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Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, who sculpted Nelson Mandela as a goalkeeper charged with keeping “corrupt African heads of state at bay,” became the first African artist to be admitted to France’s prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts on Thursday.
Sow was elected to the esteemed French Academy of Fine Arts – one of France’s five creative “académies” – at a ceremony in Paris on Thursday, at which the world-renowned sculptor dedicated the honour to “all of Africa, its diaspora and the great man who has just left us, Nelson Mandela”.
He also paid tribute to his late countryman, Senegalese writer Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was the first African to be elected to the Académie française (France’s academy of French language) in 1983.
Born in the Senegalese capital of Dakar in 1935, Sow is one of Francophone Africa’s most prominent artists. He is known for sculpting his imposing creations without the use of a model.
At 78, Sow has spent most of his adult life between Dakar and Paris, where he first moved when he was 22.
As a young man, he found odd jobs in the French capital and sought overnight shelter at police stations and hospitals, apparently in exchange for fresh bread in the morning. He enrolled at a physiotherapy school, where he was able to indulge and develop his fascination for the human body.
Sow had already begun modelling sculptures with the use of stones on the beaches of his home country. In Paris, Sow’s models caught the eye of his teacher; one of his sculptures was even displayed in class.
In 1960, following Senegal’s independence from France, Sow returned to Dakar where he held his first exhibition.
But it was to be decades before he would gain recognition in his adopted country.
‘The instinct of a sculptor’
Sow finally captured the attention of Europe in 1999, when his giant sculptures of wrestlers were exhibited on the Pont des Arts bridge near the Louvre in Paris.
He has since exhibited work in France, Germany and Italy.
This year, he moved all the work he still owns to a museum in Senegal, including his most recent series, “Great Men,” which features historical figures such as Charles de Gaulle and Mandela. Sculptures of Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Gandhi would be included in his gallery of men who “helped me not despair of mankind,” he told AFP in June.
Of his Mandela sculpture, Sow said that “he extends his hand to keep corrupt African heads of state at bay”.
The burly giants are sculpted from the artist’s trademark mixture of clay, rubber, straw, and coated in an all-weather coating.
At the academy, Sow will take the vacated seat of American painter Andrew Wyeth, an artist which he admitted he was unfamiliar with. He will be seated in front of Jean Cardot, who praised Sow extensively during Thursday’s ceremony. “You are an example of the richness and marvellous diversity of the artistic expression,” Cardot said. “What daring! What achievement!”
“You have the instinct, as old as humanity, of a sculptor,” Cardot told him.
Sow praised the academy for shunning ethnic quotas, which remain a controversial notion in France. “My election holds even more value, in my eyes, because you have remained wise enough not to instate any racial, ethnic or religious quotas,” he told the academy.