Across Union Square Park in the middle of New York City, Akassa Faye's paintings are a marketplace of souls: His yellows, greens, reds, blues and earth tones, the architectural and human forms reproduce his place of origin, Dakar, as well as his own singular vision.
Dakar had been the capital of French West Africa until Senegal became independent in 1960, after 300 years of French colonialism. The Wolof people state the name Senegal itself derives from the local term Sunugal meaning “our dugout canoe,” implying everyone is in the same boat. Traditional values of Kersa (respect for others), Tesin (good manners) and Terranga (hospitality) are sought after by its people.
“I am from West Africa, Senegal. My older brother was an artist. He has since passed away. When I was twelve years old, my brother would ask me to help him around his studio, to do things for him. That’s when I began to paint and make my own art using his things until the day told me, “Akassa, you use too much paint. You need to find your own paint.”
I didn’t have money to buy paint at the time so I started looking around for material I could use. I found sand. There were fifteen to sixteen different types of sand that could be used, collected from different locations: Black sand from the volcano, white from the beach, orange from the Sahara, dark brown from the iron mines . . .
I mixed the sand together to get blends of color, little by little teaching myself how to make sand paintings. My brother liked my work and used to take my pictures out into Dakar and sell them. He came back, gave me the money and that was it. He eventually said, “Now is the time for you get all your own things and really work at it.”
They had hired my brother at a gallery in Dakar, he spoke to his boss about me and I was hired as well. At the time I was going to school. I was eighteen. When I started making money as an artist so I stopped school and worked at my art full time.
There used to be a lot of tourists coming by the gallery. Business was good. I worked in this gallery for twelve years then said to myself, "I’ve progressed and need to open my own gallery." I went home to my neighborhood and found a place of my own. The tourists started coming to me and I made more connections. Then, a friend who had been visiting my gallery introduced me to his aunt. He later said she was interested in my work so I gave him a piece of mine for her to take, one of the sand paintings. After that, she came to visit and asked if I would be able to teach others that same style of painting and if I came to Paris, would I be able to teach that? Of course, I told her, but the truth was, I didn’t actually believe this would happen. After two to three months the woman came back and told me the city had agreed to sponsor me, pay for transportation and host my stay in Paris. I was twenty 26 when I went to France, the first time I had traveled anywhere. I stayed there a month that first time and taught sand painting."
"Another invitation came after that, this time to Morocco for 2 weeks. Then I made trips back and forth to both Paris and Rouen. I did workshops and met more and more people. I was bringing sand back and forth for my demonstrations. We also organized African art festivals in France, set up a village, for instance, cooked food and displayed our culture. After coming back to Senegal, I was chosen by my government to represent a group of artists to travel in the United States for Black History Month. Over a 45 day period, we traveled to Indiana, Atlanta and Washington D.C. I got to New York then as well and stayed only five days but realized I loved it and decided I would come back by myself. I returned to Senegal, stayed 6 months and came to New York. For a time, I traveled back and forth between Senegal and New York then five years ago decided to settle. I have made many contacts and friends since then. A gallerist in Chicago even visited Dakar just to see my sand paintings as part of Dak'Art, the biennale de l'Art Africain Contemporain."
In both New York and Dakar, Akassa Faye not only produces representational art but utilizes a vivid palette, pictorial flatness and fragmented shapes seen in early modernism. Unlike many of the European artists of that era, Akassa understands meaning, place and function of West African form. His authentic visions arise out of his own experiences of people and places.
Many still images here have been extracted, with permission, from the video included at the end, filmed by Andre Guichard. See acknowledgements.