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Simon Njami’s useful African dream

By Tom Dale Sometime around 1965, two glamorous Europeans paced through the airport of Niamey, capital of Niger. The man was laden with baggage, while the woman strode ahead toward the waiting photographer, Philipe Koudjina. Koudjina, then 25, would roam the streets and bars of the city taking portrait photographs and trying to sell them to …


By Tom Dale

Sometime around 1965, two glamorous Europeans paced through the airport of Niamey, capital of Niger. The man was laden with baggage, while the woman strode ahead toward the waiting photographer, Philipe Koudjina.

Koudjina, then 25, would roam the streets and bars of the city taking portrait photographs and trying to sell them to his subjects to make a living. But this time, quite by chance, the couple he snapped were iconic Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and legendary opera singer Maria Callas.

Simon Njami, curator of the major travelling photography exhibition “A Useful Dream,” came across Koudijna’s photograph decades later.

“When I was visiting his studio and looking at the image, I asked: Do you know who they are? He said, ‘No, I thought they would be clients,’” Njami told Daily News Egypt. “To him, they didn’t buy the photo which he had printed, so it was a waste. It was luck that he didn’t destroy it out of rage. He didn’t have a clue what was there, and he didn’t care.

“He shot them as he would have shot any stranger. And I’m sure that when Maria was shot, it was just another photographer; she didn’t notice him. And he didn’t notice her, because for him she was just this white lady coming to Africa, and who may buy his image.”

The episode is by no means sufficient as a metaphor for the European encounter with African art. But nonetheless, there is something telling about it. The Europeans breezed passed the African, and left behind bitterness, frustration and little in the way of mutual understanding. The relationship has scarcely improved since.

“A Useful Dream” is an attempt to reconfigure that relationship. The funders, the European Union, see the touring exhibition as a development initiative, and as part of a “dialogue” with African civil society, with themselves as the munificent partner. That dialogue, as a whole, however, is far from the discursive ideal of an equal exchange of views premised on mutual understanding and respect.

The antecedent to the Useful Dream project was the 2010 Visionary Africa festival which, according to publicity materials, “proposed a new vision of African art, through dialogue between contemporary artists and ethnographic collections of the Royal Museum of [Central] Africa.”

The ethnographic collections in question were stolen from the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium during the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, scholars estimate, the king was responsible for the death of around 10 million Congolese. In return, Leopold got rubber and ivory. Laborers who failed to meet their rubber quotas were killed, and soldiers were paid bonuses for the severed hands of the dead.

Today, Europe’s relation with the country is scarcely more humane. High-tech manufacturers rely on the mineral coltan — a necessary component in mobile phones — 80 percent of the known global stock of which is in Congo. The trade in coltan, along with other minerals, including gold, funds the ongoing sectarian war, which has killed well over 5 million people since 1998. The tortured, maimed, enslaved and abused are uncounted; but it may well be the most brutal and least well-reported place on the face of the earth at the moment.

And that’s not the end of it. Half of the EU’s budget goes on the Common Agricultural Policy, the main objective of which is to prevent African and Asian farmers from exporting their crops to Europe.

I suggested to Njami that, in this historical context, the EU’s gesture on the level of art rings rather hollow. For the EU, art is “a vector of development.” But isn’t it also a veneer of refinement on a fundamentally obscene relationship?

“I don’t care about their agendas as long as mine are clearly there, and nobody imposes their vision upon me,” Njami responded. “So if they’re using culture to feel less guilty, why not? It doesn’t mean that they’re less guilty in some other aspect. At least they’re doing this. It doesn’t mean that I’m giving them an absolution because the other part is there.”

True enough: Njami gives no absolution, and he emphasizes that the workshops which accompany the tour are places for critical dialogue, including over the role of such funding relationships. But what the exhibition does not absolve, it does not openly challenge. An open question is left unanswered though: What is the responsibility of artists toward their polities?

 

Njami has clearly put thought into this problem, and that of culture as a tool of state. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, he recognizes that “the state is in charge of implementing an ‘official’ culture in line with a political project.”

 

This, he says, is fundamentally opposed to the role of the “artist as a citizen,” a representative of the “public mood” and to the personal nature of creativity more broadly. He doesn’t obviously bite the official hand that feeds him, but neither does he hold it with complete equanimity. He’s using the space provided by the EU to push his own agenda.

 

“That’s why I’m always talking about negotiation between partners”, he says. “But of course, we’re not blind. And my texts, my shows, whatever I’m doing are strongly linked with the urgency for Africans to make their own decisions.”

So for Njami, “A Useful Dream” is a political-cultural intervention, just as it is for the EU. But for him, it’s a space within which he can encourage African artists to connect to each other, and to the wider African public. The objective of this is a self-made African culture — albeit not one isolated from the wider world — and thereby greater independence from European and Western patronage. In this sense, the exhibition is a crucible of conflicted agendas. But Njami had the curatorial autonomy to assert his political vision in its composition, even if he chose not to assert it aggressively. It isn’t revolutionary, but neither is it surrendered.

The exhibition tells the story of the continent during the five decades since the end of colonial rule, as well as the simultaneous development of photography as a medium. It is divided into three chronological periods. The first two decades are represented as decades of hope, “driven by a dream that would transform the continent into a wonderful space to live in.” We see Nelson Mandela sparring incongruously on a rooftop in South Africa, young people dancing in clubs, the first African press photographers at work.

Images from the next 20 years, until the end of the 20th century, are grouped under the title “Lost Illusions.” The decades exposed the fragility of the anti-colonial revolutions, as armed conflict and internecine power struggles wracked the continent. In the hands of despots, war lords, and the former colonial powers that changed the manner of their imperial grip rather than relinquish it, “dreams turn to nightmare.” We see Uganda’s Idi Amin sworn into office.

The final decade of photography, up to 2010, is represented as the renewal of the dream, the assertion of Pan-African independence which Njami wants so badly. In this section, four of the 10 exhibited photographers live outside Africa and a further two divide their time between the continent and New York. This distinguishes them from the photographers of the previous two sections, all of whom lived their lives within the Africa.

But what does this say about the contemporary evolution of the African artistic community?

“The status of the artist in the West is relatively well defined,” Njami writes, “with a system of values, of recognition and of exhibition that places artists in a privileged position. But, in Africa, the artist is no different than other citizens. This is so much so that, with the separation characteristic of the West destroyed, artistic production is necessarily receptive to people’s concerns, at times running the risk of weakening its aesthetic and intellectual impact.”

Perhaps that’s why, in search of such impact, Njami has chosen to look beyond permanent residents of Africa for so much of the more recent work. But what does it say that, in order to present his optimistic characterisation of the African present, Njami has had to make a partial disconnection from contemporary African reality? Surely it shows that the dream can only be maintained at the cost of this partial disconnection.

Narratives of Africa are heavily contested at the moment. In particular, there is an attempt on the part of a burgeoning African bourgeoisie to claim that the continent is in the midst of a renaissance, and has left the bad times behind. Crudely, their objective is to attract foreign investment, and further enrich themselves in the process. But in this discourse, Africa’s underlying difficulties — in which both African and international elites are complicit — including a reliance on unsustainable natural resource booms, are swept aside. There is a danger that the optimistic narrative promotes complacency.

But Njami’s collection of recent photography seems to promote a different sort of optimism. Two lumbering, rusting hulks becalmed, and leaning intimately together, off the African shore do not form the sort of image that one finds in investment adverts in the Economist or Financial Times. Likewise, portraits of South African youth street culture, or a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, must hold little interest for the new elites in their walled compounds.

I ask Njami if he’s optimistic.

“In art, and in everything. Africa is the youngest continent of all, if you look at the age of its inhabitants, and that means that there’s hope. If we don’t have hope in the future we better stop doing anything.”

The “Art at Work” exhibition, including “A Useful Dream,” can be found immediately inside the entrance to Al-Azhar park until March 7.

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Uganda’s Idi Amin being sworn into office.

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