Skip to main content Start of main content

Waste Not: Ndary Lô, Récupération, and the Lives of Things

Ndary Lô, 'Maternité', 2001–02, reinforcing bar, dolls, fabrics. Photograph: Véro Martin. Courtesy Collection Blachère
Dana Liljegren examines the work of the late Senegalese artist Ndary Lô. In his sculptures and installations which feature reclaimed rebar or repurposed commercial objects, Lô offers commentary and reflection on spirituality, humanity and the ecological intertwining of people and things.

For nearly 30 years, the concept of artistic récupération, broadly defined as the reclamation and reuse of existing materials, has been attached to much of the contemporary art to come out of Senegal, situated on the western cusp of Africa’s Sahelian region. Despite the pervasiveness of related practices around the globe – seen in the work of Vik Muniz (Brazil, b.1961), Subodh Gupta (India, b.1964) and Khalil Chishtee (Pakistan, b.1964), to name only a few – and despite unsurprising comparisons to the Duchampian readymade – récupération in Senegal bears a specific and politicised history, the early postcolonial manifestations of which can be traced back to the 1970s. Existing accounts of this practice within the capital city of Dakar tend to locate the term’s emergence around the early 1990s; however, even before récupération was named as such, the strategy of reinventing found objects for art and performance was often a tactical feature in the overtly activist work of the Laboratoire Agit’Art, a collective founded in Dakar in 1974. 01 In gestures of resistance and refusal, the artists of the Laboratoire frequently eschewed European oil paints and prepared canvases in favour of versatile materials reclaimed from the immediate environment, privileging local resources over imported commodities.

Ndary Lô, ‘Maternité’, 2001–02, reinforcing bar, dolls, fabrics. Photograph: Véro Martin. Courtesy Collection Blachère

One of the most prominent and celebrated Senegalese récupérateurs to arrive during the 1990s is the late Ndary Lô (1961–2017), whose sculptures and installations feature a carefully curated array of supports including reclaimed rebar, old horseshoes, repurposed commercial objects (dolls, shoes, defunct electronics) and organic items such as bones and gourds. Through compositions that range from figurative to abstract, Lô’s work offers commentary and reflection on spirituality, humanity and the ecological intertwining of people and things.

In conversation with art historian Joanna Grabski – one of only a small cadre of scholars to undertake an analysis of récupération for English readership – Lô described an aspect of his personal philosophy: ‘Objects have multiple lives… The first life is as a material, before being transformed into an object…The second life is the manufactured product, the object itself… The third life is when the object is discarded.’ 02 Adopting the term Daptaïsme to describe his approach to both artistic creation and harmonious living, Lô seemingly understood his practice as inextricably linked to notions of existence and coexistence alike. ‘Daptaïsme, which comes from the verb to adapt, is to create with what is found in one’s environment,’ he explained. ‘This approach also embodies respect and tolerance towards other cultures, towards the other, quite simply.’ 03Consider these perspectives in relation to the theorisation posited by Michael Thompson, for whom the category of rubbish – ‘a valueless and timeless limbo’ – represents the state through which objects pass in their transformation from transient to durable; Lô’s view, by comparison, less concerned with economic notions of value, suggests an understanding of objects as moving through states of reincarnation or metaphysical transformation.04 Philosopher François Dagognet, perhaps an even more apt interlocutor to place in dialogue with the artist, mobilised the concept of réhabilitation – an apropos companion to récupération – to propose an understanding of how artists in particular convert and reintegrate material that has been cast out as undesirable. 05 Consumer society tends to prefer that which is shiny and new, perceived as untouched and untainted; but the histories that visibly inhabit a found object may be productively activated in the hands of the artist.

For the large-scale sculpture Maternité (2001-02), representing an abstracted female figure, Lô used recovered rebar for the outer frame, and incorporated the disembodied heads of plastic dolls to flesh out, so to speak, the hollows of the work. The visual effect of these combined objects is uncanny: the rotund body of the female figure visualises the protective states of pregnancy and motherhood; yet the cage-like enclosure of the figure’s torso (fittingly described by author Adramé Diagne as an ‘iron matrix’), crowded with bulbous, subtly smiling faces, evokes a visceral sense of claustrophobia or entrapment. 06 The grouping of countless faces, fragmented and showing marks of disuse and dislocation, suggests rampant growth or accumulation, almost parasitic in nature. The maternal figure is anonymous in her facelessness, while the dolls’ bodiless features seem to stare out at us, sometimes with only one remaining eye alongside an empty socket. They prompt contemplation of the various identities of those to whom they once belonged: Who cherished these objects, and later neglected or relinquished them? How many individuals or distinct locations did they each encounter before Lô brought them together in this new artistic context? Through these objects, the work speaks of love and loss, in the forms of parental sacrifice and childhood innocence. It speaks of cyclical processes and progressions, referencing the biological and psychological arcs of birth, growth and death, while also pointing to the circuitous processes of globalised consumerism from which the objects were themselves ultimately retrieved by the artist. ‘I find material and gather it’, Lô explained. ‘I walk around collecting … the fruit of my environment. This act embodies the attitude and feeling of movement.’07This artistic engagement with peripatetic movement can be seen not only in the acts of searching and gathering, but also in the traces of circulation that Lô’s collected objects bear.

Ndary Lô, ‘Maternité’, 2001–02, reinforcing bar, dolls, fabrics. Photograph: Véro Martin. Courtesy Collection Blachère

The presumed trajectories of these materials and their various implications and significations, while indispensable to a reading of Lô’s practice, are of course only part of his work’s rich and layered message. The haunting assemblage of Maternité reveals an artistic contemplation of creation itself, and of the ways in which creative processes are constantly cycling throughout time. 08 We can perceive a sense of this temporal movement in one of the most prevalent motifs of Lô’s oeuvre: the image of the walking man, the marcheur, a visual trope that is threaded through the artist’s body of work from the 1990s until the end of his life. Frequently compared to the skeletal constructions of Alberto Giacometti (1901–66), Lô’s tall, slender forms occupy space through a sense of vitality rather than volume, suggesting ambulatory rhythm and forward movement through their spry linearity. The formal similarity between Lô’s and Giacometti’s figures is notable; but to read Lô’s work as decidedly hinging upon that of his Swiss predecessor would be reductive, even pseudo-morphological. Giacometti’s emaciated, elongated bodies are often interpreted as representations of post-War trauma, alienation and Surrealistic nihilism, their craggy silhouettes reflecting the artist’s aggressive sculpting and reworking. Lô’s marcheurs, meanwhile, often shaped quite literally by the artist’s use of longitudinal iron rods or crescent-shaped horseshoes, impart a sense of engaging dynamism and efficiency – not just through their particular economy of resources, but also by their posture of intent striding and striving.

Describing his first voyage to Europe in 1996, Lô emphasised his experience of movement within and around cities there: ‘Throughout the subway, in the streets, I found people walking quickly, energetically… in Africa one never seems to be in a rush. I told myself that this is perhaps one of the secrets of the development of Europe. As soon as I returned to Senegal, I wanted to make figures and set them in motion.’09 Lô’s statement on the perceived connection between energetic motility and European productivity provides worthy insight into this particular artistic motivation. While the idea of European success without qualification is undeniably problematic – it must be acknowledged that this growth has been linked to and dependent upon exploitation of the so-called Global South – we might interpret the artist’s words here as a reclamation and poeticisation of his own productive encounter with and experience of motion and migration.

Exhibition view, ‘Exposition de sculpture : hommage à Ndary Lô, retrospective’, Dak’Art/ L’heure rouge, 2018. Photograph: Dana Liljegren

For Lô, iron’s structural sturdiness and simultaneous susceptibility to the elements render it a particularly meaningful material for his work.10 One of his sculptures, for example, when installed outside, may outlive many of its beholders, but not escape the corrosive effects of Dakar’s ocean air. The material’s intrinsic mutability and responsiveness to nature, rather than seen as deficiencies to work around, become features through which to illustrate and explore an intellectual interest in relentless change, the passage of time and forces of the environment that are larger than ourselves.

The strategy of récupération and the critical discourse surrounding it are, necessarily, often preoccupied with issues of art’s materiality, its corporeality and the physical realities that contribute to its conditions of production. Part of what makes Ndary Lô’s oeuvre remarkable, however, is his recognition of, and his desire to realise, a certain kind of synchronicity between the spiritual and the material. A practising Muslim, Lô acknowledged the potential for contradiction between the tenets of his faith and his investigations as a figurative artist, but described the Qur’an itself as instrumental to his practice: ‘I need that inspiration to make a sculpture. I created an immense figure open to the sky, open to the world, open to God. He is in prayer, arms raised, addressing heaven, but I wanted the prayer to be universal. God knows’, he said. ‘I don’t have to explain.’ 11


  • The Laboratoire Agit’Art was founded by the artist Issa Samb, the film-maker Djibril Diop Mambéty, the painter and performance artist El Hadji Sy and the playwright Youssoupha Dione. El Hadii Sy is documented as having experimented with recycled materials as early as 1975. See Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba et al., El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, Zürich: Diaphanes, 2015, p.398
  • Ndary Lô, quoted in Joanna Grabski, Art World City: The Creative Economy of Artists and Urban Life in Dakar, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2017, p.161. Additional English-language scholarship featuring or referencing Senegalese récupération can be found in the writing of Joshua Cohen, Mamadou Diouf, Thomas Filllitz, Elizabeth Harney, Susan Kart and Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi and Sophia Powers.
  • Ndary Lô, quoted in Marion Brousse, A La Rencontre des Artistes Contemporains du Mali, du Burkina Faso et du Sénégal, unpublished thesis, Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, UFR Arts Plastiques et Sciences de l’art, October 2002, p.90, available at (last accessed on 28 July 2020). Unless otherwise stated, all translations are the author’s.
  • Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value: New Edition, London: Pluto Press, 2017, p.10. Thompson’s book, originally published in 1979, proposes that objects and materials exist within and between states of transience (in which things decrease, over time, towards a value of zero) and durability (in which things’ value increases towards pricelessness), and are affected by human activities of consumption and production.
  • See Jacqueline Amphoux, ‘François Dagognet, Des détritus, des déchets, de l’abject: Une philosophie écologique’, Autres Temps. Cahiers d’éthique sociale et politique, no.59, 1998, p.113.
  • See Adramé Diagne, ‘Échos et correspondances’, in Ndary Lô: Verticales, Villeneuve d’Ascq: Périplans éditions, 2004. Diagne refers here to Échographie (1998–99) and L’incompris (1999), works by Lô that are formally and thematically related to Maternité, describing the iron lattice-like structure of the figure’s womb as a ‘matrice de fer’.
  • Ndary Lô, quoted in Joanna Grabski, ‘Urban Claims and Visual Sources in the Making of Dakar’s Art World City’, Art Journal, vol.68, no.1, Spring 2009, p.11.
  • For additional interpretations of Lô’s artistic exploration of creation, see Sylvain Sankalé, ‘Où allons-nous?’, in Ndary Lô: Verticales, op. cit., p.29.
  • Ndary Lô, quoted in Yacouba Konaté, ‘Afrique ! Lève-toi et marche’, Ndary Lô: Verticales, op.cit., pp.7–8.
  • See Sylvain Sankalé, ‘Où allons-nous?’, in Ndary Lô: Verticales, op. cit., p.29. Sankalé writes: ‘It is the humble rebar rod, without which there could be no sustainable structure, but which left in the open quickly completes its life cycle, which [the artist] prefers.’
  • N. Lô, quoted in M. Brousse, A La Rencontre des Artistes Contemporains du Mali, du Burkina Faso et du Sénégal, op. cit., p.91.
Advertisement miss read 2023