Ousmane Sow's emotionally raw, epic subjects include character studies of African men, women and children from among the Nuba peoples of Sudan, the Zulu of South Africa and the Masaai of Kenya and Tanzania (see the film on view in the gallery). A 35-piece ensemble takes the Battle of Little Big Horn as its subject. A sculpture of French author and activist Victor Hugo and a portrait of the artist's father are among his other widely known works. Sow is currently creating a series of figures, which includes Mahatma Gandhi, India's political and ideological leader during its independence movement. Each portrait-whether it is of a renowned or an anonymous individual-reveals a powerful combination of frailty and grandeur, and a tangible sense of inner resolve.
Sow's work process is unique. Around 1968 he changed from carving stone to adopting an additive technique in which he gradually builds a figure with unorthodox materials, such as a mixture of glue, soil and recycled or found substances. With his hands, he applies this sticky, homemade mixture onto a framework of metal, straw and jute sacking. This outer mixture hardens and becomes the solid exterior of the figure. Sow mixes pigment into his sculptural brew as he works, allowing colors to become part of the form itself. He never fully drains the containers in which he stores his sculptural mixture but instead adds more materials over time. As a result, he does not know the exact composition of his medium. This work process is of fundamental importance to him. He consistently resists casting his figures in bronze or otherwise standardizing their production. He never works from a model and each work is one of a kind.
The sculpture Toussaint Louverture et la vieille esclave (Toussaint Louverture and the elderly slave) is part of a series of works commemorating the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Other pieces Sow created with it include Marianne et les révolutionnaires, belonging to the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and Gavroche, in the artist's collection in Senegal. Each depicts an icon of liberty and freedom. The figure of Marianne wearing a liberty cap is widely regarded as a symbol of the triumph of the French Republic. Gavroche is drawn from a character in the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. With Toussaint Louverture, the great liberator of Haiti, Sow created an impassioned hero. He emphasized Louverture's compassion and his determination to end slavery. Sow's Louverture appears in a military uniform as a symbol of strength, but his great heroism is conveyed through his relationship with the beleaguered slave. With his feet on the ground, Louverture lifts the fallen woman and looks toward his fate and the challenges of embracing his destiny.
Standing male figure in military unitform wearing a blue hat with cockade, a blue short jacket with epaulets, white breeches and boots. He holds the hand of a female figure sitting with curled legs at his feet with her head cast down. She wears a plain, dark shift like dress and head kerchief.
Heroes: Principles of African Greatness, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 16, 2019–October 3, 2021
Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue - From the Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby, Jr., National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, November 7, 2014-January 24, 2016
African Mosaic: Selections from the Permanent Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 13, 2013–August 12, 2019 (deinstalled April 23, 2014)
African Mosaic: Celebrating a Decade of Collecting, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 19, 2010-November 13, 2013
Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice. 2014. The Many Faces of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution. Exhibition brochure. Providence: Brown University.
Kreamer, Christine Mullen and Adrienne L. Childs (eds). 2014. Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue from the Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby, Jr. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. vi, viii, 139, no. 1, pl. 57.