Simon Njami interviewed
by Cara Snyman
When I was in my 20s I said, 'I am going to put African contemporary art in real museums'. And I have done that. Everything I did then was welcomed because the field was so wide open.
I met with novelist and contemporary African art curator Simon Njami just after the Joburg Art Fair had concluded. Below are extracts from Njami's contribution to our discussion on the intersections between art, society, politics and commerce in South Africa.
On art and politics in Africa:
'Art is political, any form of art is political. You are a citizen; you react to what surrounds you.'
'Africa is trapped in definition. People look to find examples of the idea that they already hold to be true. When they come to Africa they wear different glasses, so of course they see what they come to see - the exotic and dysfunctional. And by "exotic" I do not necessarily intend a negative connotation, but an 'otherness'.
'Classification of difference is not the result of Enlightenment ideals or the colonial project. If an African goes to Japan he or she will also focus on the same. The West has, of course, been more active in marketing a certain view, and Africans have not written their story as forcefully.'
'When I was a kid I needed to fight, I do not fight any more. Why should I be reacting, instead of acting? Why constantly try to reposition things? Fighting endlessly legitimises a standpoint, rather than refuting it.'
'Don't be post-colonial - be post-colony!'
On apartheid and identity in South Africa:
'Because it is never engaged, apartheid reigns in many ways in this country. How does one engage? Be naked and talk. The reality is avoided at your own peril. What happened in Kenya and in the Ivory Coast could happen here if you do not face the issue. It cannot be swept under the rug forever. If you cannot digest the reality, there is no moving forward.'
'I've wanted to write a book on South Africa, about how hard it must be to live in a blur. You used to know what it meant to be white, what it meant to be black. There are no more easy definitions. Now you are faced with that basic Socratic question - you are asked to know yourself.'
Issues are also not addressed because South Africans are just too polite, too concerned with not offending anyone. It is about a denial of self. If you do not want to drink tea, do not drink tea - and do not be surprised that it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth when you do.'
'Here, if you are white, you cannot call a black man stupid because something else entirely will be understood. There can be no straightforward dialogue between people here. This is problematic and is why the issues are never engaged.'
'In my novel, African Gigolo, the main character is a spoilt, young, black man. He does not do his work and then attacks his professor, saying, "You colonised us". I was part of a round-table debate at a fringe event. There was this real "house nigger" mentality, everyone was just victims of the system. I said to them, "You are university graduates, you are critics, you are the players. If you are the victims, imagine the others!" It is nice to talk. In French we have a saying, 'revolutionnaire en chambre' , it means bedroom revolutionaries.'
'It is not easy, but a solution can only come from here.'
'In Kinshasa it is now illegal to smoke outside. Are there not other issues? An artist did this video of the slum and then re-filmed it with the presidential car moving through, magically transforming it with trees and houses. African governments seem to pick the battles they can win; ironically the money used for window dressing could have solved real problems. A friend of mine calls this "the evidence of things not seen".'
'Freedom starts with thought, with reflection, not just with delivering houses. Freedom is not easy, it is better to be told what to do every day, then there is no need to take responsibility. When a problem arises you can always say you were told what to do, it is not your fault, someone else should shoulder the blame.'
'There has also been a lack of contact with the rest of the continent for decades. A kid here was telling me about necklacing. I've seen it in Kenya, the Ivory Coast, it is not particularly South African, but this boy was convinced that it was.'
'Everything is viewed through such a small slot of the immediate South African experience, it does not allow for self-examination, to see one's self in a different way.'
'The South African identity is romanticised.'
On art and Commerce:
'"As you like it", the exhibition I curated for the Art Fair, represents the black box of the artist's studio as opposed to the white cube of the gallery. It is the idea of the pure void, a space for art before it turns into an object, a commodity. The moment an influential critic comes into the studio, writes an article and creates hype about the work, curators and collectors will come. The work without that critic will not sell; it has no worth in the studio. Art has no value until it enters the game. And art without a market does not exist.'
'There is no reason to pretend money is dirty. Artists need to sell; they are part of the system. I am happy that people with loads of money buy art - it's better than them investing in weapons!'
'As an artist you can accept or refuse the game, but nothing is undervalued - the market dictates the price.'
'If there are more international collectors than South African interest in the work, what are you doing wrong?'
On the Joburg Art Fair and the South African 'look':
'The Joburg Art Fair generated much dialogue within the art community - even if just through the act of putting everybody in one physical space. Rivals next to one other watched each other's moves intently. "What is he showing? How is he showing it differently? How is he selling?" This offers stimulation.'
'Walking through the fair was very interesting from a sociological perspective. What was on show was an exact reflection of what gallerists perceive the market as wanting. Art fairs are about the market and the market alone. People do not play around, they are there to sell. Each booth painted a picture of its audience - and some clearly think their audience is stupid. Conversely the market can only dictate as far as the gallerist understands it. I saw this old woman buying African work - the market might not be what gallerists expect.'
'It was also interesting to see how galleries chose to show the work. Some exhibitors extended their booths and loaded their walls with art - visually it became like a sprawling African flea market. One did not see decently sized booths with just a couple of sparse artworks - there was no minimalist installation anywhere.'
'The international galleries looked very different from the South African ones, even if one had never heard of them you could pick them out of the line-up.'
'South Africa is an insular society that only recognises what is from the village. A wider debate should be fostered and more work from further afield shown.'
'One needs to travel and do one's homework. Do not think this art is special. It is like living in a country where God is Christian and then you move to a Muslim country - it changes the way you deal with your own God.'
'There is, however, one South African gallerist who shows youthful and fresh work, I see him regularly at the biennales and at international shows.'
On contemporary art and the universal:
'The other day someone asked me, "How can I create contemporary art?" How can you not create contemporary art!'
'"Contemporary" has become such a loaded word - no one can define it. Question the word: it is about engaging with language.'
'A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez can be read without a historic context. If I produce something that a foreign person cannot understand, then I have not been working hard enough.'
'"Glocality" is important: defining something as neither global nor local, but rather as a product of both.'
'Art is the "language of inner chaos" transformed into form and representation. Art can only be universal. It deals with our pain, our tears and everything else that cannot be translated, whether there is a dialogue or not.'
On art and inclusion:
'The grammar of art was created by critics and they speak in a language that people cannot understand. There is something wrong if an ordinary person is made to feel like an idiot.'
'We have communicated that the museum is a temple, and its keepers, priests and gods. Art has lost its social function. The artist used to be part of society but now we have introduced this myth of isolation. We've locked it all in the ivory tower. Why are we not reaching people? We all talk the talk about inclusion, but many are just doing it for themselves and their friends. That's fine if there is honesty, but when we say we want to include, we cannot contradict this by the very way we act.'
'If you do something openly, you can invite people, tell them about it, involve them, share information - everyone can be involved and there can be community. But the art world functions like the Mafia - and I am saying it quietly, because I am a member of the board!'
'If ordinary people could come in, one could explain that artists are not something special, that it is also hard work to make art. Some art is more expensive than other art, and they might not be able to afford some of it, but they are under no obligation to buy it. And they may buy what they can afford and what they like - as you like it. And "as you like it" not in the sense that Basquiat meant it, but in the Shakespearean sense - the idea of freedom. I just made a selection for "As you like it", of what I like. I want people to do the same. I want people to be free.'
'Of course it is frightening to be free. There is a lot of social pressure to conform. You have ten people at a dinner table, all saying a work is "marvellous", but if one person starts to question it, you might be left with not a single person supporting the work. Like in France where no-one voted for Nicolas Sarkozy - he had 53% of the votes!'
'One needs dialogue in the art world '- real dialogue, not monologues or a situation where everyone is willing to conform or maintain the status quo. If I want a real opinion, I do not hand my work to the publisher, I know his response already, I hand it to my real critics - my friends - they will tell me the truth. Real dialogue is about confrontation, about truly engaging with something.'
On Art funding:
'I spoke to an African Minister - I forget who - who was very candid about government support. He said: "We are interested in the event and the press - we are interested in cutting the ribbon. And if it is a success we'll claim it as our own".'
'If one could fill an art exhibition like one could fill a soccer stadium, there would be funds. Everyone wants their name associated with successful events. We are talking about masses of people interested in art, not a small clique. We created the myth of the artist: "I need space to think, I am misunderstood", we made art the ivory tower, and yet we complain that people do not come to our party.'