NEW YORK — Ousmane Sow, often called the Auguste Rodin of Senegal, who earned an international reputation for his expressive sculptures of the Nuba, Masai, and other African people, died Thursday in Dakar, Senegal. He was 81.
The death was reported by Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Sow (pronounced So) spent much of his life as a physical therapist but in his 50s became a full-time sculptor.
After seeing the German photographer Leni Riefenstahl’s book on the Nuba people of southern Sudan, he executed a series of larger-than-life-size sculptures of Nuba wrestlers. Exhibited outside the French Cultural Center in Dakar in 1987, the Nuba series marked Mr. Sow as a talent of the first order.
He made good on that initial impression with a series of sculptures on the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, the Zulus of South Africa, and the nomadic Fulanis of West Africa.
Working without drawings, and relying on his intimate knowledge of the human anatomy from his years working as a physical therapist, he created imposing, rough-textured figures, bristling with energy, that seemed to embody the fierce spirit of postcolonial Africa.
He reached an international audience when his work was selected for the 1993 edition of the art festival Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the Venice Biennale two years later.
In 1999, his African series and a large-scale tableau of the Battle of Little Bighorn, displayed on the Pont des Arts in Paris, attracted 3 million visitors. In 2013, he became the first African artist elected as a foreign associate member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France.
Ousmane Sow was born on Oct. 10, 1935, in Dakar. His father, Moctar, who had fought for France in World War I, operated a fleet of trucks. His mother, Nafi N’Diaye, was descended from a long line of warriors from St. Louis, Senegal. There was no immediate information on his survivors.
He was enrolled in a French school at 7 and studied the Koran in the afternoons and on weekends at a religious school. He was attracted to sculpture early on, gathering stones on the beach and shaping them into small figurines.
After earning a business diploma, he left for France in 1957. He struggled in Paris, relying at first on handouts and working menial jobs.
Responding to an advertisement for a course in massage, he earned a diploma in nursing at Laennec Hospital. He went on to study with Boris Dolto, a pioneer of orthopedics and kinesiology in France.
A few years after Senegal gained its independence in 1960, Mr. Sow returned to Dakar and began offering physical therapy services at Le Dantec Hospital. Although dependent on what he called his “substitute profession,” Mr. Sow experimented with sculpture, exhibiting a bas-relief at the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966.
After returning to Paris, he used his office as a makeshift studio. He fabricated marionettes and cast them in a short 16mm film that told the story of an extraterrestrial who traveled to Earth. He also made small, puppetlike sculptures that he gave to friends or discarded.
‘Having worked with the body gave me freedom. I know just how far to go without creating a monster.’
He returned to Senegal in the early 1980s intending to establish a physical therapy practice, but soon devoted himself completely to sculpture.
Of his former profession, he once said: “Having worked with the body gave me freedom. I know just how far to go without creating a monster. I know the limits. If you don’t know the human body, or have a theoretical knowledge of proportion, you cannot be free.”
In his earlier work he employed unusual materials because of a lack of money. He shaped his figures over a metal armature with clay, plastic, stone, metal, jute, cloth, plaster, and rubber, occasionally adding wooden eyes and teeth, as well as hair and clothing.
After his 1999 exhibition, he began using a bronze foundry to cast some of his earlier work and newer sculptures, including statues of Victor Hugo, Nelson Mandela, and Charles de Gaulle.
His “Battle of Little Bighorn,” with 11 horses and 24 human figures, was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003.
In 2011, his sculpture “Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Old Slave” was the centerpiece of the exhibition “African Mosaic” at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, an exhibition that showcased the museum’s recent acquisitions.
Created for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the work celebrated the Haitian who led a slave revolt in Haiti in the late 18th century.