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Seyni Awa Camara’s impressive sculptures reflect her artistic origin story

By on September 30, 2022 0

Born in equal parts of an imagination and a daily ritual, the majestic humanoid clay sculptures of Seyni Awa Camara evoke mythological deities and come from her encounters with the popular gods of the Wolof people of Senegal. Born around 1945 in Bignona, Senegal, the artist Diola has worked for five decades and has enjoyed increased institutional recognition across Europe and Africa over the past twenty years.

A selection of Camara’s mythical sculptures made between 1983 and 2019 is currently on display in London until October 30 in “Among the Living with Seyni Awa Camara”, White Cube’s duo exhibition with painter Michael Armitage. Described as “revealers of truth” by Camara’s longtime gallerist, André Magnin de Magnin-A, the sculptures participate in the ever-expanding mythos of Camara’s journey to become an artist, making her the main architect of his own story.

Magnin first encountered Camara’s practice during his research for the 1989 “Magiciens de la terre” exhibition at the Center Pompidou, where he was assistant curator of the exhibition. The presentation was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 group exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern”, which recreated the colonialist frameworks of the exhibition around African art.

On the recommendation of anthropologist Michèle Odeyé-Finzi, Magnin made a fateful trip to Senegal to learn more about African art in an effort not to replicate harmful curation practices. In the spring of 1988, Magnin met Camara in Bignona. While he was initially drawn to the miniature clay sculptures she sold in the local market, it was the elaborate, large-scale works in her front yard that he found amazing. “It was amazing,” recalls Magnin. “I suddenly had the impression of being behind the scenes of a theater of characters and objects without a stage.”

Camara describes her practice as both habitual and divine. She had previously said to Magnin in Wolof: “I think. I have an idea. I work.” This daily practice has contributed to the abundance of work Camara has produced over the years. His creatures resemble otherworldly human-animal hybrids. They are, for the artist, deities who are revealed to her through visions and dreams.The emergence of these figures is at the heart of Camara’s artistic career and the mythology surrounding her origins.

As Camara recounted for the 1994 publication Solitude of clay: legend around a life: sculptures of Seyni-Awa, she got lost in the desert with her twin brothers at the age of 12, but they were protected from the harsh climate by the hidden geniuses of the Wolof folk gods. Genies taught them how to work the earth to make pottery. In Camara’s account, she and her brothers returned to their village rebuilt in clay, unrecognizable to their community. “They couldn’t believe it was the gods who taught us how to make this pottery,” Camara said in the same interview. “No one in the village had ever seen statues like mine. They wanted to know who had taught me to do this kind of work, everyone was afraid of it.

“Many rumors surround Seyni’s life, her origins, her marriages, her uncertain births,” Magnin said of her grand artistic origin story. “His life is organized around a particular exchange with his ram’s horn [that’s] surrounded by fabric sewn with buttons. She calls him her genius. She talks to him and asks permission to make new pieces. [Her community] hides his works because, in Bignona, his sculptures are scary. Seyni is also scary.

Camara’s delightfully spooky sculptures inspire audiences to consider what beings exist beyond our world. In this way, she is a conjurer of mystical realms, transcribing her vivid and imaginative experiences through clay. The less fantastic, but no less impressive, account of Camara’s origins is that she first learned how to make pottery from her mother.

Magnin described Camara’s process as a very unique experience that was supported by her late husband who, in life, acquired the clay and mixed it for her. Camara bakes clay in an open courtyard, covering her sculptures with branches, straw and shards of grilled tree trunks. “Seyni has a traditional practice but a very unique and personal achievement,” Magnin said, referring to the traditional association of pottery with women in Wolof culture. “She is the only one doing this job. It is a very unique work that the gods have inspired her to do.

As Camara’s practice continues to reach Western audiences outside of France, Magnin notes the changing attitudes towards pottery since Camara’s first exhibition in 1989 in Paris. “Today, his work is no longer considered a traditional potter’s sculpture, but a work of art in its own right,” Magnin explained.

Camara’s sculptures are mythical and awe-inspiring and bear witness to how the traditional art world is lowering its barriers and beginning to recognize self-taught artists and customs outside Western institutions and historical canons. Camara’s work functions as both a relic of the past and an oracle for others, allowing them to confront the hidden gods of the universe in the flesh.