Simon Njami is an independent lecturer, art critic, novelist and essayist.
He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine “Revue Noire”. His publications include two biographies (James Baldwin, 1991 and Senghor, 2007), and numerous essays for biennales and exhibitions catalogues. Njami has been the artistic director of the Bamako photography biennale from 2000 to 2010, the artistic director of the Dakar Biennale (2026, 2018) and the artistic director of the Kampala Biennale (2018, 2020) and was co-curator with Fernando Alvim of the first African pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.
He has curated numerous exhibitions, including Africa Remix (touring exhibition 2004, 2007), A collective Diary Tel Aviv, 2010, a Useful dream (Brussels, 2010) and the first African Art Fair held in Johannesburg in 2008. Ha was artistic director of the Luanda and Douala triennials, and of the Lubumbashi biennale (2000)
He is the art advisor of the project “At Work” a touring project by Moleskine and created the African mastersclasses in photography in 2009. The Divine Comedy, opened at MMK in March 2014 and at SCAD (Savannah), 2014, African Metropolis (Maxxi 2018) and I is another Galleria Nazionale, Rome (2018). He edited Just Ask, a lexicon on photography (2012) and The Journey (2020).
The defeat of culture?
We are living in an exceptional period. An air of the end of the world has been looming over our heads for some time. The Middle East, the Orient, the United States, and the entire world has been struck by a seemingly futuristic pandemic and many countries have added culture to the list of non-essentials. This reconsideration of culture is undoubtedly the result of a subtle evolution that is taking place right before our eyes, and we have failed to take any measures in response. What assessment can we make of the first 20 years of the 21st century? Of course, it would be easy to place the blame on the states and leaders of the world. It would be equally easy to point the finger at the unrestrained globalisation and financialisation of the world. However, is culture truly free of blame? Has it successfully accomplished its function, or is it partly responsible for its current situation? When I talk about culture, naturally, I am not referring to the subject per se, but to the way in which it is considered and practised. I am talking about the system and not about the artisans of this world that, unfortunately, is politicised and hierarchical like all others.
What influence has culture held in the world, confronted with the numerous challenges that have appeared? Has it been able to reverse the unavoidable course of events in some place or, on the contrary, was it conspicuous by its absence and obsession to defend its territory? What does it have to say about the students whose lives have been cut off? About the U.S. elections or the measures taken by Western countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What has it told us about the discontent—the precursory signs of which have peppered recent decades—that has taken hold of the planet? How has it dealt with the environmental crisis? Generally with silence. Only a few individuals and private institutions have reacted. It is as if states that control culture had built a leaden screen around the heads of its servants who, in fear of hypothetical reprisals, prefer to bow down.
I recently had a conversation with an artist friend who claimed that the main problem her profession faced was the lack of power. We discussed this very notion of power at length and reached the conclusion that power as such is not necessarily the issue at play. Artists such as Damien Hirst can take the liberty of calling the shots on the market without any restrictions. And if power cannot be separated from the market, the problem would become unsolvable and its resolution would get lost in the meanderings of a never-ending vicious circle. However, maybe we can question the engagement of artists to thwart the path taken by the world of art. Are there any areas of active resistance where a viable opposing power is attempting to emerge? Here, I will not mention artists that claim to be politicians. That is not the issue, as Jacques Rancière indicates:
“Certain people want art to permanently record the memory of the century’s horrors. Others want it to help today’s people to understand themselves in the diversity of their cultures. And some others explain that art nowadays does not produce—or should not produce—works for amateurs, but new forms of social relations for all. However, art does not work in order to make contemporaries responsible for the past or in order to build better relations between different communities. It is an exercise of this responsibility or of this construction. This is the case insofar as it takes the various types of art that produce objects and images, of resistance and memory in its own equality. It does not dissolve in social relations. It constructs effective forms of community: communities between objects and images, between images and voices, between faces and words, which weave relations between the past and a present, between far-away spaces and a place of exhibition.”
This is a cruel warning: art does not dissolve, should not dissolve, in social relations. Even less so when these relations more closely resemble attacks on worldliness than the effects of society. Each person should perform their corresponding duties and functions. And when I talk about engagement, I am talking about a constant attitude that would be conveyed in both everyday life and artistic production, engagement that results from deep consideration and analysis of the world, whose one and only voice would be the works. Culture as we experience it today has become an elitist machine that only concerns a miniscule portion of citizens. It has turned into a closed, exclusive space of musical chairs. It has moved away from life, as Pierre Restany wrote, and from society. It no longer pursues this utopia developed by Jacques Rancière, which the French philosopher called “the distribution of the sensible”:
“When working on the history of the emancipation of the working class, I realised that this by no means expressed the passage of ignorance to knowledge, nor an expression of one’s identity and culture, but rather a means of crossing the borders that define identities. My entire career has focused on this issue, which I will subsequently call the ‘distribution of the sensible’: how, within a given space, one organises the perception of one’s world, one links a sensible experience to intelligible modes of interpretation.” 1Jacques Rancière, Et tant pis pour les gens fatigues: entretiens.
“Link a sensible experience to intelligible modes of interpretation”. This idea undoubtedly deserves a moment of our time, in order to execute and activate it; as Deleuze wrote, a theorist with useless theory also becomes useless. Have we, art professionals, become useless? I refuse to believe this. Sensible experience owes nothing to reason, but rather to another part of the human for which it is not always possible to find an accurate translation, intelligible interpretation modes, to quote Rancière once again. Are men of culture (to use this somewhat old-fashioned term) still connected to the sensible in the 21st century, or have they moved towards other spheres, forgetting the organic function of culture in the fabric of society that we could call drawing or intent, thereby playing with two levels of perception?
This drawing or intent must undoubtedly be artistic, but essentially social in the sense that it must take into account the evolution of our societies, considered not as independent and different entities, but as elements of a single whole where all expressions of humanity have an equal role to play. In reality, it is about answering “the essential question” asked by Ernst Bloch at the end of the last century: the very question of Us. Although at first it seems that a concept of social design refers above all to humanity and the human, it also represents a cause and a reality, a state of things and a thought that are projected in the observation of reality, as expressed in human relations. In models of an ideal society, sharing plays a crucial role. This notion of sharing the sensible should be at the heart of any artistic—and therefore social—project.
There is a hiatus between “official” organisation in terms of the state and endogenous organisation that emanates from individuals. While the former focuses on purely administrative efficiency, the latter is centred on “trivialised” everyday life where the elements that will define the social space are shaped day by day. While Rancière evokes the emancipation of the working-class population, I cannot resist drawing a comparison with The Wretched of the Earth by the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, which established a direct link between the proletariat and the colonised. The notions of public and private are eminently contentious in the sense that one aims to limit the freedoms of the other. To use the terminology of Jürgen Habermas 2Jurgen Habermas, L’espace public, Paris, Payot, 2008, on the one hand there is the people—the “private entity”—and on the other hand the state—the “public entity”—or, at least, the entity in charge of managing the public sphere. The recent and sometimes violent reactions to certain sculptures erected in honour of figures (the case of the Franco statue in Santander is a good example) whose actions, in the contemporary world, called the national representation into question, perfectly illustrate this split into a public project and a private project. We can therefore speak of exogenous organisation executed by public powers, to which endogenous organisation from the private sphere would be opposed.
If the aim of culture is still to speak to all people, it should concern itself with redefining a social design that corresponds to current needs rather than getting lost in narcissistic questioning. To this end, the public sphere that, as we have seen, constitutes the field of interaction between citizens and state administrators, must be taken over by independent cultural agents. The vertical relationship with public powers should no longer be taken as a reference. Instead, a horizontal relationship should be considered, as suggested by Hannah Arendt: “Society is a way of life in a community where the dependency of people on their fellow humans, although only for the purpose of survival, acquires importance of a public order and where, consequently, the activities that have the single purpose of conserving life are not just manifested at the public level but are also able to determine the form of the public domain” 3Hannah Arendt, cited by Jurgen Haberman, op.cit.. This way that Arendt mentions is precisely the non-organised domain that often overflows into the calibrated realm of the public domain.
Thus, urban design would be part of these overflows in a vertical society, even if people generally do not have a say in the facilities that they see flourishing in their surroundings. It is the way they are used that will determine the true function of the tools conceived and executed by technocrats locked away in an office, consulting studies and surveys that are supposed to illustrate public opinion. Urban design, encountered in all large cities, can thus become a symbol of identity that allows us to distinguish at first sight the New York City Subway from the London Underground, both of which have developed their own functionality. In non-Western countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America, the manner in which people use the instruments at their disposal is often a matter of reimagination and reinterpretation. Since this form of structure is “invented” by the primary consumers, it should first and foremost have a perfect knowledge of its “audience”, which we could also call the clientele or public, in order to determine the needs and subsequently find the ideal manner of solving the difficulties posed by coexistence, as there is no intermediary between the developer and the user and the two get mixed up.
Art should occupy a central place in the evolution of contemporary society because the artist, as a citizen, would be capable of representing the moods of the people in a personal and unmeditated manner, without state pressure. This understanding is undoubtedly the origin of the spawning of personal projects in the form of ephemeral installations over the course of recent decades, interactive projects where the principle of building communities and participation is the order of the day. The works that stem from this approach often have an unconscious pedagogic desire that, if given a certain tangible power, often deprives them of their aesthetic efficiency. From the beginning, the artist places themselves in the beyond, in a prophet-like position that cuts them off from the people with which they wish to mix.
In so-called emerging societies, the questions that artists must confront are translated in a different manner. While in the West the status of artists is more or less defined with a value, recognition and exhibition system that places them in a privileged position, in Africa artists are not distinguishable from other citizens, so much so that the separation existing in the West disappears and artistic production is necessarily in tune with the concerns of the people, sometimes at the risk of weakening its aesthetic and intellectual contribution. Artists are citizens just like any other, and their role in society does not exceed that of a blacksmith or a dentist who each have their contribution to make in their respective fields. Art cannot be reduced to the level of theorised development, but rather must continue to be an uprising, a self-constructed reality without a predefined blueprint. It is thanks to trade that people interact with one another in a specific context. In countries of the so-called Global South, to quote Homi Bhabha, this means working on metaphoricity:
“If in our travelling theory we are open to the metaphoricity of people from imagined communities—migrant or metropolitan—we will discover that the modern people-nation space is not simply horizontal. Their metaphorical movement requires a kind of ‘duplicity’ in writing; a temporality of representation that moves between cultural formations and social processes in the absence of a centred causal logic ” 4Homi K. Bhabha, Les lieux de la culture, Payot, Paris, 2007, p. 226.
In his travelling theory, Bhabha evokes and calls into question the intrinsic horizontality of imagined communities and talks of duplicity. We must pay attention to this duplicity, because it carries the contradictions without which society has no bearing on its own evolution. Nor is there a “centred causal logic”, but rather a series of micro-logics that, when they come together, form the basis of a diversified humanity. A market, a neighbourhood or the courtyard of a house thereby become the location where this particular aesthetic is created, because it is definitely an aesthetic, let us not be mistaken; an aesthetic of the little, an aesthetic of nothing that does not translate into monuments or tangible visualisations, but into an apparent immateriality that has been lost in the West. Form is no longer a palpable and definable entity; it is pure perception. In the everyday nature of social administration that must be reinvented on a daily basis. To think that, outside of the West, the physical organisation of a city does not obey any rules, intent or tangible criteria is naturally due to ignorance when deciphering the subtle human fabric that links all things. This involves not differentiating between the “perceived” and the “tangible”: “Having set out to discover what remains, at this turn of the century, of the African quest for self-determination, we find ourselves thrown back on the figures of the shadow, into those spaces where one perceives something, but where this thing is impossible to make out — as in a phantasm, at the exact point of the split between the visible and the graspable, the perceived and the tangible” 5Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, p. 241.
The role of a publication like Atlántica may be found here, in the attempt to elucidate the mystery of creation and not in navel-gazing. The museum that publishes it has, since its beginnings, been located at the crossroads between different cultures, different aesthetics and different philosophies. Elucidating the mystery involves using all the tools put at our disposal. To this end, it is sufficient to do away with mental and geographic borders and consider the human being in its entirety. This is called heterology, which deals with the atopos; in other words, an object without an identified location. Because I believe that heterology — which, according to Michel de Certeau, “is the discourse of the other, which at the same time is discourse on the other and discourse where the other speaks” — is the key to navigating the world of alterity. Heterology is “an art of playing in two places, which sets up a reversible scene where the last word does not necessarily belong to the first subject of the speech and where criticism does not spare the speaker, who experiences a knock-on effect”. As a place for experimentation, heterology bears the risk of free speech and is a magnificent tool for trying “to evaluate in one place what is missing in another,” in the words of François Jullien 6François Jullien, L’écart et l’entre, Galilée, Paris, 2012.
It is this dialectical inversion where “criticism does not spare the speaker” that Atlántica must address.
- 1Jacques Rancière, Et tant pis pour les gens fatigues: entretiens.
- 2Jurgen Habermas, L’espace public, Paris, Payot, 2008
- 3Hannah Arendt, cited by Jurgen Haberman, op.cit.
- 4Homi K. Bhabha, Les lieux de la culture, Payot, Paris, 2007, p. 226
- 5Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, p. 241
- 6François Jullien, L’écart et l’entre, Galilée, Paris, 2012