PRINT February 1992


THE LAYERS OF MEANING in Asse’s paintings are as dense, and deliberate, as the layers of pigment, lime, wood stain, paper, cloth, and random objects that he works onto the canvas. Like his playing-card signature, with an A for Asse in the form of an ace (in French, as), it’s not a question of either-or but of everything-at-once: art as mass communication, autobiography, universal history, magic.

You don’t need a lengthy explanation to get the basic idea. Take New York–New Jersey, 1991, for example: between the blocky brown background that is Manhattan and the jagged brown foreground of New Jersey looms a lone white head, in profile, inscribed with traces of the same word that floats upside-down over the skyline: “HOMLES” (homeless). Below, the disembodied feet that fill the New York streets; to the right, as the embodiment of violence, a knife (labeled, in French, “legal”), and to the left, the handwritten caption (also in French): “Vision provoked by the natural aspect of NYC.”

But if the images, the words, the colors, the calculated geometry amply convey the tenor of this “vision” (occasioned by the artist’s first visit to New York. last summer), it still helps to know, for instance, that the fringed leather amulet (an African gris-gris), complete with animal horns, that is collaged into the painting simply stands for the bags and sacks that “New Yorkers are always carrying.” and that conversely there is something “mystical” happening in the upper-right corner that has been so heavily repainted. Or that the array of printer’s symbols that punctuate the cityscape are meant to liken the painting to a newspaper. Or that this does not prevent it from being an artistic homage as well, via the allusion to Max Ernst’s 1927 Vision provoquée par l’aspect nocturne de la Porte Saint-Dénis (Vision provoked by the nocturnal aspect of the Porte Saint-Dénis).

These artistic footnotes can be multiplied from painting to painting; they are generally unexpected, always apt, and ultimately disarming in their matter-of-factness. The gris-gris that turns up in Calcul mental II (Mental arithmetic II, 1991) is not at all a New Yorker’s bag, but once again a protective charm—reinforced by the cluster of real and painted nails above it—because, according to Asse, too much book-learning can be dangerous. Indeed, the printed texts collaged into this and other paintings—colonial histories and ethnographies, African literature and poetry—are all labeled “fals text” (sic) to warn the viewer that the power of the words lies elsewhere than in what they say. In Calcul mental I (Mental arithmetic I, 1991), meanwhile, the title refers to a “calculated” marriage proposition that summons up not only the specter of a swindle (arnaque in French), as is repeatedly written near the prospective husband’s head, but also the multiple maledictions (haltou in Wolof) that dot the canvas.

This is an art not of ambiguity but of multiplicity, the work of a visual polyglot reminding us that there’s not only more than one thing to see but more than one way of seeing, and perhaps we haven’t even started to look. I don’t think In this ongoing series, writers are invited to introduce the work of the beginning of their careers. Asse acquired this vision in art schools, though he has spent nearly a decade of his life there. Nor does it come from looking at Ernst or Jean-Michel Basquiat, both of whom he has looked at a great deal. Rather, it is the product of the two continents’ worth of history, culture, and daily life that Asse has absorbed in his 32 (postcolonial) years.

Descended from the Lebu fishermen of the Cape Verde peninsula. Ibrahima M’Bengue, known as Asse (the diminutive of Ibrahima in his native Wolof), was born in Dakar in 1959 the year before Senegalese independence. He has been drawing since he was a child, but in his family art was viewed as a dubious activity in terms of financial security and Muslim piety alike. His father, a building contractor, wanted him to become an architect; at 15 Asse quit school and went to study at the national fine arts academy, a showcase of the Senghor government’s arts policy in the 1970s. “I had everything I wanted,” he recalls; “. . . to sharpen the sense of creation.” In fact “everything” was strictly studio classes given by French overseas volunteers; there was no theory, no history, also nothing at all about African art (“We were the ones who had to bring that”). And so, when he’d started to sell his work and receive government grants, he decided to come to Paris to study “everything I hadn’t learned back there.”

That was in February 1982; he’s been in the city ever since. Along with four-plus years at the Beaux-Arts, there were four years of self-imposed isolation in a studio outside Paris. Then as now, the point of departure for his paintings was Senegal: the hazy brown of the earth in the heat of the sun, the electric blue of the Lebu fishing waters, “myself, as a Lebu, our rituals.” But before, he explains, he was telling his stories to himself, whereas now they are meant for everyone. This shift—from the sparse symbolism of introspection to a veritable barrage of images and words—was certainly stimulated by Asse’s move from his studio to the Hôpital Ephémère, the “ephemeral hospital,” which, as the name poetically suggests, is a former public hospital converted, pending demolition, into a communal artists’ space.

Since he moved there in October 1990, Asse has produced a prodigious body of work— more than 50 paintings—that is as impressive for its coherence as its diversity. Going public with his private world has not meant the slightest lapse into exoticism, oversimplification, or repetition, but rather the constant refining of a kind of crossroads idiom that permits him, as he puts it, “to speak with my cousin. but at the same time, with the French and with everybody who speaks French.”

In practice, this is first of all an idiom expressed in Asse’s first-person singular, not only as subject but also as voice. tone, point of view—the ultimate quality control. In the extreme, there is Fête à l’Hôpital–21 juin (Festival at the hospital-21 June, 1991), a combination of news items and nightmare inspired by the mysterious battering down of the door to Asse’s studio on the night of France’s annual Fête de la Musique: the artist, duly labeled “artiste,” lies flat on his back under both the door and the faceless intruder peering over it with a sledgehammer in his hand. It was actually the door rather than the artist that was flattened. but Asse’s retelling expresses the subjective meaning of the attack, and undoubtedly exorcises it as well.

This insistent identification of story and teller, and the conflation of cultures that it implies, are such that every subject (New York–New Jersey included) emerges, physically, from the earth-brown background that is Senegal. In fact the formal language of these paintings is no less rooted, as it were, in the visual terrain of West African Islam, with its amulets, prayer books, writing boards, and textiles that serve as supports for image and word in the service of protection, devotion, learning, ritual. When I asked Asse why he uses a stretched canvas—such a finite surface for the infinite mental territory of his Senegal-on-the-Seine—he explained that it is simply a “support,” which he works on the ground and (as with many hand-drawn amulets or magic squares from West Africa) from all four sides. “I use lots of things that are here,” he says, “but I translate them into my language.” I cannot help thinking that there is something healthily subversive in such a process. whereby magic can be modern and modernity can also be magic.

Miriam Rosen is a writer who lives in Paris. She contributes regularly to Artforum.