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Seyni Awa Camara’s Awe-Inspiring Sculptures Reflect Her Artistic Origin Story

Ayanna Dozier
Sep 30, 2022 9:25PM

Portrait of Seyni Awa Camara by André Magnin, 2000. Courtesy of the artist and Magnin-A.

Birthed from equal parts make-believe and daily ritual, Seyni Awa Camara’s majestic humanoid clay sculptures evoke mythological deities, and are derived from her encounters with the folk gods of Senegal’s Wolof people. Born around 1945 in Bignona, Senegal, the Diola artist has been making work for the past five decades and receiving increased institutional recognition throughout Europe and Africa in the last twenty years.

A selection of Camara’s mythical sculptures that were made between 1983 and 2019 are currently on view in London through October 30th in “Amongst the Living with Seyni Awa Camara,” White Cube’s two-person exhibition with painter Michael Armitage. Described as “truth revealers” by Camara’s longtime gallerist André Magnin of Magnin-A, the sculptures participate in the ever-expanding mythos of Camara’s journey to becoming an artist, making her the lead architect of her own narrative.

Seyni Awa Camara, detail of Untitled, 2019. © Seyni Awa Camara. Photo by David Westwood. Courtesy of Magnin-A, Paris and White Cube, London.

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Magnin first encountered Camara’s practice while researching for the 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the earth) at Centre Pompidou, where he was assistant commissioner of the show. The presentation was curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 group exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” which recreated colonial exhibitionist frameworks around African art.

On anthropologist Michèle Odeyé-Finzi’s recommendation, Magnin made a fateful trip to Senegal to learn more about African art in an effort to not 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 was selling at the local market, it was the elaborate, large-scale works in her front yard that he found astonishing. “It was incredible,” Magnin recalled. “I suddenly felt as if I were backstage in a theater of characters and objects without a stage.”

Seyni Awa Camara, Untitled (Janus), 2019. © Seyni Awa Camara. Photo by David Westwood. Courtesy of Magnin-A, Paris and White Cube, London.

Seyni Awa Camara, detail of Untitled (Janus), 2019. © Seyni Awa Camara. Photo by David Westwood. Courtesy of Magnin-A, Paris and White Cube, London.

Camara describes her practice as both habitual and divine. She previously told Magnin in Wolof, “I think. I have an idea. I work.” This daily practice has contributed to the abundance of work that Camara has produced over the years. Her creatures look like human-animal hybrids from another world. They are, for the artist, deities revealing themselves to her through visions and dreams. The emergence of these figures lies at the heart of Camara’s artistic journey and the mythology around her origins.

As Camara recounted for the 1994 publication Solitude d’argile: légende autour d’une vie: sculptures de Seyni-Awa, she got lost in the wilderness with her twin brothers when she was 12 years old, but they were protected from the harsh climate by the hidden genies of Wolof folk gods. The genies taught them to work the earth to make pottery. In Camara’s account, she and her brothers returned to their village remade of clay, unrecognizable to their community. “They couldn’t believe that it was the gods who had taught us 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.”

Portrait of Seyni Awa Camara by André Magnin, 2000. Courtesy of the artist and Magnin-A.

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

Camara’s delightfully frightening sculptures provoke audiences to consider what beings exist beyond our world. In this way, she is a conjuror of mystical realms, transcribing her vivid, imaginative experiences through clay. The less fantastical, but no less impressive, narrative of Camara’s origins is that she first learned to make pottery from her mother.

Seyni Awa Camara, Untitled, 1983. © Seyni Awa Camara. Photo by Ollie Hammick. Courtesy of Magnin-A, Paris and White Cube, London.

Magnin described Camara’s process as an utterly unique experience that was supported by her late husband who, in life, would acquire the clay and mix it for her. Camara fires the clay in an open courtyard, covering her sculptures with branches, straw, and the splinters of roasted tree trunks. “Seyni has a traditional practice but a very unique and personal achievement,” Magnin said, referring to pottery’s traditional association with women in Wolof culture. “She is the only one to do this work. It is a totally 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 toward pottery since Camara’s 1989 debut exhibition in Paris. “Today, her work is no longer viewed as a traditional potter’s sculpture, but as a work of art in its own right,” Magnin explained.

Camara’s sculptures are mythical and awe-inspiring and speak to how the mainstream 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 face the hidden gods of the universe in the flesh.

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.
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