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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

ArtSpeaks: Africa #8 – Senegal: “X-raying Lostness"

-Exhibition: “The Lost World” by Soly Cissé – hosted by OH GALLERY, Dakar, Senegal


Viewing Soly Cissé's Monde perdu # 5, 2024, Pastel on canvas, 183 x 286 cm


"In the middle of this road we call life, I found myself in a dark wood, with no clear path through." So begins the 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his narrative poem Divine Comedy. The subject is taking a walk and suddenly finds himself disoriented and ends up on a journey into different levels of existence. Like the dark woods in fairy tales, life too has its dark side - and somewhere down the road of life we will all experience it in one way or another.


I think Dante would have deeply resonated with the celebrated Senegalese artist Soly Cissé’s exhibition titled The Lost World, hosted at the Oh Gallery in Dakar, Senegal. As I entered into the low-lit gallery, I found myself mesmerized; the artist’s works transport the viewer into a mystical world of the imagination.


Cissé is one of the most original contemporary African artists today, exhibiting to great acclaim around the world. His distinct gift is the ability to visually communicate reality in ways that are both literal and fantastical. In order to convey his perspectives on the plight of today’s world most poignantly, he fashions a magical new world that is truly his own creation.


Cissé is most known for works full of color. However, in this exhibition there is only black and white, as he uses charcoal, pastel and acrylic in a graphic style. . . black on a white background or white on a black background. Interestingly, his father was a radiologist, and as a boy, he enjoyed drawing on radiographs, the pieces of film that store X-ray images. He was particularly fascinated by how the light imposed on the darkness.


This exhibition could be described as “X-raying lostness.” Reflecting on his oeuvre, Cissé says, “For me, painting is a ritual. When I paint, I try to understand our existence.” In this sense, his work is truly a cry from the heart, as he questions the world around him, a world that has lost its way. In looking at the widespread inequalities, injustices and environmental destruction, he sees humanity as self-destructing, resulting in state of profound disenchantment. On a more individual level, he observes a dehumanizing taking place, resulting in a loss of meaning for so many.


Soly Cissé, Monde perdu # 1, 2024, Charcoal on canvas, 130 x 130 cm

Soly Cissé, Monde perdu # 2, 2024, Pastel on canvas, 130 x 130 cm

Soly Cissé, Monde perdu # 3, 2024, Pastel on canvas, 130 x 130 cm


Cissé’s way of creating is extemporaneous and filled with emotion. “I am attacking the canvas while working; my spirit opens up and the work evolves in front of my eyes.” One particular theme he consistently addresses in his work is the increasing disconnect between humans and nature, the earth and wildlife. This crisis is one that he has personally experienced in Senegal, hence it often feeds his creative work.


While addressing global and societal challenges, his work is at the same time deeply personal. His ultimate concern is the effect the world now has on individuals. Hence, his art consists of figures with faces expressing profound emotion - fear, pain, disillusionment and despair.


Cissé art is very much anchored in African tribal tradition. Commenting on this influence, he says, “I am greatly inspired by traditional African culture, including tribal arts such as African sculpture.” In his metaphorical artistry, he creates figures that are somewhat mythological - a hybrid of half-human, half-animal. In this exhibition, one sees among the various figures anthropomorphic creatures that are clearly lost in a lost world. Visually, the figures seem to emerge from chaos and disharmony.


As the characters in his artwork evoke African totemic sculptures, they inherently reflect a spiritual dimension of life – bridging this world to the transcendent. Cissé explains, “African tribal art carries a mystical dimension; for example, animals represented in sculpture have specific symbolic meanings, referring to war, love, etc. . . . Animals appear as spiritual and mystical symbols.” Hence, some of the figures in his works wear a guise, like an African tribal mask, symbolizing the world’s ills. This gives the work both a spiritual and comic element…echoing the title of Dante’s poem, Divine Comedy. Through Cissé's distinct style, he is seeking to reach deeply into our consciences, making sure we empathize with the grief and misery that exist in today’s world.

Soly Cissé, Monde perdu # 4, 2024, Pastel on canvas, 183 x 286 cm


Each work in this exhibition is a multifaceted story, with various layers of meaning. If his “X-ray” into our fractured world leads one to feel despair, at the same time there are figures in them that inspire a vision of hope. It is clear that Cissé sees art has a form of redemption. In this regard, this exhibition is deeply personal to the artist, who is himself acquainted with great hardship. Eight years ago, he developed an illness that required that one of his legs be amputated. He has been through numerous surgeries and hospital stays. Reflecting on his suffering he says, “My sickness made me stronger…even if I was living in physical horror.” He loves to say that they may have removed his leg, but they couldn’t remove his spirit. Ask anyone, and they will tell you that Cissé is known for his contagious laughter. This is perhaps why he depicts amputee characters in some of the drawings in this exhibition. Fundamentally, his work is a resilient testimony of overcoming.


There is also a call to personal responsibility in Cissé's work. He believes it is up to us to make the changes needed personally and communally. In short, he is calling us to transform today’s realities into those of our dreams. It is almost as if his art sets the viewer up to believe in the spiritual metamorphic nature of the Creator. Cissé seeks to inspire a mythical world that can lead toward transformation. His imaginary magical world can transport any reality into a mythical realm.


There is always hope in the magical worlds created by Cissé. He means to highlight that hope is the very fulcrum upon which all futures are based. He is reminding us that regardless of the hellish tragedies we see or experience, we need to be careful to not, as Dante’s words in Divine Comedy say, let our vision be “clouded by the mists of hell.” Life without hope can be desperate - which is why the last line of the inscription on the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” However, as has been the case for Cissé, life’s hardships can shape us in new and stronger ways, where we can ourselves become the wounded healers that our world needs.


According to Senegalese art critic and university professor Babacar Mbaye Diop, Cissé’s work recalls the search for a mythical place named Saraba by the Senegalese, an African Eldorado. It is a land of abundance, peace, justice, wholeness, goodness and truth. In essence, through this exhibition, we are being invited into a new future, both personally and globally. 


The Lost World by Soly Cissé brings to mind the paradoxically hopeful words on lostness by another renowned mythologist, J.R.R. Tolkien:


“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.


From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


By Paul G. Chandler


Gratitude - to Prof. Babacar Mbaye Diop for his insightful and eloquent review of The Lost World, and to Rebecca Anne Proctor’s inspiring article on Soly Cissé in Harper BAZAAR (Oct 28, 2018).



FLASH PHOTO DU NUIT # 1, # 2 and # 6 – pastel et acrylique sur impression photo noir



Soly Cissé


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