Soly Cissé is a prolific artist. His drawings, paintings and sculptures tell stories that seem to take place in a parallel universe. As part of Art Paris Art Fair with Africa as the guest of honour, the Dapper museum presents Les Mutants by Soly Cissé: an exhibition featuring twenty works for the first time in France and echoing some of the traditional sculptures displayed in the current exhibition Chefs d’œuvre d’Afrique (“Masterpieces from Africa”).
In Senegal Soly Cissé received a rather academic education and explored the great artistic movements of the 20th century such as pop-art and neo-expressionism.
Undeniably has he applied some of these techniques to his work with his own singular and original approach.
Elements that are not supposed to be assembled are here brought together: Half-human and half-animal forms pass by each other or mingle. Letters, graffiti, numbers, barcodes, collages using torn or cut pieces of magazines stand alongside them to symbolize the omnipresent consumer society.
The points of reference are intentionally blurred in order to make the quest for meaning more arduous. Here or there a logo or an extract from a text on which the artist has drawn can be found; this is his way to establish his own artistic universe and thus be part of a history that keeps artists from emerging countries at bay.
Soly Cissé questions the world’s inconsistency and unfairness. This is more than a political commitment to him; it is a way to show his awareness of the social and economic realities that hinder the development of Africa. The artist took inspiration from visual elements belonging to different aspects of pop culture. From this perspective, masks and statuettes are isolated from their context, reinterpreted and thus intentionally demystified to be included in a virtual world. Here fragments of text appear in the mouth of a mask, there a Bamana (Mali) Tyi wara crest tops a feminine body. Such a detachment, rendered by the distortion of these elements, gives Cissé’s work a contemporary dimension. By this means, cultural habits – implicitly mentioned or not – leave their mark and we might be invited to figure them out.
Soly Cissé’s art is marked by an ambivalence that characterizes figures belonging to several levels of representation. In fact, in Les Initiés, indefinable beings seem to be part of remote worlds. Two of them bear the staid attitude of statues guarding a sacred place. Could they be religious references? Nevertheless, it is not about limiting the inspiration of the artist to some “African” heritage but quite the contrary; it is about finding how cultural elements engage in a global approach opened on the contemporary world.
Reinforcing the relationships between the spirits and the divinities, the complicity between human and animal species is very common in the culture of most of the subsaharian Africa societies. It determines the specific rituals that mark either the private or public life… In fact, Soly Cissé names his animal figures the “Soso”; he added the “so” of Soly to the “so” of Socé - which is the name of the people related to the Manding group his father belonged to.
In the artist’s creativity, a strange catlike animal stands out and, when depicted many times on the same work, sets off a striking effect, giving the impression of a pack of stray predators. Curiously enough, its bulging eyes give it an almost human look, as if it were the only survivor of a violent earthquake. Could it be an intercessor, a privileged intermediary between men? In some of Cissé’s other works, horned creatures, sheep, hyenas appear and the artist always seems to highlight their part in the environment.
Sculpture is growing more and more important in the artist’s work: in the 1990’s, he created Totems, which are real narrative objects. He used various materials and techniques for these artworks. The combination of sculpture and painting, far from being limited to an anatomic realism, offers an enigmatic image of the body. With a small head reminding an animal’s (a bird maybe?), Totem I includes two containers closed with painted glass like the traditional reverse-glass paintings. These reliquaries circled with sharp elements remind the nkisi aesthetics – a term that qualifies certain powerful objects from the kongo cultures (Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo). Moreover, the small face appearing on the upper part, with its eyes wide-opened like it were sounding out the mysteries of the hereafter, shows similarities with some kongo masks and statuettes. Couldn’t this artwork also be analyzed from a ritualistic perspective? For the Soninke people and the Dogon people from Mali, this specific gesture, with the arms up, could be in fact a sign of imploring the divinities to make the rain fall.
As a scholarly artist, Soly Cissé deliberately plays with lots of various references and codes that mingle without spoiling each other. From this aesthetic point of view all the combinations are possible. The distortion of forms and objects linked with traditional beliefs and myths especially, brings pieces of the past and renews them by including them in a statement that depicts the contemporary world.
Born in Dakar in 1969, Soly Cissé is a painter, sculptor, videographer and scenographer. He graduated top of his class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Dakar in 1996. In 1998, he is selected at the Sao Paulo and Dakar biennale, and in 2000 at the Havana biennale. He regularly exhibits in art galleries and is widely represented abroad. He also took part in prestigious exhibitions and fairs. He was part of the group exhibition Sénégal contemporain curated by the Musée Dapper in 2006 - the catalogue of which is still a major reference work.