While I’m always keen to mention the nationality of each artist I present, there is one continent which hasn’t been featured at all since I started the blog: Africa. In a mixture of ignorance by the art historians and a failure of self-promotion, there is either scant information on the artists or not enough publicly available images of their works.
In the few books that mention African art, one group of artists has come up again and again: The School of Dakar (L’École de Dakar). After Senegal gained its independence from France, the country elected poet and philosopher Léopold Sédar Senghor as its first president, from 1960 to 1980. Senghor wasn’t only a man of culture, who would modernize Senegal’s artistic environment, he was also one of the founders of the literary and ideological movement called Négritude. The movement was recognizing the importance of the Pan-African cultural heritage as an integral part of a global civilization. Post-independent Senegal was thus in search of its own identity and, through art, the country got reacquainted with its traditions, culture and pre-colonial past.
Among the many artistic institutions that Senghor built, as part of his cultural reform, was École des Arts du Sénégal in Dakar, 1960. The school had two departments: one classical (Arts Plastiques), teaching academic art, while the other, more popular department (Recherches Plastiques Négres) was about creative explorations and artistic research, trying to find a voice for Senegalese modern art. And this finally brings us to Papa Ibra Tall, for he co-headed the second department along with Pierre Lods, helping shape the future generation of African modern artists.
Senghor acted as a mentor to Papa Ibra Tall, encouraging him to pursue fine arts while the latter was still studying architecture in Paris and helping him to obtain a grant to advance his studies. Tall was an enthusiast of Négritude, interpreting Senghor’s literary ideas in his visual works and claiming it was the purpose of the modern African artist “to translate African philosophy, sensibilities and values into his art.”
By mixing modern techniques which he learned in France with his cultural heritage, Tall achieved a symbiosis of old and new, cosmopolitanism and national identity. This complex relationship is obvious in his many artworks, such as First Song, a tapestry that tells the story of the birth of African civilization, by showing an imposing, Goddess-like woman emerging from the earth in swirling currents of power.
Set against a luxurious forest, the many intricate, sinuous lines that cross the tapestry provide us with a rich puzzle of African patterns and motifs. The figures in the foreground are overlapping and they’re difficult to tell apart, as if we were looking at a cubist painting. To the left, for instance, you can see a woman with her hands in the air, perhaps happy to greet the Goddess-like figure. Next to her, a man is sitting, smoking a pipe. Further to the left, in yellow and olive green, another man is lounging, his body seemingly naked or barely covered. To the right of the Goddess, a man is playing the flute, celebrating the birth of the African civilization, his clothes presenting a vibrant mosaic of different fabrics and patterns. This is Africa, according to Papa Ibra Tall: color, music, patterns, folklore motifs, celebrations, larger-than-life figures and a deep communion with nature.