El Hadji Sy’s studio is a little way out of Dakar. An artist village has developed in the barracks occupied in the mid-1980s by Chinese workers building the large Léopold Sédar Senghor Stadium. We are sitting at a table facing his little garden with a large round stone beside us.
EHS: This stone wasn’t sculpted. It’s not a sculpted stone. No. That’s how I found it. And now its symbolism is different. Where it comes from, its provenance—,it comes from the magma, stays in relation to the sun.
He sprinkles water on the rock.
EHS: Touch the stone. That one, it’s been touched so much, it’s got smooth. That one there’s the same. What interests me now in this story about the stone, when I had discussions with Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Clémentine, before he died—he was ill, we went to the island of Ngor, and we sat down beside him, and began to talk. And he drew my attention to the stones there are beside the sea, because their natural shapes are very interesting, and the question was: what did God keep in the stone? It was quite a metaphysical discussion. So when we had left him, and I learned of his death, I looked for a stone. That was because I’d just decided to make him a tombstone, and put a meaning into the stone. Now, this stone is Mambéty. Do you understand? So, with regard to his question, as to what God put into the stones , that I don’t know. But in that one there, I do know, at a symbolic level, what I put into it.
El Hadji Sy places two white cowrie shells on the table given to him by Issa Samb.
EHS: These days, you see cowries everywhere in Africa, but they’re not of African origin. You find them in all the necklaces, all the masks, and they’re not African in origin. When they were doing “africa ’95”, they were looking for a logo. And I suggested a cowry. Some research was done, with Clémentine, the cowrie was scrutinized. – Not so long ago, cowries were coinage here.
A: I know.
EHS: But before being coinage here, they were coinage in India. And when the British came, they took all the cowries. They took them to the Royal Palace and replaced them with English money.
So they changed meaning. But they are both aquatic and animal in origin. It’s the great serpent, when it leaves this life, it goes off to be measured on a long spear, until its head reaches the top and the tail is on the ground, and this is the moment in which it leaves the earth to go into the waters. Into the water. The sea. Or the river.
EHS: And the cowry is an element that you’ll find on the serpent’s head, here.
El Hadji Sy holds the cowrie to his forehead. After a brief pause he gets up‚ goes to his studio and comes back with two objects. A golden object that he puts on the table and a heavy golden block and a little head made of a round stone and two pieces of wood.
A: And that, what did you say that was?
EHS: That’s iron.
A: It’s iron, but pretends to be gold.
EHS: No, I painted it.
A: You painted it.
EHS: Yes, I interfered there. As far as I’m concerned, I changed the meaning of this objet trouvé; I gave it new life by interfering there.
A: Yes, it’s the same thing the young craftsman did with the mask.
EHS: That’s it. He picked up a stone, but finding it wasn’t enough for him, he wanted to adjust it, he wanted to change its structure, and began to make associations, knowing that this was a stone. With another material – , wood and glue, and now you don’t have a stone any more. You’ve got a mask. But which is made of two materials, wood and stone. So that’s what interests me personally.
A: That’s just what I’m going to do, in fact. You know, here, it’s like a—I can’t think of the word—when you have a door, and the door opens like this, no, what do you call the thing that you have to have inside so it can open?
EHS: The hinge.
A: A hinge, yes. I just love that word, hinge. I always try to put lots of hinges into everything I do. Coming here is a bit like a hinge.
EHS: Yes. —For my mirrors to turn the way I want, despite all the hinges they ever produced, they never thought of the kind of hinge I want for my mirrors. So I was obliged to create them. Have you seen the hinge system here?
EHS: Have a look. Where are the hinges? And down there! There are two little bits of wood. And together with the iron bits they become a hinge.
A: There’s a work by Marcel Duchamp where there’s a door that opens, and there are two walls, and there are two openings, and this door can close one of the apertures or the other. It has two possibilities of closing.
A: I like tricks like that: :hinges that are not simple hinges. If you turn it around, it’s the same but as if seen in a mirror. Do you know what I mean?
A: So that you can read it right to left, but left to right as well.
EHS: On my large mirrors over there I did some portraits. And the portraits are not of people I know. I draw, and it’s what I carry inside me, my own way of seeing the world. OK? You don’t see icons, or celebrities. I get to know the individual in the portrait once I’ve painted him. Afterwards I put the mirrors behind, and I made this structure. So, since it is able to rotate in the gallery, the viewer sees the (painted) portrait, and if he then goes to stand behind it, I will have got his portrait. In the instant of the mirror, which is in fact the virtual moment for me, the real. The virtual. It’s the moment where the viewer himself will become an ephemeral portrait. Because if he leaves, it leaves too. And that’s what brought me to drawing on the mirror. There’s no print on this mirror , but on the others inside I did bits of faces, as if it was asking the mirror to show me the people that mirror themselves. Who you can’t see.
A: When I return with these objects I’ll definitely use them in paintings, and in the paintings, they’re in a new context, with people carrying them, and with other things.
EHS: It’s not the objects you’re going to insert; it’s the pictures of the objects you’re going to put in.
A: Sure. Not the objects themselves.
EHS: Yes. Well, when you take an artist like Rauschenberg, he finds amorphous objects and inserts them in his artworks—it wasn’t their pictures, it was the object itself—and they became collages, with buckets, with wrenches. That was before Oldenburg. But in your case it’s the picture of the object you’re going to put in your composition. Which will become a component of your composition.
A: And the hinge for me was to try to find the point where they shed their context, or emerge from it—
EHS: The initial context, so as to find a new context.
A: Yes, that’s it. As for the hinge – my for coming here, during the whole journey that I made, was to make them loose more and more of their meaning, emptying them so they can become things that I might be able to recharge.
EHS: Yes, absolutely, I understand.
A: Issa once told me that he finds it terrible, this idea of trying to erase the history of the object.
EHS: The dolor of the object.
A: Yes, the loss of its previous context. Like with the Chinese objects. He said it was frightful to try anything like that, to make them loose their meaning.
EHS: But it depends. Until you intervene in a physical way on it, you haven’t changed its original meaning.
A: Yes. No.
EHS: The stone-turned-mask has changed. If now you analysed what’s been done, is it killing the stone’s past or is it giving it new life by adding something?
A: But I mean, the meteorite has also changed just by coming here. For example, the other day Abdou said that (in Senegal) you can use meteorites also to purify yourself (before prayer).
EHS: That’s stones, they’re not meteorites. Like this stone over here.
He points to the tombstone.
EHS: It’s basalt, it’s granite, and comes from magma.
A: Well, that’s how he explained it to me. So if I put the meteorite on this table here, there are people around that normally use this type of stone to purify themselves—that changes the context and the meaning, doesn’t it?
EHS: Yes, but it’s not this stone people use.
A: Yes. It’s another stone.
EHS: It’s another stone.
EHS: As I tried to show you the relationship between the volcanic origin and my doubt regarding all his appearance as a meteorite. If this means that it comes from another planet, that it’s a fragment-whatever! I’m telling you: the finished object as such doesn’t interest me. It’s the process—that’s what fascinates me. An object was found, which is here. Today I consider it as taking part in this all – like with your suitcases, your camera, your water, you came with objects. Which are quantified. Now, their use is a different question.
A: Well. I’ll have one last try. If I take your object here, which you made, which you transformed—
EHS: Yes, on which I made an intervention, whose context I changed—
A: I’ll tell you what I feel in this object here, OK? Is that OK with you?
A: Well, it’s extremely heavy, it has an even more geometrical shape than the meteorite, and it’s painted gold—OK, one can see it’s not real gold, but even so, you don’t get the impression it’s a fake.
A: And particularly that little thing there is really odd.
I show El Hadji Sy an incision across one side of the golden object.
Because if you didn’t have that thing there, it would be just a geometrical form, a Minimalist form, but with it, it almost becomes a human form. This talks clearly about its value, because it has weight, it’s gold, but it’s also an impressive form, very clear—and for all that, I find that that’s a an object I like very much, that gives me an idea inside me of something very clear and well-formed and very important.
EHS: Yes, there’ve been several interventions, one of which was mine—the act of painting. And I found the object, when I did a bit of archaeology here. Because there were 500 Chinese here who were here in this camp to do the big stadium of Dakar. And afterwards they put all the technology, all the irons that they used, and all the little bits into the ground. So when I’m gardening, and I dig, it can happen that things appear – as if I was an archaeologist that finds things.
EHS: So I see the trace. Sometimes I know what it means, sometimes I don’t. So this was brought about by Chinese engineering. And is a Chinese object.
A: Like mine.
EHS: Like yours.
A: Funny, isn’t it?
EHS: But now it’s no longer a Chinese object.
A: Yes. And what about you, why did you paint it gold?
EHS: Because I saw the trace of the intervention on the iron.
A: This here. So for you as well, that’s——
EHS: Yes, it’s made! It’s a hand! It’s a hand! It’s a hand that cut here and made this form, yes! It’s not accidental; it’s not like your found stone there that untouched, isn’t it? Here there were modifications, there was a definition of volume, form, opacity and weight. Perhaps it was even a measuring weight—I just don’t know. But by intervening in (on?) it , I created the illusion of a gold ingot.
A: What’s an ingot?
EHS: Ingots are bars of gold like that. That they keep in the Federal Reserves etc.
A: Of course.
EHS: We have a saying over here: not everything that glitters is gold.
A: So there’s a little lie in it. Like a little fib, something to have a laugh about.
EHS: No. That was not what I meant, I don’t fool around. Definitely not. That’s very serious, very constructed.
A: Yes. But if you say all that glitters isn’t gold …
EHS: Yes. Yes, of course, but that’s the saying.
I point at the hand that’s a teapot.
A: That’s the same here: not everything that looks like a hand is a hand.
EHS: Right. If I’d painted it red, you wouldn’t have talked of gold.
A: Yes, that’s clear. Obviously.
EHS: Yes. You see. But once you’re lifting it, you get to know its weight, you get to know its personality, its content, its gravity, the physical real body that it is, because it’s not made of marble, it’s iron.
A: I have another question.
I open the pot made out of fragrant morrocan wood. There are two glass eyes inside.
A: . This here, does it mean anything to you?
EHS: Of course. It means something to me.
A: And what?
EHS: It’s the pupils of the eye.
A: That’s the pupils of the eyes?
EHS: Yes. It’s in the socket of the eye. The cavity of the eye.
A: Right. Last time, you had that sentence that I found very interesting, from Sartre, I think.
EHS: About the eye?
A: You remember?
EHS: Yes. It’s in the foreword to the first Anthology of Francophone African and Malagasy Literature. 1954. Compiled by Senghor, foreword by Jean Paul Sartre. In the introduction, he addresses the West, saying: “Those of you who have the privilege of seeing without being seen, will see that other eyes take their turn to look up, and watch you until your pupils turn in their sockets. We should find the book. It’s a Hachette publication.
A: Yes, I’ll have a look for it. —
I pick up the black ball.
A: Well, that’s already black, no; you can’t see anything with that.
EHS: Oh no. You can see with the black.
A: Can you see with black, and can you see with pupils inside?
EHS: You can see with black. The black is already a mirror. You can mirror yourself in it.
A: For me, this ball is a story by Borges. In that story he talks about a ball that someone has in his basement, and that contains all the things in the world. You can look inside that sphere and you’ll find everything.
A: All things, , the smallest and the biggest, they’re all inside. And he calls it “the Aleph”. Well for me, it’s a bit like a pun on that because that black ball—in the end, it might just be a billiard ball.
EHS: No, that might also be the pupil of the eye. Because there’s memory also in the eye. OK? Now, take the whole film out of your camera, you that is filming – where is everything that you have filmed? It’s in the black.
He points to the back of his head.
EHS: Here. Somewhere. But it’s definitely there. Because the eye is a mirror. When they invented the camera, they didn’t think of anything but that movement of click clack. That’s the diaphragm. The diaphragms are nothing more. . When it’s open, the mirror takes the subject, click; when you close it, it puts it onto the film and reopens. It doesn’t go any further. The camera’s diaphragm is the artist’s eye. It’s…click.
He blinks his eye quickly.
A: But on the way from the eye to the brain, there are already changes. The information doesn’t arrive unchanged, it isn’t a projection into the dark.
EHS: I don’t know anything about that.
A: Everything you see there is already a construction, isn’t it?
EHS: Yes, of course, I understand.—
Now I’m going to add an object to your objects. Which one of those two there are you going to choose?
The fake gold ingot and the stone mask are on the table in front of me.
A: But no, I couldn’t.
EHS: Can’t or won’t?
A`: I would, but it’s too much, uh. —Okay, we’ll do it that way. If you really insist… I have to choose one of them?
EHS: Choose one of the two.
I put my hand on the fake gold bar.
A: That one.
EHS: So this will be the one you take home with you.
A: Oh, thanks. Thanks so much.
I stand up and embrace him.
EHS: But it’s simple. No big deal.
A: And if you come to Berlin, you’ll see all my objects and you’ll take one, okay?
EHS: No problem. There.
Cautiously he puts two cowry shells on the block.
EHS: You’ll also take this with you. Allright? .
A: Oh. That’s so kind.
EHS: It was waiting for you. It was you it was waiting for here. I believe in these things.
EHS: Everything around us, it’s the ones who need it that deserve it, and to them it’s given.
A: But I must say it’s so generous, but in everything. It’s not just giving me the object, but giving me your time, really, thanks so much.
EHS: No, we are the same, we’re artists, maybe something troubles us, we search…
A: Thanks. Really.
EHS: Bitte schön. Nichts zu danken. Bitte, bitte.
A: Doch. Viel zu danken.
Later we ate grilled fish and Clémentine and other friends joined us. El Hadji Sy waters his plants in his garden and pours water over the stone that is Mambéty.
EHS: The colour’s changed, hasn’t it?
A: Do you often do that, water stones?
EHS: When I water the plants, I do the stones as well!