The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Joins Fifty Cultural Organizations and Alliances Throughout the World in CelebrationThe Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art will join fifty cultural institutions around the world Friday, Apr. 28, through Sunday, Apr. 30, in tribute to the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, who died on Dec. 1, 2016.
Sow’s monumental work, Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave, which he completed in 1989, was the centerpiece of the museum’s exhibition African Mosaic: Selections from the Permanent Collection exhibition in 2010. It was also featured in the 2014–16 exhibition Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue. In tribute to Sow, the National Museum of African Art will show, as a continuous loop, the documentary film Le Soleil en face (The Sun in Front) on its pavilion screen over the weekend.
On Apr. 29–May 1, film director Béatrice Soulé will present a photo-video installation on Ousmane Sow called Gorée Regards sur cours at the French Institute of Dakar. Further tributes will take place from New York to Paris, including the Dapper Museum in Paris to the OMPI World Conference in Geneva.
IntroductionThe tumultuous events of history inspire many artists, and Haitian history sparked the creativity of Ousmane Sow. The Senegalese sculptor brought the artist’s touch to a central figure in Haitian independence: Toussaint Louverture. Sow created a larger-than-life sculpture of the revolutionary leader and battle strategist. The towering work, Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave (Toussaint Louverture and the elderly slave), became a centerpiece of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s (NMAfA) permanent collection in 2010.
Sow and the sculpture made the long journey from Paris to honor the legacy of history and the power of art to transform the past into present memory and emotion. Sow passed away in 2016. NMAfA’s associate director for collections and facilities and chief conservator, Steve Mellor, was able to speak to the artist about his monumental sculpture and the process of conserving it the day before Sow’s artwork debuted at the museum on November 19, 2010. It was Mellor’s first meeting with Sow since traveling from Washington to Paris to ensure that Toussaint Louverture was safely freighted to the museum.
The Long Journey from Paris: Toussaint Louverture and Ousmane Sow
Our Chief Conservator Remembers His Conversation With Ousmane Sow
I remember my conversation with Ousmane well. I recall how delighted he was about seeing “his friend, Toussaint” after so long an absence. He recounted that he had lost touch with the work, which was sold less than a year after he created it. Ousmane noted that he worked without the use of drawings or a live model, but relied instead, on his extensive knowledge of human anatomy that he acquired as a practicing physiotherapist. Although I had read that Ousmane kept his working methods secret on, I experienced the contrary—he was most gracious and forthcoming about his working techniques and genuinely appreciative of the professional care that would be afforded his sculpture at NMAfA.
During our conversation, I described NMAfA’s conservation approach—we would stabilize rather than restore Toussaint Louverture to its original condition as this preserves evidence of traditional materials, indigenous, use and history. My perception of the materials and construction of the sculpture was that Toussaint Louverture was made of rebar, plastic straw, burlap, and unction. He explained that I was fairly accurate with a few additions. The mixture he used was a combination of almost 20 different ingredients to achieve the material it is today. He expressed how he found great satisfaction in finding different mixtures. Given his concern about moving the object and causing deterioration from cracking or flaking, the museum constructed a permanent platform on wheels so that the piece could be moved easily without causing harm.
Toussaint Louverture was created for the bicentennial of the French Revolution and further immortalized the triumphs and sacrifices of Louverture and the Haitian people. Ousmane Sow’s figurative sculptures of ordinary people and great figures from history alike managed to both lionize and humanize them. Clearly, they were more than works of art—they were friends, individuals whose triumphs, challenges, joys, and sorrows touched the artist deeply and called to him to have their stories told through his artworks. Ousmane Sow’s work will continue to be admired by so many around the globe and at the National Museum of African Art.
Associate Director for Collections and Facilities and Chief Conservator
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Toussaint Louverture in transit
Ousmane Sow was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1935. He sculpted as a child, but later studied accounting and nursing and earned a diploma in physiotherapy when he moved to Paris as a young man. This explains, in part, the artist’s knowledge of human anatomy, which infused his monumental works with a distinctive tension and vigor. While he was in Paris, he was inspired by the sculptures of some of his favorite artists: Bourdelle, Giacometti, Rodin, and the unknown African artists whose works filled the Musée de l’Homme (now the Musée du quai Branly). By the age of fifty, the artist had returned to Senegal and chose to sculpt full time. In 1988 his first exhibition, featuring his Nuba series, was held at the French Cultural Center in Dakar and his rapid ascent into the international limelight began.
Ousmane Sow’s dramatic figurative sculptures have been included in major contemporary exhibitions, and he has received numerous prestigious commissions, prizes, and honors over his long career as an artist. On December 11, 2013, he was admitted to France’s Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux-Arts) during a ceremony held in Paris at the Élysée Palace, France’s presidential residence. He is the first African to enter the academy. Despite this acclaim, Ousmane Sow contended that he “would like to be an anonymous artist. But today the artist is supposed to be more important than his work. I would like not to be known for myself, just my sculptures. I admire them myself, like people outside me. I don’t have much to say; they say it all.”
Steve Mellor is associate director for collections and facilities and chief conservator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA). He holds an MS degree in conservation from the Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware and a BA in anthropology from George Washington University. Mellor is particularly interested in post-collection treatment history, the nontangible attributes of African art, and conservation issues relating to the authenticity of African art.
At NMAfA since 1986, Mellor is responsible for preventive conservation activities, which include environmental monitoring, exhibition and installation procedures, loan specifications, storage modifications, and intern/fellow training, as well as conservation treatment of the museum’s traditional and contemporary African art collection. He has worked as guest treatment conservator with the Katherine White African Art Collection at the Seattle Art Museum, the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, Netherlands, and the Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria, South Africa. In addition, he has completed needs assessment surveys for museums in Haiti, South Africa and Angola.
As associate director for collections and facilities, Mellor has oversight for the registration, conservation, exhibitions, and facilities and construction departments and promotes lateral cooperation, teamwork, and effective project management