It seems wrong to try to describe Simon Njami. Wrong, at least, to suggest that the superficial details mean anything.
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."
But what were Africans "like"? Why did some people deny his African-ness, while others saw in his face nothing but Africa? What did that mean for him, to say that he was African? The questions lingered through his studies at the Sorbonne, and came out in his first novel. Soon, it helped push him toward art.
"I did my first show because of these representation problems," he says. "I was going to museums, to galleries, and I would not see any African name. But with my trips in Africa, I could see good writers, good artists, whatever. But in Paris, it was like they were invisible."
Whenever there was "African art," it was always traditional art – beaded animals and woven baskets. In 1991, Njami cofounded the journal Revue Noire to convince people that contemporary African art existed. It was a sort of traveling gallery – a way of reaching those unable to go to a museum.
Nine years later, he started on a new project: Africa Remix. This would be an exhibit of 85 artists from 25 countries, with wildly contrasting work in all varieties of mediums – paintings, sculpture, photography, video.
Njami "was certainly well established and probably most known for Revue Noire," says Clive Kellner, the director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. "And he was certainly well known in Francophone circles. Africa Remix has made him more global." The exhibit launched in Düsseldorf, Germany and traveled through London, Paris, Tokyo, and Stockholm.
Across the world, those searching to answer "What is Africa?" could delve into Africa Remix. And then, of course, they would find themselves totally, utterly lost. The vast range of expression would make it impossible.
Maybe it is best to let the story of this Johannesburg exhibition speak for itself. That's what Njami says: Art and artists can tell their own stories – and in those stories is truth about what it is to be African. Part of the truth, at least.
Once, Njami wanted to take Africa Remix to northern, central, and southern Africa. He liked the idea of moving the center of African art away from Europe and he wanted African audiences to learn from his show. Then logistics got in the way. Few museums in Africa could support Africa Remix's complicated artwork. (One piece, for instance, turns a room into a pond with stepping stones. When a visitor steps on a stone, a bit of a poem plays over a sound system.)
But Mr. Kellner knew his free-entrance public museum could accommodate it. And last year, when he saw Africa Remix in Paris, he decided to bring it to South Africa. "We would like an exhibition of contemporary African art to take place in Africa," Kellner says. "Also, it was to symbolically make a gesture to Europe to say, 'We are also capable to host these sorts of events.' "
Kellner raised the $500,000 cash and $800,000 in-kind and media donations to fund the exhibit, which will last through September.
More than 2,000 people came to the opening last month – the highest attendance in the museum's 97-year history. Gallery regulars mixed with people who had never set foot in a museum before; those from the suburbs stared at artwork alongside township teenagers. The crowd was racially mixed. When Njami heard that traffic outside the museum was causing chaos in downtown Johannesburg, the curator was pleased. "Africa has been written about and talked about extensively," he said to the crowd. "It's important for Africans to have those voices heard. It is important for Africa to stop looking at Europe as if Europe has all the answers."
Artists are the best ones to lead Africa down this path, Njami said.
"Artists are free."