During mid-August 2017 I was very pleased to visit the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille to view curator Simon Njami’s thought-provoking exhibition of photographs, paintings, films, sculptures and architectural installations by 30 contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the African diasporas. This spectacular and wide-ranging group show – Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance [Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope] (Gare Saint Sauveur, Lille, France, 6th April – 3rd September, 2017) – was conceptualised and presented as the second chapter (or, ‘Episode Two’) of a curatorial project that began at the Grande Halle de la Villette in east Paris, and was later transposed and repurposed to fit this alternative setting of a disused freight goods railway terminal on the outskirts of Lille.
At its heart, Afriques Capitales presented a series of inter-connected art-political, historical and geographical narratives about the push and pull of migration, the precariousness of trans-national journey-making, and people’s hopes, fears, aspirations and challenges as they strive to secure a better existence and improved life chances for themselves and their loved ones as a result of moving to different locations – and, potentially also, alternative environments assumed to provide increased safety, security, sanctuary and/or new opportunities.
Since first becoming aware of Simon Njami’s writing and critical analysis of modern and contemporary African art, his editorship of the celebrated art magazine Revue Noire, and his extensive international curatorial practice over the past two decades, I have subsequently followed his progress with keen interest – making regular visits to different exhibition spaces and institutional settings to immerse myself in the stories and assemblages he and his contributing artists generate to provoke new discussions and dialogues about aspects of the universal human condition. All these observations and experiences are, of course, considered and refracted through the complex prism (or ‘optic‘) of colonialism, and its enduring legacies in the present day – reflected upon at the site of the individual (as regards my personal, affective/emotional responses to each artwork); at the level of the nation-state; as a trans-continental conversation between Europe as the site of display, and Africa (including its diasporas) as the creative locus and originating point of departure for these featured exhibits; and also in terms of global discourses about travelling and journey-making to the many elsewheres represented in the featured displays – both near and far; real and imagined.
As soon as I walked through the entrance gates at Gare Saint Sauveur and saw the large-scale architectural structure of Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr’s installation, “I am Free” (2012), I knew I was entering a creative space where the curator had encouraged all the participating visual artists to be bold and expressive on a monumental scale: in other words, giving all the artists and collectives complete licence to think creatively without limits and, in turn, exhort and inspire visiting audiences walking through the exhibition space to respond in kind. In consequence, I required no prompting to run to the top of the temporary staircase erected at both ends of the white-walled, Minaret-like construction to stand on its central platform with my arms outstretched, enacting the declarative statement “I’m Free!” In doing so, I was also able to imagine that I had become one with the vast, black painted bird’s wings, beautifully and fluidly drawn at either side of the neon lighting, and taken flight into a different realm.