Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Exhibition view of the metalwork installation “Forgotten’s Tears” (2013), by the Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba (b. Kinshasa, DRC, 1967). Photo: Carol Dixon

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.

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The introductory information panel for the exhibition Afriques Capitales [Capital Africas], curated by Simon Njami, displayed at the entrance to Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille. Photo: Carol Dixon (August 2017)
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.

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Detail from the architectural installation “I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

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.

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“I am Free” (2012), by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. Photo: Carol Dixon.

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.

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Calao (2016), by the Malian textile sculptor Abdoulaye Konaté. The Calao represents a mythical and protective bird that, within the Bambara cultural and spiritual traditions of the past, is believed to carry dead souls to the afterlife. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Continue reading Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance / Capital Africas: Towards the Cape of Good Hope

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Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

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An exterior view of the venue for Episode 1 of “Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas,” exhibited at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, 23 March – 28 May 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The curatorial challenge Simon Njami set for himself when conceptualizing the exhibition “Afriques Capitales“[“Capital Africas”] was to provide a discursive, dialogical space where contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the wider global African diaspora(s) could come together to “invent the city of all cities: a city that belongs to no one but in which everyone can find their own personal bearings” (Njami, 2017: 19).

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“The Minaret” (2012) by Egyptian artist and arts activist Moataz Nasr. This illuminated sculptural installation was displayed on the ground floor of the Grande Halle de la Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The results of this creative, cross-cultural and pluralist dialogue manifested in the form of  a large-scale, international group show of contemporary visual art presented in two episodes (or “chapters”) across expansive exhibition spaces in Paris and Lille:

  1. The first phase (or “Chapter 1”) comprised more than 100 works by 50 artists at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris – sub-themed “Afriques Capitales, Métropolis: C’est beau une ville la nuit” and  “Intermezzo: un projet stéréophonique, ” 23 March – 28 May 2017 (discussed in further detail, below).
  2. The second episode (or “Chapter 2”) – titled, “Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance” / “Capital Africas: From Lille to the Cape of Good Hope” – displayed work by a further 20 artists, combined with additional works by 12 of the same participants from the Paris strand of the exhibition, presented at the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille (discussed and illustrated online at: http://www.lille3000.eu/gare-saint-sauveur/2017/), 6 April – 3 September 2017.
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Detail from the vivid red wall hanging “Alep” (2016) by Malian textile sculptor and painter Abdoulaye Konaté, displayed at La Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017).

“Referring to Raymond Queneau’s 100,000 billion poems, Roland Barthes reminds us of that essential truth: there is never one city, but always several cities in one – a multiplicity of possible combinations.

[“Roland Barthes, en évoquant les 100 000 milliards de poèmes de Raymond Queneau, nous rappelle cette vérité essentielle: il n’y a jamais une ville, mais des villes.”]

Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas” (Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, 2017)

Continue reading Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

Contemporary Art Conversations: “In the Heart of the Lights,” by curator Simon Njami

Wir-Sind-Alle-Berliner-1884-2014-LogoCurator, writer and art critic Simon Njami will be giving a keynote lecture on 17th February 2015 to launch a series of events at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry to accompany his current exhibition WIR SIND ALLE BERLINER: 1884-2014 – A Commemoration of the Berlin Congo Conference (on display at SAVVY Contemporary  in Berlin until 28th February 2015).

Image: © Solveig Maria Ebbinghaus. Source: http://blog.artconnectberlin.com/2013/08/20/spotlight-on-savvy-contemporary/
Image: © Solveig Maria Ebbinghaus. Source: http://blog.artconnectberlin.com/2013/08/20/spotlight-on-savvy-contemporary/

The content of the exhibition and the focus of its associated programme of talks, workshops, concerts and film screenings features reflections on 130 years since the (so called) “Scramble for Africa” Berlin Conference took place in 1884. The contributing artists and academics seek to facilitate a conversation that provokes audiences to consider the many complex  ideological, economic, political, geographical and socio-cultural repercussions of this historical event through their various aesthetic responses.

Continue reading Contemporary Art Conversations: “In the Heart of the Lights,” by curator Simon Njami

THE BERLIN CONFERENCE: How art deals with the carving of a continent (Exhibition Review: December 2014)

The following article by art critic Elsa Guily (published online by Contemporary And (C&) magazine) reviews the exhibition ‘Wir sind alle Berliner: 1884-2014’ curated by Simon Njami (and displayed at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, 15 November 2014 – 11 January 2015).

Within this exhibition, the 12 featured artists –  Kader Attia, Theo Eshetu, Satch Hoyt, Cyrill Lachauer, Henrike Naumann, Katarina Zdjelar, Bili Bidjocka, Thabiso Sekgala, Sammy Baloji, Filipa César, Mansour Ciss, and Nadia Kaabi-Linke –  each present contemporary reflections on the historical, social-economic, geo-political and cultural impacts of the colonial ‘scramble for Africa’ Berlin Conference of 1884.

Laboratoire de Déberlinisation, installation by Mansour Ciss © Photo Chiara Cartuccia, 2014 (Source: http://www.contemporaryand.com/)
Laboratoire de Déberlinisation, installation by Mansour Ciss © Photo Chiara Cartuccia, 2014 (Source: http://www.contemporaryand.com/)

One of the images featured in the review piece (shown above) is a photograph of the installation ‘Laboratoire de Déberlinisation’ created by the Berlin-based Senegalese artist Mansour Ciss.This conceptual artwork was first developed by Ciss in 2001 and has been described by the artist as a project for encouraging trans-national ‘North-South’ and ‘Eurafrican’ dialogues about the politics of globalisation in the post-colonial era, and also as a symbolic representation of the intersectional space where “the idealism of art meets the realities of geopolitics and economics.”

Link to the full text of the exhibition review: http://www.contemporaryand.com/blog/magazines/how-artists-reflect-on-the-berlin-conference/

Continue reading THE BERLIN CONFERENCE: How art deals with the carving of a continent (Exhibition Review: December 2014)

Reflections on the legacies of ‘Statues Also Die’ (Présence Africaine, 1953) re. the museums sector in France today

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Earlier this year an article by Tom Devriendt was posted to the online discussion forum Africa is a Country’ to commemorate the life and work of French filmmaker Alain Resnais (1922-2014), who passed away on 1st March  (Devriendt, 2014). The central focus of this piece was to celebrate the achievements of Resnais and his co-director Chris Marker (1921-2012) in creating a ground-breaking film from the early 1950s about  African art and French racism, Statues Also Die [Les statues meurent aussi] (Resnais and Marker, 1953) – commissioned and produced by the Parisian-based publishing house Présence Africaine. What is interesting about the film is the way it features a complex mixture of commentary on French museum practices from the 1950s, the history of French colonialism in Africa, and the public’s changing attitudes in the mid-20th century towards African art – referred to throughout the documentary as ‘black art’.

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Continue reading Reflections on the legacies of ‘Statues Also Die’ (Présence Africaine, 1953) re. the museums sector in France today