Inferno to Paradiso

Dante's Allegory Re-imagined by African Artists

Sharon Patton

 		Ato Malinda, On Fait Ensemble, 2010 film still, courtesy of the artistGood things come to those who wait. Conceived about a decade ago, The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists, finally has taken form at the MuseumNdary Lo, The Day After, 2013 from Self Portrait as a White Man series. Installation view. Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurtfur Moderne Kunst, Frankfort, Germany and is on view through July 27, 2014. The heaven/hell dichotomy is apt for Africa — nations ravaged by war, poverty, plunder, famine — yet where strong spirituality and belief in redemption persist.

Not only because of its extraordinary concept and size but also because of its push to connect the artists from nearly the entire African continent, The Divine Comedy is a “must see” exhibition. Fortunately those of us in U.S. will have the opportunity to do just that when this massive display of works (4200 sq. meters) by 50 artists opens at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum, Savannah, GA (Sept-Dec 2014) and at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, DC (Jan-June 2015). 

Lawrence Chikwa, The Possibility to Create in Hell, 2006. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt

The show was organized by noted independent curator, author and art critic Simon Njami. Born in Switzerland in 1962 of Cameroonian parentage and a former visiting professor at University of San Diego, California, who is based in Paris, Simon Njami exemplies the trend of the black curator who, working within multi-national contexts, becomes a major player on the international art scene.

I was first aware of Simon Njami in mid 1990s after reading quarterly magazine Revue Noire, African Contemporary Art /Art Contemporain Africain (Paris, 1991-2001) which he co-founded. That journal revealed a contemporary, artistic vibrancy and richness on the African continent that, at the time, was absent in the established art journals which were more focused on traditional and modern African art.  

Aïda Muluneh, The 99 Series, 2013 		© Aïda MulunehMy actual encounter with Njami occurred in 2005 when I was director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African Art (NMAA) and was introduced to him by NMAA board member Bennetta Jules-Rosette who directs the African & African-American Studies Research Center at the University of San Diego. By then Njami had established by then his curatorial reputation with the exhibit Africa RemixContemporary Art of a Continent (2004-2007).

Yinka Shonibare, How To Blow Up Two Heads At Once (Gentlemen), 2006. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt
I explored the possibility of his organizing an exhibit of contemporary African art at the NMAA. His proposal was intellectually tantalizing: 60 artists exhibiting works inspired by or reflective of Dante Alighieri’s literary classic The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1321). In addition a multi-volume catalogue would include scholarly essays not only about each artist’s response to their designated category of Hell, Purgatory or Heaven, but also how their art is relevant to post-Colonial and African studies. 

Simon Njami has achieved his goal in The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, where he has cast his scholarly net across the African continent thereby providing a sweeping perspective of Africa’s artistic oeuvre —20 African countries are represented by artists living in Africa and Europe.

Using Dante’s text as an thematic framework, each artist’s perspective about his or her circumstance and the relevancy Africa has within an increasingly global society is represented in painting, sculpture, video, photography, performance and installation.
Maurice Pefura, The Silent Way, 2013Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt

A familiar hierachy emerges from Dante’s epic allegory: realm of suffering and evil (hell), atonement for sins or mental anguish (purgatory), and an ideal or idyllic place (heaven). Simon Njami explains in the exhibition announcement that his take on the classic text is concerned “with something truly universal.  Something that touches us all to the very core, regardless of our belief or convictions: our relationship to the afterlife. It is about our relationship to life, and thus also to death.”

Maurice Pefura's The Silent Way conveys the perfect peace of the after life.  

Sammy Baloji’s Kolwezi seems to allude to the layers of Dante’s hell in its depiction of the layers of earth exposed by mining industries as well as the various kinds of human suffering, ethnic conflict, governmental corruption and environmental damage resulting from the plunder of the Congo’s mineral resources.

I look forward to seeing the full spectrum of ways that this exhibit conveys Njami’s concept.

Sammy Baloji, Kolwezi, 2012. Site d'extraction artisanale. Aus der Fotoserie /from the Kolwezi photo series. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK FrankfurtThe exhibition catalogue, edited by Simon Njami and Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Museum fur Kunst includes essays by Achille Mbembe, Mara Ambrozic, Pep Subiros, Zdenka Badovinzc, Roberto Casati and Johannes Hoff who explicate the significance of the artists’ works and their relevance within post-Colonial Southern Africa (RSA, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Angola), West Africa (Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon,Senegal, Mali, Gabon), Central Africa (Cameroon) North Africa (Egypt, Algeria, Morocco,Tunisia, Sudan), and East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Madagascar). 
Detail, Sammy Baloji's Kolwezi

Simon Njami lives in Paris and is visual arts consultant for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is one of the leading curators and art critic of contemporary art from Africa and by Africans who live in and outside Africa. He was curator for noteworthy exhibits such as African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2007) and FNB Joburg Art Fair, Johannesburg, South Africa (2008), and artistic director of Bamako Encounters, the African Photography Biennale , Mali (2001 and 2007). He is also an author; his more recent book is about President Leopold S. Senghor (2007).Joël Andrianomearisoa, Sentimental Negotiations Act V, 2013 		Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt

Exhibiting Artists 

Kudzanai Chiurai, Iyeza, 2012
Jane Alexander (b. 1959 Johannesburg, South Africa), Fernando Alvim (b.1963 Luanda, Angola), Ghada Amer (b.1963 Cairo, Egypt), Joël Andrianomearisoa (b.1977 Antananarivo, Madagascar), Kader Attia (b. 1970 Dugny/Seine-Saint-Denis, France), Sammy Baloji (b.1978 Lubumbashi, Congo), Berry Bickle (b. 1959 Bulawayo, Zimbabwe), Bili Bidjocka (b.1962 Douala, Cameroon), Wim Botha (b.1974 Pretoria, South Africa), Zoulikha Bouabdellah (b. 1977 Moscow, Russia), Mohamed Bourouissa (b. 1978 Blida, Algeria), Nabil Boutros (b.1954 Cairo, Egypt), Edson Chagas (b. 1977 Luanda, 	Mangwi Hutter, In a Pure Land, 2014. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK FrankfurtAngola), Loulou Cherinet (b.1970 Gothenburg, Schweden), Lawrence Chikwa (b. Lusaka, Zambia), Kudzanai Chiurai (b. 1981 Harare, Zimbabwe), Dimitri Fagbohoun (b. 1972 Cotonou, Benin), Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny (b. 1971 Ivory Coast), Jellel Gasteli (b. 1958 Tunis, Tunisia), Pélagie Gbaguidi Wangechi Mutu, Metha, 2010. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt(b.1965 Dakar, Senegal), Kendell Geers (b.1968 Johannesburg, South Africa), Frances Goodman (b.1975 Johannesburg, South Africa), Nicholas Hlobo (b.1975  Cape Town, South Africa), Mouna Karray (b.1970 Sfax, Tunisia), Amal Kenawy (1974 - 2012 Egypt), Majida Khattari (b.1966 Erfoud, Morocco), Kiluanji Kia Henda (b.1979 Luanda, Angola), Jems Koko Bi (b.1966 Sifra, Ivory Coast), Abdoulaye Konaté (b.1953 Diré, Mali), Nicène Kossentini (b.1976 Sfax, Tunisia), Ndary Lo (b.1961 Tivaouane, Senegal), Ato Malinda (b.1981 Nairobi, Kenya), Pascale Marthine Tayou (b.1967 Yaoundé, Cameroon), Julie Mehretu (b.1970 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Myriam Mihindou (b.1964 Libreville, Gabon), Nandipha Mntambo (b.1982 Swasiland), Aïda Muluneh (b.1974 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Hassan Musa (b.1951 El-Nuhud, Sudan),  Wangechi Mutu (b.1972 Nairobi, Kenya), Mwangi Hutter (b.1975 Nairobi, Kenya and b.1975 Ludwigshafen, Germany), Youssef Nabil (b.1972 Cairo, Egypt), Lamia Naji (b.1966 Casablanca, Marocco), Moataz Nasr (b.1961 Cairo, Egypt), Cheikh Niass (b.1966 Dakar, Senegal), Maurice Pefura (b.1967 Paris, France), Zineb Sedira (b.1963 Paris, France), Yinka Shonibare MBE (b.1962 London, England),  Guy Tillim (b.1962 Johannesburg, South Africa), Andrew Tshabangu (b.1966 Johannesburg, South Africa), Minnette Vári (b.1968 Pretoria, South Africa), Dominique Zinkpè (b.1969 Cotonou, Benin).

Art historian Sharon Patton, Ph.D., is the former director of the Smithsonian’s Museum for African Art. 
She lives in Baltimore MD.  

Simon Njami. Photo: Wiki Commons