African Art in a Game of Catch-Up

Holland Cotter in The New York Times:

AfricanNew York is catching up on Africa’s modern art history, though our big museums aren’t much in the picture. Two of that continent’s leading 20th-century painters are having first major solos here, not at the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim, but at small downtown galleries. And a remarkable contemporary artist collective from the Democratic Republic of Congo is making its New York debut at an alternative space in Queens. The Senegalese artist Mor Faye (1947-1984) made a vivid impression two decades ago in a group show at the now-defunct Museum for African Art, then in SoHo. His work, all but absent since, is being reintroduced by Skoto Gallery in one of the most stimulating painting shows in Chelsea this season.

Born in Dakar, Faye was a prodigy. At 14, he studied with the great modernist Iba N’Diaye, and within a few years was a teacher himself. His career coincided with a high postcolonial moment. Senegal’s poet-president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, gave art a leading role in shaping a national culture aligned with the literary movement called Négritude. In 1966, Faye was a star of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. And he was able, thanks to Senghor’s importing of European shows to Africa, to absorb first hand a wide range of Western art history. But problems developed. A restless experimenter, Faye came to resent a state-dictated aesthetic that he viewed as too simplistic in its demand that art combine a recognizably African content and a European look. Adding to the tension was his history of psychiatric illness. His behavior grew unpredictable. In 1976, he stopped exhibiting, and spent time in mental hospitals until his death, at 37, from cerebral malaria.

More here.