In conversation with Simon Njami
“The artists are a living example for the absurdity of territories.”
C& is media partner of the major show “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst. As part of the show, C& will feature a series of exclusive conversations with the participating artists.
MMK/C&: Heaven is located on the ground floor, purgatory is in the middle and hell is on the top floor. You have attributed a color to each realm. Heaven is the white area, hell the black one and purgatory the red one. Additionally, you connect each level with an important figures of art history. Malevich represents paradise, Basquiat purgatory and Caravaggio hell. What’s the idea behind these attributions?
SN: It’s very simple. I find paradise very boring, very totalitarian and very “white”. White symbolizes light and purity. And Malevich wanted to get rid of colors and did so by painting white on white. So I thought that he would be the perfect companion for paradise. The whole suprematist theory is very organized; there is not a lot of freedom.
Purgatory for me is the place where humans are allowed to be human. In heaven they are some kind of angels and in purgatory you can see them, you can recognize them even if they have to suffer different punishments. My friend Jean Michel was a sinner, I like sinners, but that is also what killed him.
I see purgatory as a place with many colors, predominantly red. And that is what the paintings of Michel are about. Caravaggio certainly deserved hell as he became a murderer. As a catholic, he even had to go to hell. He was obsessed with the contrast of black and white in his paintings. For me he is the perfect companion for hell.
MMK/C&: What influenced your notions of the afterworld?
SN: That’s a question, which I forwarded to the artists. Where would you like to be? Of course, that’s just a theoretical question, those places don’t exist. Hell is my preferred place, but also the limbus. There you have people who don’t believe in the right god. I’m curious to find out what the “right” god is and what the “wrong” god is. There you have people such as Virgil, who were born and died before Christ as well as babies that die before they are baptized. It proved to me the absurdity of the whole Catholic system because why should a baby end up hell? Why do just some people get the chance to go in heaven, and others don’t?
I found heaven boring and I find purgatory quite interesting but too hot. Many things are happening there. If you look at purgatory, all the people are blind, they live in smoke. In hell they are all monsters, they suffer. But in the limbo there is a kind of VIP corner.
I asked the artists such questions and of course they all have different tastes. But what was interesting and I think this is linked to art, is that I had to convince some that purgatory or heaven could be interesting. A lot of them wanted to go hell.
MMK/C&: How did you convince them to go to heaven? Heaven would be probably too boring for the artists.
SN: It was simple because we try to deconstruct Christianity through this exhibition. Somebody’s hell could be somebody else’s heaven. The show doesn’t want to illustrate Dante’s text it wants to complicate it and put it in a new context. Why should I organize my life according to a book that other people wrote? I’d rather make my own world according to my beliefs and philosophy.
MMK/C&: That’s quite interesting because at first glance, the exhibition seems to have a very clear structure but when you go through the exhibition you see that the borders are very open.
SN: Yes, because it’s not a religious afterworld. Because humans are humans, you can move from being one thing to another.
MMK/C&: So, the artists are supposed to deconstruct heaven, hell and purgatory?
SN: No, I am the one who deconstructs it with the views of others. I play with their perspectives and their notions of the afterlife. The artists, on the other hand, deal with their works. When Zoulikha Bouabdellah makes her installation she is expressing something very personal and specific and I’m using her world view and putting it together with the works of Tshabangu who deals with Christianity in Africa. God became a very good business playing with people’s fragility. So I wanted to put that one god side by side with another god, saying that all those religions are liars.
It goes back to what we are seeing now. People deciding for others, that’s what every religion is doing. It reminds of the Pope supporting slave trade because it was assumed that those people don’t have a soul.
MMK/C&: This brings us directly to the next questions connected to the political level of your exhibition. You say that you aim to a connect the past, the future and the distortion of both of them. And you speak about wanting to abolish territories. Which utopia is behind this idea?
SN: It’s not utopia. It’s the reality. I was educated in Paris, but I come from Cameroon. There are plenty of abolished borders just because of the fact that I exist. I think that art forces people to think and to realize for themselves that borders are a strange issue. I think that it’s not the physical borders that matter, but more the mental borders. I wanted to shake the people’s minds, force them to think and question their own obvious faults.
MMK/C&: When you show works of African artists from different countries in one exhibition, doesn’t this confirm the idea of territories?
SN: Well, physical spaces for me are a metaphor and an abstraction. The artists are a living example for the absurdity of territories. Because I don’t know if e.g. Mwangi is more African or European. And this is what I want to show to people. I am dealing with artists, not with African Art. I don’t know what that’s supposed to be.
MMK/C&: Can you explain what the term political art means?
I don’t know what political art is. For me art is political when it expresses an opinion. I see every work in the exhibition as political. I like forms that are not too obvious. We tend to forget how important our opinion and that of those is who want to control us. They want to keep us from thinking. Thinking is a political question today. As long as we keep the integrity of our thoughts we are political. That doesn’t mean that every rule has to be broken.
MMK/C&: Ten years ago you curated the exhibition Africa Remix. In Germany it was a „breakthrough-exhibition” for so called African Art. Did you see it the same way?
SN: I consider my work as a curator as a political actor. I don’t believe in breakthroughs. I want to show things to people. A so-called “breakthrough” gives the people the chance to be less stupid.
And I hope that the German audience became less stupid through this exhibition. As a politician, I take my tools and I anticipate like a chess player what the result is going to be. If that allowed some artists to be considered as artists and not as Africans, that’s fine. But the question of the audience is a tricky and interesting one. I put my ideas out there and it works out fine or it doesn’t work.
“Breakthrough” was used everywhere. There were artists in my show that were discovered by the international art market but in fact they had already been working for about 40 years. Discovering something that already exists is a kind of European arrogance: To think that what you don’t know, doesn’t exist.
Africans know so much, they speak so many languages, they studied different types of history. Africa is a concept because it’s not territorial. That’s why I enjoy being African.
MMK/C&: One last question: In your publications and comments you draw connections between the single arts: you speak of artists as actors, and say that art works like a symphony. What notions are behind these relationships?
I think that this division in six art forms doesn’t exist. It’s a very stupid division. For example, if you take opera, you have text, voices, design, costumes, stage setting. Everything has to be there. No human being can play just one role. As I was saying, my role is that of the curator. Maybe that can be compared to the role of a conductor or a composer as well. I write the music and then I need to find the right instruments and musicians.
Personally, how could I make a show by myself? I cannot paint, I’m not rich, I’m not running my own space. I have written a text, which is called „A Curator as a Naked King“: Every actor in the piece plays his own role.
Additional texts and impressions of the exhibition are offered on the Museum’s exhibition blog “MMK Notes” http://mmk-notes.com/
The exhibition The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists curated by Simon Njami, MMK / Museum für Moderne Kunst, 21 March – 27 July 2014, Frankfurt/Main.