Senegal's culture minister says Ousmane Sow, a sculptor whose work celebrated African tribes along with historical icons such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., has died at 81.

Mbagnick Ndiaye said in a statement Thursday that the Senegalese people had lost "one of their most emblematic figures." The cause of death was not immediately available.

Born in Dakar in 1935, Sow trained as a physical therapist before devoting himself fully to sculpture at 50, according to a biography on his website. He was known for working without the use of models.

Sow lived for two decades in France before returning to Senegal, where his first exhibition was organized by the French Cultural Center. He was admitted to France's Academy of Fine Arts in 2013.