years, which led his friend Issa Samb to write that “[…] at the end of his life, one sees him descend into a well of colors, as if he wanted to commit suicide down there.” In fact, far from being a suicidal disorder, Mor Faye’s descent into a well of colors as Issa Samb says beautifully is a testimony to the intensification of the force of life, of the affirmation and embrace of life.

For him life is freedom and freedom is life. The freedom to translate all the artistic languages of the world into his own idiom. That could explain why so many of his works remain untitled. Many of his paintings and collages thus oscillate between invention and imitation, caricature, subversion, and appropriation, and quite often the works referred to remain unclear, elusive. Mor Faye absorbs, assembles and reassembles, quotes, alludes to, recombines, redoes, repeats, and reinvents. He translates. The artistic languages and the repertoire of artistic references he negotiates with are from all over the world. Édouard Glissant famously declared: “I write in the presence of all the languages of the world”. Of Mor Faye, a creator from creolization like Glissant, it could be said that he paints in the presence of all the artistic idioms of the world, not only Picasso, Kandinsky, Miró, but also Iba Ndiaye, Souleymane Keïta, or Amadou Seck.

“Mor Faye, il était libre”, (Mor Faye, he was free) has declared the Senegalese performance and multimedia artist Issa Samb in the summer of 2016 when remembering his friend. Most of the accounts of Mor Faye's short life and prolific artistic career highlight his individual and artistic freedom. But at the same time he considered that his claim for individual freedom was inseparable from the pursuit of political independence and freedom of expression for all; when shortly before his death in 1984 he showed his most recent work then to Issa Samb, he identified his personal freedom with the emancipation to come of South Africa: “Look, in this depth there is no form, no style, no newness; only matters my freedom, that of South Africa.” When he reached the end of the journey he did see the only thing that mattered: freedom.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University, New York)
Judith Rottenburg (German Forum for Art History, Paris)
December 2016

Harney, E. (2004). In Senghor's Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-garde in Senegal, 1960-1995. Durham and London: Duke University Press, page 1.
O'Brien, G. (1991). Saint Mor Faye. Art Forum, 29, page 92.
Samb, I. (1991). Le voyage de Mor Faye au bout de la solitude. Reprinted in: Magnin, A., & Soulillou, J. (Eds.). (1996). Contemporary Art of Africa. New York: Abrams, p. 137.