Big Horn battles against the elements

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The Independent Online
A SIOUX warrior, on horseback, tramples a fallen cavalryman; a coal barge passes underneath. As General George Armstrong Custer breathes his last, the cathedral of Notre Dame gleams in the distance.

For the next eight weeks, one of the most startling and moving art exhibitions in Paris can be found, in the open-air and free, on a bridge over the Seine. The centrepiece is a frieze of 23 larger than life human figures and eight horses, retelling the story of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The figures form the largest work attempted by the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, best known for his representations, at once stylised and life-like, of African tribal figures and groups. The exhibition, on the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian trestle bridge linking the Louvre and the Academie Fran-caise, also contains a score of his earlier sculptures of Nubians, the Masai and his own ethnic group, the Peuls.

Sow, 64, was a kinesitherapist - a French variant of physiotherapist - for 30 years before putting to use his intimate knowledge of the human body in a different way, as a professional sculptor. He has never trained as an artist; he refuses to use live models; he fashions his figures from his own secret mixture of materials, including sacking, earth and industrial glues.

Judgements on the results are variable. One critic described the Big Horn series as "half-way between Rodin and the wax works...a three- dimensional cartoon strip." Le Monde saluted Sow as one of the world's greatest living sculptors. All the figures in the Big Horn frieze, whether native Americans or troopers, have a vaguely African look. Sow says this is deliberate: he is not taking one racial side or another, just capturing the human instinct to resist oppression.

He says his sculptures express the "energy" and "movement" of the human form. They are not precise representations. "I find the scrubbed, shining finish of certain Greek sculptures rarely moves me...If you wanted precision, you could copy the wooden horses from roundabouts. They are perfect but have no life, no depth."

The figures are built up in layers, papier mache-style, using sacking around metal frames. But the sculptor declines to reveal the formula for the paste he uses. He insists that the finished sculptures can withstand the elements just as succesfully as statues made from stone or bronze. He may have to revise this judgement. After a few days exposed to the spring weather of Paris, the Seventh Cavalrymen, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors are receiving a little, light first aid.