The touching legacy of Ousmane Sow in the Academy of Fine Arts, recalled by Giuseppe Penone

"A lot has changed." Ten years ago, on December 11, 2013, the great Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow (1935-2016) entered the Academy of Fine Arts. He was the first black artist to be installed in this very prestigious French institution and he wanted to represent an entire continent. Interview on the legacy of an art giant with his successor in the chair, the Italian Giuseppe Penone, winner of the Praemium Imperiale prize, the "Nobel Prize of the Arts".

Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow (1935-2016), here in 2015, and Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone, here in October 2023. © Xavier LEOTY / AFP and Joel SAGET / AFP

By: Siegfried Forster Follow


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RFI: You share with Ousmane Sow the genius, the creativity and the conviction that the idea must adapt to the material used and be born from it, and not the other way around. What does it mean to you to have been chosen and installed last October at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ousmane Sow's chair?

Giuseppe Penone: It's a great honour and it was also something unexpected for me. Sitting in Ousmane Sow's place touched me a lot, because I didn't know his work well. I had only seen pictures of his works, but I read things and, in some respects, I feel very close to him. Not so much about the expression of the sculpture, but about its approach to the material. This is an aspect that I share with regard to his vision of reality.

During the installation of Ousmane Sow, many pointed out that this great Senegalese sculptor was the first black artist in the entire history of the Academy of Fine Arts (whose history dates back to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture created in 1648 by Louis XIV) to become a member of this prestigious institution. An institution that, according to you, "has such an important value not only for France, but for all Western culture". The appointment of Ousmane Sow to the Academy of Fine Arts, what has this historic event changed in the last ten years?

A lot has changed since then. There is also the perception of humanity that is blending together with a speed that could not have been imagined in times gone by. Yes, there was already migration, but this is something that is really changing the way we think about our social and political structures. Our relationship to culture, our way of thinking and imagining, are also different. And that can become a very great asset for everyone. This is something that was less thought about ten years ago.

Ousmane Sow introduced a reflection on sculpture, because his sculpture is not an "African" sculpture in the ethnological sense. It is a sculpture with specific values related to his training in Senegal, but which have been translated with a very Western language. I know he didn't like to compare himself to Rodin. He preferred to compare himself to Giacometti. In my opinion, it is mainly because of the material. But, in some sculptures, he has a power of expression comparable to that of Rodin. It's extraordinary. And it uses the richness of color with extraordinary precision. That's a gift he gave to Western sculpture.

Like you, Ousmane Sow is considered an exceptional sculptor. Many still talk today about his famous installation of 75 giant sculptures on the Pont des Arts in Paris, in 1999, admired by more than three million visitors. Among all the elements that make up Ousmane Sow's greatness, richness and creativity, what do you think is the most important element that he has transmitted to us in the field of art?

I think the most important thing is perhaps also the simplest thing. For years, he practiced as a physical therapist. That is, it touched people's bodies. He has a tactile knowledge of the human being and the forms of humanity, obtained through touch. His sculpture is a sculpture based on touch, on the relationship between the hand and the material. This is a very important thing, because touch can correct perceptions that we may have through sight. This perception gives us a major accuracy of reality. It also allows us to change the conventions we have of reality. Because reality always changes, but we imagine reality on the basis of conventions. And touch can correct conventions. It is an adherence to reality that is necessary for the survival of the human being. In Ousmane Sow's work, this is visible, but it also corresponds to a historical journey in the history of sculpture. For that, I think touch is one of the most important things it has given us.

► Read also: Giuseppe Penone's very moving speech in tribute to Ousmane Sow, held during the session of his installation at the Academy of Fine Arts in October 2023

► See also: [Video] In the intimacy of Ousmane Sow's work

► Read also: For artist Giuseppe Penone, "man and the reality that surrounds him have the same value"

► See also: [Video] Giuseppe Penone in a word, a gesture and a silence

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