Simon Njami (b. 1962 Lausanne, Switzerland) is a writer and an independent curator, lecturer, art critic and essayist. Based in Paris, he is the artistic director of the 12th Dakar Biennale taking place in Senegal from May 3rd to June 2nd, 2016. Besides being the co-founder of Revue Noire, a journal of contemporary African and extra-occidental art, he has been the artistic director of the Bamako Photography Biennial from 2001 through 2007 and co-curator of the first African Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennial in 2007. His exhibition “Africa Remix” was showed in Düsseldorf (Museum Kunstpalast), London (Hayward Gallery), Paris (Centre Pompidou), Tokyo (Mori Museum), Stockholm (Moderna Museet) and Johannesburg (Johannesburg Art Gallery), touring from 2004 to 2007.
A conversation with Simon Njami, the Artistic Director of the upcoming Dak’Art
Conversation transcription below
Michela Alessandrini: Thank you, Simon Njami for participating in this interview. I would like to start with the title of the Dakar Biennale, which will run from May 3rd until June 2nd 2016, because you are well acquainted with words and I find the title particularly interesting. I would like to know how would you translate into English “La cité dans un jour bleu”? Because for me, the concept of the cité is quite problematic I would like to discuss it with you. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Simon Njami: I think the translation could be “The City in the Blue Daylight.”
MA: How did you come up with this title and subsequently the concept of the exhibition?
SN: There are two or three different things. The catalogue will be presented in three different volumes. The first one will deal with the exhibition, the second one will deal with public events, and the third one will deal with theoretical writings. The whole thing, which is interlinked, is entitled “The City in the Blue Daylight,” but the exhibition itself is called “Réenchantement.” I borrowed the general title from Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poem (Ed. “Guelowar” by Léopold Sédar Senghor). He wrote it in the 40’s and it was a dream of a country that will be unified, a dream of a universal brotherhood. But also an anti-colonial dream, a projection of an Africa that has rid itself of its colonial powers.
It’s a kind of utopia, a notion that I want to reassess, because I think we need to re-enact this kind of dream nowadays when observing our current, global condition. Hence the title of the exhibition: “Réenchantement” being linked with this kind of utopia, with the aim of inciting some hope in this world of ours. The third chapter of this Biennale will be entitled “Bandung” which is another utopian concept of nonalignment. I want to transfer this notion of political nonalignment to a cultural nonalignment, because even if we appear to be living in a wonderful, global village we know that as far as art is concerned, whenever we say international we refer to London, Basel, Kassel, New York but we don’t mean Bombay, we don’t mean São Paulo… There is a certain group that dictates the rules of our times and of the world in which we live. Some people believe that they have to follow them. So, I wanted to find a way to create other rules that differentiate from those dictated by the global market.
MA: What are the rules?
SN: Well, basically the market dictates them. Go to any Biennale and you’ll see that the market runs it.
MA: Yeah, I mean what are the new rules you would like to establish.
SN: I don’t know. I want people to sit together and to think. I invited people from India, Korea, Brazil, Spain, to exchange ideas because the way contemporary art functions in Bombay is not the same as in Rio, not the same as in São Paulo. So I just want people to get together and to try and invent new ways. Not necessarily going by the mainstream rules but going by the way people are trying to cope with daily realities, the daily realities that we read about in our newspapers.
MA: So, what are your expectations for this Biennale? And what do you think is the role of this Biennale for contemporary African art today?
SN: Well, I don’t know about contemporary African art. I deal with African art by accident, but I don’t know what African art is. I think I deal with contemporary art; there are contemporary artists in Africa too and everywhere else. Now I would like to develop a critical gaze and to make people think from within, not from outside. This applies to Africa; this applies to a lot of other places. I have been seeing some young Italians wanting to go to New York because that’s where it happens. I have been seeing some young French artists wanting to go to London, because that’s where it happens. It’s just to try to make people think for themselves and to deal with what they have and to try to make it, if not attractive, at least self-sufficient.
I think we can draw a parallel to migrations. People take a lot of risks to end up in some halls. Some of them die, because they think that the grass is greener elsewhere. When maybe they could forge some ways and some tools where they are, in order to enchant their lives and to give them some hope.
So, again, the “Réenchantement” is to try to deal with what you have around you and try to transform it into something else, instead of thinking there is only one way and one definition, or one solution. I mean art is not necessarily meant for museums, art is not necessarily meant for biennales. There are different ways of displaying art, about thinking about of contemporaneity. The aim is for people to think of new ways to decolonize their minds from the everyday. If you open a global magazine talking about Africa or Italy or whatever, what you’ll find is not necessarily what you know, because the headlines will be dealing with the inner forces in those countries but only on the surface.
So I want people not to deal with the headlines on the front-pages, but to deal with what they know, instead of trying to fight some preconceptions. I don’t mind people with their preconceptions; we all have preconceptions. What would be dangerous is to believe other people’s preconceptions.
MA: Yeah, that’s right. The Dakar Biennale is a Biennale of African art mainly, and artists from the diaspora, right? So what are the critical and practical tools you used to understand this scene, the tendencies and what is going on there. What tools do you have to analyse the situation and to understand eventually which kind of utopia we can apply to this situation and develop the discourse you are making?
SN: I’ll tell you a secret; I’m probably one of the few persons in this world that has worked in all African countries many times. I created a magazine (Ed. Revue Noire was founded in 1991 in Paris by Jean Loup Pivin, Simon Njami, Bruno Tilliette and Pascal Martin Saint Léon) some years ago to deal with the contemporary facts on this continent. Often I am there: leading workshops, talking to people, observing and taking notes. I’m not doing this Biennale out of scratch, I accepted this challenge because I have been thinking about it for quite some years. The critical tools I’m using, which are tools that I think people should use more, are: philosophy, psychology and history and a bit of politics. When you use psychoanalysis you know that the “me”, as something that has meaning, needs to be constructed. You don’t build a theory from outside, but from inside. It’s like when you are a doctor you don’t decide the disease of your patients. You observe them and you see how you can fix things. So, yes, I think that there is a heavy heritage — whether people want it or not — which is colonization. I don’t care about colonization, I care about what it has been constructing in people’s mind. If you look at the way countries are run, if you look at the diktat of the World Bank or the MFI (Monetary Financial Institutions), if you look at what happened in Europe recently with Greece and if you look at what is happening now with Great Britain, you can see the way they are dealing with the British it is not exactly the same way they are dealing with the Greeks.
So I guess this is how things are. You look at who has money and who has power. I want to break this notion of money, army and power. I think that you don’t need to be rich, or have a strong army to be powerful, if you are able to construct something from within, if you are able to construct something that is organic. This is what I’ll be trying to do; to construct something organic doesn’t mean to isolate yourself from the rest of the world. This is why I invited some Indians, some Italians, some Brazilians, just to have this kind of confrontation and discussion. I think these are crucial times we are living in and this is why we are going through all this turmoil. This is the definition of the self. I think the world is a bit lost, for whatever reason, and it is not proper to Africa. Africa and its cities are well on their way. When you look at Europe, when you look at the fact that the most powerful political party in France is the National Front, a far right party, when you see the way the far right in Europe is rising, when you see how the Polish and other former eastern countries are doing, I think that people are lost and don’t know who they are anymore. They are finding strange solutions. When you look at all of the extremisms we are facing nowadays, it is simply based on insecurity.
This insecurity is very psychoanalytical. If you know who you are you don’t fear the other, you don’t fear the judgment of the other, you just do what you have to do and this is the strategy I want to use in order to deconstruct this paradigm.
MA: Do you think you can deconstruct this paradigm through art?
SN: I think art is the only place where you can make it. I mean, when I hear Flamenco singers, I know I’m listening to something that comes from Southern Spain, yet it can be heard in Japan or in South Africa with the same kind of emotion. I think art, if taken in a very global sense — not only painting, but art as a practice — is what defines us and what we have in common.
People tend to forget that if you look at the cave paintings, dating back to a couple of thousand years, they are all alike: from Brandberg in Namibia to Lascaux. So, I guess there is a language that doesn’t need explanation, that doesn’t need language. It is a language that doesn’t need words to be understood. When you are moved by music, it might be in a language that you don’t master, but you will be moved by something you cannot even analyse. So I think that the very territory of the self is that of art. When you are dealing with politics you are forced to lie, whenever it is useful or useless. When you are dealing with banking you are forced to lie. Even as a doctor, at times, you wouldn’t tell your patient how bad the situation is. When you are not dealing with art as a banker, or as a politician, or whatever. Those who moved from Wall Street to the art scene are doing very well. Good for them. But when you are dealing with art to express something that is very personal, then you can be understood and then you can make a change.
MA: Don’t you think that art can be a way of lying too?
SN: I mean there are some people that lie: I gave you the example of this Wall Street, golden boy who became an artist. Of course we are all lying, but you have explicit lies and implicit lies. An artist doesn’t master 100% of what he’s presenting, no matter how honest he will try to be. There is always a percent that he doesn’t master himself. So yes, there might be some lies, we might think that we are fabricating them for some different reason. But at the end of the day, contrary to politics, art stands there.
When I look at painting or when I listen to music, I don’t care about what the artist or the critic tells me. I start listening to it, looking at it, confronting it and then I formulate my own opinion. What is said about it may help inform my opinion, but the first thing that matters to me is my confrontation with what is in front of me.
MA: Was this the criteria for selecting the artists for the Biennale?
SN: Yes, I always told every artist, to the French ones for examples, that if you want to be American, I have enough Americans in America. If you are trying to be French then let’s talk about it. Because there are some words that people are afraid of. They are afraid of saying I’m Senegalese, afraid of saying I’m French or they might be afraid of saying I am Italian.
I’m not talking about people I know from there. In Tuscany, they wouldn’t say they are Italian, but they would say I am from Tuscany; we are special. Everybody in Italy would say the same thing. It means something to come from somewhere, but then people who fear to state where they are from, are people who don’t know that the place you come from does not dictate who you are. To say I am Cameroonian, or I’m French, doesn’t mean that one would know who you are. But you come from a place and you’ll have experiences that define you.
If you look at two siblings, two twins, they are different people, their experiences develop them. I think this is what I call identity. The identity is what makes us unique. What I’m asking to artists, wherever they are from, is to show me their identity. Not an essentialized identity, in which a Spanish would be dressed as a matador, or a German or an Austrian would be yodelling, but their identity as something very complex and very multi-layered.
MA: Which is very personal.
SN: Which is nothing but personal; but constructed with many things. Before we talked I was reading a book that I started to read, because I was expecting you. But I am not the same as the one who was expecting you. I started to read that book and there is some new information in my mind.
MA: Yeah, so how can we deal with time and the way it changes us?
SN: Well, we can deal with time according to my dear author Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He said that what defines time is a gaze. The time does not pass: we pass. It’s a complex quote, but basically he said that every dimension of time must be approached for what it is.
He said that tomorrow is a future past, yesterday was an ancient future.
If you look at it, his great phenomenology from the French philosophy school, he is just saying the same things that people say in India or in Africa. There are places or languages where you don’t have words for tomorrow, you have after today or before today. If we deal with time in this way we might be less wrong, because time is about today. Again — the same as for identity — if you think that today is only today you are wrong. Today is the result of the many days before and tomorrow will just be another day to add. There is no creation of today, today is a result like tomorrow and yesterday was the result of the days before. So, if we deal with time, in that way, we know that we have to be in the here and now. That here and now is moving all the time.
MA: Talking about here and now, Senegal and Africa, you were saying that you are not dealing directly with contemporary African art, but with contemporary art. Nonetheless, you have curated a lot of exhibitions. As you said, you are particularly involved in the African scene even if it’s quite ridiculous to say African because it’s a continent. But this Biennale is about contemporary African art. At least this is the statement of the Biennale.
SN: It’s the statement, but if you come there you’ll see some Indian artists, you’ll see some Spanish artists, etc… It’s a Biennale.
When I was a kid, some centuries ago, I was dealing with all those issues. One day some friends, it was quite an interesting conversation, were discussing art and they were telling me — and I had to realize who I was — “Yes, you are talking about the continent and nothing is coming from Africa, nothing is happening there.” But they weren’t talking to me as the son of my parents; they were talking to me as this stubborn guy who is dealing with all these issues. “How can you say that — I come from there.”
To make a long story short, this is how we started to compile the first magazine. Because I realized, in the world I was living in, nobody knew anything about what was happening in Africa. If they had the illusion to know something it was only misconceptions, or preconceptions. Some friends of mine were mad at me, because all of the sudden I started to work with other people and I told them: “Sorry, you don’t need me, you have Beaux Arts Magazine, you have Flash Art, you have this and that…”
These people have nothing, so I’m going to concentrate on them. I will stop when they will be there. When we started the magazine there was no African at the Venice Biennale. Kassel would not imagine putting an African artist coming from Africa there. Not to mention the other things.
The situation has changed. But, yes, I’m more interested in dealing with Brazilian artists, with Caribbean artists, with African artists, Asian artists than with European artists, because I have a feeling that there are a lot people dealing with them already.
MA: Don’t you think that African is a kind of label?
SN: Of course it’s a label. But when we say Africa, we are not going to start a lecture to explain that the Moroccans used to enslave the people from the other side of the border where there is a Sahara desert, and that they destroyed the Timbuktu library, nor am I going to say that there is a bunch of Africans who are white and blue eyed.
We say Africa, at least some people locate it somewhere, even if we use the term to mean something different, there was a moment when it was a usual tool. When I did this show called “Africa Remix” in 2004 I used the term Africa to point out to people what I was dealing with. I used remix to point out that the Africa I was showing had nothing to do with whatever Africa they thought of, because we are all remixed. In that very exhibition there is an artist who presented stereotypes: there was a German, there was a Spanish and I don’t know who was the third. Of course he was using the preconception that one could have on a Spanish, on a German and so on… It is exactly the same thing; we have to fight preconceptions. But there are always preconceptions. Tell me you are Italian: [he gestures]; I start to talk about the mafia or whatever. Tell me you are Japanese: [he bows].
We have to deal with it, but then we have to deconstruct it.
MA: How do you want to deconstruct it?
SN: Well, when I was a kid and when I was teaching, when people asked me “Where are you from?” I would say Switzerland, for instance, and people would think it was a joke. It was a joke, but it was not a joke, because I hold a Swiss passport. They expected me to say something else, and then at least they could click and imagine that your face doesn’t tell about who you are. And some people, I was teaching in the States, would tell me ” You are French” and I said: “I’m sorry I’m not French”.
There are so many layers. The only thing is to remind people that there are so many layers and to be a kind of a mirror of the preconceptions. Tell them that they are free to have preconceptions. I’m free to have preconceptions; preconceptions are not located in one part of the world. They are everywhere. We all have preconceptions.
But people tend to think that preconceptions — and this is part of this ethnocentrism — are only spreading from Europe outward, and this is part of ethnocentrism, not realising that there are preconceptions about Europe or America and about everything else.
So, by making this people realizing this quote by Arthur Rimbaud, we might start to think differently. Rimbaud said: “I is another”. If one thinks about it, when they say the African is this or that, they might think: “Well, I might be as well”— the one I call the Other. This analysis could radically change the construction of the self and the Other, because you don’t analyse oneself the same you analyse the Other.