This essay looks at the career of pioneering Senegalese painter Iba N'Diaye and his relation to now well-established narratives of modernism in Senegal. Typical accounts of the mid-twentieth century equate the modern with the cultural patronage, Négritude writings, and state-sponsored visual arts movement that flourished under the first president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor. N'Diaye, as one of the first instructors at an art academy founded at Senghor's request, is often featured in the beginnings of this narrative, only to be marginalized when he chooses to relocate permanently to France and pursue alternative aesthetic horizons. As a result, the subtleties of his long career, the means through which his practices “belong to the modern,” and the cartographies and densities of a complex, cosmopolitan artistic life are lost in either overdetermined histories of African modernism or narrow accounts of European art history.
This essay is not concerned with securing a place for him within the mainstream history of modernism but rather investigating how models of “alternative modernities” might enable us to foreground the dialogical attitudes and practices that characterized often overlapping, interdependent, and contingent experiences of modernity and expressions of modernism. How do re-evaluations of the spatio-temporal parameters of the modern enable us to shift accounts of the Senegalese story (and readings of N'Diaye's oeuvre)? Does N'Diaye's career enable us to challenge increasingly standardized narratives of modernism in many parts of Africa that link it primarily with reverse discourses, resistance narratives, and political independence to suggest more fluid approaches to modernist subjectivity and attention to the varied “tenses” for the modern?