Between 1974 and 1985, while working on his nineteen-volume project Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit (The History of Sensitivity), the late German writer Hubert Fichte traveled several times to Dakar. Accompanied by photographer Leonore Mau, he used writing to bend and resist against the trope of the roaming ethnographer, exploring the possibilities for a new way of inhabiting and engaging with a world in which he found himself on the margins. These preoccupations led him to the psychiatric unit of Fann hospital in Dakar, in the 1970s under the directorship of Henri Collomb and in the midst of experiments into anti-psychiatry where local methods of healing – the ndoep and pinth in particular – dominated those imported from Europe by way of Sigmund Freud or pharmaceutical companies.

Fichte also interviewed and wrote extensively on a young painter, Papisto Boy, whose large-scale public murals in Dakar’s suburbs brought together scenes from Senegalese mythology, global popular culture and religious iconography in a complex and profound orchestra of syncretic self-identification. For Fichte, Papisto Boy’s work was the ultimate creative expression of the palimpsest of intertextuality that he saw as necessary for becoming truly post-colonial, wherein otherness and marginality are recognised as part of the universal human condition, and attempts to single out a particular “Other” are thus rendered null and void. Throughout his travels to Togo, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Brazil, and New York, among other places in the 1970s and 1980s, Fichte grew ever more convinced that African and Afro-diasporic cultural practice provided the necessary counterpoint to the domination of conceptual art that was born from the negating and destructive forces of Europe and North America’s imagined universality and the meeting with Papisto Boy – “the young Senegalese artist who likes to live on the beach” – was a high point in his research. In a text from 1980, Fichte elaborates on the life and challenges of Papisto Boy, in a rallying cry for wider social and political support for the artist.

Beyond Fichte’s probing fascination with Papisto Boy, the impact of the artist’s commitment to public art must not be understated. When in the late 1980s young citizens of Dakar took it upon themselves to clean up and embellish a city neglected by the era’s shrunken state in a movement known as Set Setal, Papisto Boy played a central role. His murals provided the backdrop to one of the most significant artistic mobilizations of civil society in Senegalese history, inscribing a narrative onto the city’s walls that was an affirmation of modern Senegalese identity and proof that this reappropriation of history and thus the future could come from the impoverished suburbs, from the village or simply an artist with no formal training, led by a love of painting, society and his guiding spirits. The mythical backdrop of Papisto Boy’s world is recurring and equally present in many other murals born from the Set Setal movement.

Large-format reproductions of Leonore Mau’s photos of murals by Papisto Boy provide the viewer with an insight into both the artist’s universe and the industrial and social landscape within which he was active. Mau’s photographs do not provide a linear and complete reproduction of the Belair factory wall that was Papisto Boy’s most significant work, but instead are snapshots that are embedded in a context: enormous chimneys rise up behind the wall, churning out smoke that rendered the neighborhood’s name, bel air, entirely ironic. These are juxtaposed with Papisto Boy’s depiction of two perfect domes, part of a mosque to which Cheikh Amadou Bamba – the founding father of Senegal’s Sufi Mouride brotherhood – is gesturing. This combination of divine imagery and a somewhat messier reality is widespread throughout Dakar, with reproductions of Cheikh Amadou Bamba’s image unavoidable, cropping up on stickers that grace the glove compartments of taxis, in holograms that overlook clients at restaurants or on t-shirts, bags or wallets. In another image, a man kneels in prayer before the mural, his stance both wholly banal and utterly perfect in a country that is 95 percent Muslim, and echoed in Papisto Boy’s representation of Muhammad Ali – le tigre noir – only a couple of meters away. Leonore Mau, in these photographs that are non-teleological, allows viewers to be more complete witnesses to Papisto Boy’s work, and the way that it takes up and expands on Dakar’s visual tropes. Mau’s eye for idiosyncratic detail led her to create a body of photographic work from her travels with Fichte that is poignant and insightful, and a number of her other photographs that capture scenes from Fann hospital, its annex psychiatric village in the south of Senegal and talismanic markets across the region are shown alongside Papisto Boy’s murals.

In the years that Fichte spent conducting research at the psychiatric hospital in Fann and interviewing Papisto Boy, artist Thierno Seydou Sall was simultaneously cultivating his own practice in Dakar. His preoccupations find echo in the work of Papisto Boy, his contemporary, although their trajectories differ. Sall’s history with Fichte is one of near misses and almost-crossed paths. Sall, while interned in the late 1970s at the same psychiatric unit that so fascinated Fichte, spent a significant amount of time with the artist and Laboratoire Agit-Art co-founder Issa Samb who stopped by regularly to join in the pinth. Samb led Sall away from the corridors of the psychiatric ward and into the nightclubs and courtyards of the Medina where Sall was encouraged to give voice to his unique perspective through poetry, performed and written.In Samb’s company, Sall’s talent in articulating the contradictions of Senegalese society was nurtured and given form in what Sall calls a “poetry of the electro-shock”, a reference to his experience of psychiatric treatment at Fann hospital and an homage to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. This practice, also nurtured through the penthioum Fann – weekly open talking session – initiated by Collomb, has since taken Sall across Senegal as a “wandering poet.” Unafraid to delve into the most sensitive of societal issues and unabashed in his avowal of his struggles with mental health, using humour and the breadth of both the Wolof and Pulaar languages, Sall’s practice is a testimony to the way in which those at times relegated to the margins are in fact able to go straight to the heart of their societies.

On the occasion of this exhibition, Sall’s drawings are shown for the first time in a series called Bouffées délirantes picturales (Pictorial deliria). Having taken up drawing and painting in the creative workshop of Fann, Sall has since become a keen illustrator, developing line drawings of figures made up of forms that come together to resemble humanity but escape norms of representation, and which are used to illustrate a number of his publications. In one image, two short legs support a straight line punctuated by five oval forms, each one pierced by a dot and suggesting five eyes. To its right, a smaller form raises one leg in a jig, imbuing the abstract figures with a childlike playfulness. These beings, alive with the energy of Sall’s mark-making, have for years danced across the pages of Sall’s workbooks. Here they are brought together, a family of unique characters in interplay that are a celebration of the multiplicity of ways in which humanity is manifest, given life on a large scale alongside the figures called upon and created by Papisto Boy.

A short film by Isabelle Thomas, Maïsama m’a dit (Maïsama told me), traces the work of Maïsama who like Papisto Boy, practiced independently of any establishment and worked directly on Dakar’s walls. Stylistically distinct from Sall, we find a confidence of line in both artists’ practices, and biographical similarities with Maïsama also being a “wandering” artist battling with mental health issues. Unwilling to be recorded himself, Maïsama asked Thomas to read his notes – to be his “journalist.” What emerges are the mind and hand of a poet whose drawings combine renderings of Dakar’s physical infrastructure with figures at once highly sexualized and quotidian. In one vignette, Senegalese tea – attaya – a routine staple of everyday life is prepared, while a pair of buttocks replete with eyes shedding tears comes under attack by a number of large syringes. Proclamations such as “When the world is beautiful, know that it is I who filled it up” appear hyperbolic in a first instance, but after a few moments looking at the work they become a truth to be respected. Maïsama’s statement, which lends itself to the title of this exhibition, guides us toward the uncomfortable fact that society owes more than it would normally recognize to its itinerant, autodidact, rebel artists and citizens.

In response to Fichte’s call to action from 1980, “I beg you to build walls, so that Pap Samb can paint them!” and the rarity of Papisto Boy’s remaining murals in the rapidly shifting urban landscape of Dakar, the exhibition lends its walls to the archives of this pioneering artist and his renderings of a complex subjectivity. Taking the form of a visual and sensorial palimpsest incorporating photography, video, and drawing, the exhibition creates a dialogue among artists whose own histories are entangled in multiple ways with those of Papisto Boy and Fichte and who have a practice that actively mines positions of marginality and sensitivity; in doing so, the exhibition continues the quest of Papisto Boy and Hubert Fichte for a truly inclusive humanity.