Remixing the African image
A landmark exhibit parallels the identity struggles of the continent's people and artistic expressions.
Johannesburg, South Africa
It seems wrong to try to describe Simon Njami. Wrong, at least, to suggest that the superficial details mean anything.Skip to next paragraph
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This is a man, after all, who has spent a career fighting the implications behind labels such as "African" – a writer and art curator who has long challenged conclusions based on birthplace or skin tone, nationality or language.
But here, in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, days before the African opening of Mr. Njami's world-renowned contemporary art exhibit "Africa Remix" is one glimpse: Standing in front of a pack of journalists, Njami is poker-faced, with dry humor just this side of haughty. What does he think about this exhibit, which has been in the finest museums of Europe, finally coming to Africa, one reporter asks him.
"Well, I've heard that it was an African exhibit with African artists," Njami answers. "So I think it makes sense to have it in Africa."
For this press preview he wears a dark mock turtleneck and blazer, a charcoal scarf, and black sunglasses – the picture of a Parisian intellectual. He speaks so softly that even one on one a listener must lean in to hear. (Although when he's at a microphone in front of hundreds of museum patrons, or on a discussion panel with his artists, he is extroverted and loud, almost a ham.) He walks quickly from piece to piece, but at each he pauses and looks – briefly, but contemplatively and fully – before giving the vital statistics of the artist.
"Goncalo Mabunda. Mozambican. Lives and works in Mozambique," he says standing next to an Eiffel Tower made of melted weapons. On the nearby wall, a figure – half voluptuous Boucher nude, half Osama bin Laden – rests upon an American flag speckled with Harley Davidson motorcycles. It is called "Great American Nude," by Sudanese artist Hassan Musa.
"You come to Africa and you expect to see people with bones in their nose," Njami says, not quite able to contain a smile. "And we might go to America and expect that everything will be Harley Davidson."
Your picture of Njami at this point is probably off. Unless you're already familiar with him, all you have is a brief sketch by a reporter who doesn't know him well. And even this portrait is colored by your own expectations – of artists, of writers, and especially of Africans. Does Njami fit your picture of what Africa "is"?
See if his background helps: Njami was born in Switzerland. His parents had left their native Cameroon because his father had criticized authoritarian leader Ahmadou Ahidjo. Njami's mother, a psychoanalyst, returned to Cameroon each time she was pregnant with one of Njami's four siblings because his father wanted all of his children to be born there. But when it was Njami's turn, he says, "she was too busy."
So, for the rest of his life, when people ask him where he was born, Njami replies with a European country rather than an African one. It doesn't matter that he took regular trips to Cameroon, or that his grandparents spoke to him only in the Bassa language. Njami was not really African. Well, kind of African. But not really.
When Njami was 13, Ahidjo jailed his father, who'd returned to Cameroon to help reform the university system. His mother moved the family to Paris, where Njami started grappling with the question of identity. He remembers friends talking to him about how "Africans were like this, or Africans were like that – pretending I was not African."