Simon Njami – Q&A

An interview with Paris-based independent lecturer, curator, and art critic Simon Njami.

Simon Njami is an independent curator, art critic, and one of the co-founders of Revue Noire, an art space and publisher based in Paris. For twenty years, from 1991 to 2001, Revue Noire published a print magazine of the same name with the aim of drawing attention to and promoting contemporary African art. Individual issues of the magazine were focused on regions in Africa and other parts of the world, and on themes like fashion, gastronomy, performing arts, and the AIDS crisis. Nowadays, Revue Noire is dedicated primarily to publishing art and photography books and presenting curated exhibitions in its Paris space.

In his role as a curator, Njami has organized numerous exhibitions of African art and photography. From 1997 to 2007, he served as the art curator of the African Photography Biennial Rencontres de Bamako. In addition, he curated the exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, which toured worldwide starting in 2004, and co-curated the first African pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 with Fernando Alvim.

Three musicians’ hat salutation; black and white photograph

Jean Depara, Three musicians’ hat salutation, ca. 1955-1965, from the series Night & Day in Kinshasa.

Paula Kupfer: Can you speak a little about Revue Noire’s mission? In what way would you like to help shape your audience’s understanding of photography and art practice in Africa?

Simon Njami: I would not call it a mission. The founders of Revue Noire were above all interested in contemporary practices. Therefore, our aim was to show that it was not that different in Africa and that people should stop looking at African production with an ethnographic eye. We were and still are interested in featuring both local and global practices, and remain more attracted by the practices than by the location. If we were to consider Chinese or Japanese photography, the same would apply. I think that throughout the years and the time I have spent directing the Bamako Photography Encounters, we have succeeded in getting African practices out of the ghetto they were forced into.

PK: Revue Noire published a monograph of Jean Depara’s work, and exhibited his photographs earlier this year. How did you discover this body of work? How do you see his photography fitting within a canon of post-colonial African photography?

SN: I saw Depara’s work for the first time when we were working on the issue of Revue Noire dedicated to Kinshasa, in a country that was then called Zaïre. I should mention that I hate the word “discover,” and I am not very attracted by these post-colonial issues, for I don’t exactly know what that means. What I liked about Depara’s images was the fact that there was a gaze behind them. Europeans at that time were “discovering” what they would call African photography, and defining it in a very anthropological manner. Depara’s style and subjects were proving them wrong. His way of dealing with photography was very contemporary and witty, and what we were interested in featuring was precisely that.

 Evening drive; black and white photograph

Jean Depara, Evening drive, ca. 1955-1960, from the series Night & Day in Kinshasa.

PK: With your curatorial projects, you seem to aim to dissolve essentialist terms like “African photography” or “African art.” However, these categories also appear to be inescapable—they are institutionalized. What are we talking about when we use the term “African photography”?

SN: I have said and written it one hundred times, but still, I feel the need to compare Japan and China—two countries—with a continent, in order to be understood. The term “Africa” is a necessary damage that was constructed throughout the years and it has become difficult to avoid it. What I am trying is simply to show its complexity and deconstruct it.

For instance, some people blamed me once for showing Egyptian and Moroccan artists together. I had to remind them that we were dealing with a continent that these two countries are a part of. When I talk about Africa, all the countries—their different histories and cultures—come to my mind. What I have been trying to do is to show the differences between all of them. To make a long story short, and at the risk of simplifying it, I would say that what they all have in common is that they were, for the great majority, colonized by Europe. But even those colonizations were different, and produced different results and attitudes.

PK: How has digital photography changed the studio portrait tradition in West Africa?

SN: Long before the appearance of digital, studio photography in Africa went through a huge shift due to color photography and commercial labs. Before that, the photographer was the only one who could master both the shooting and the processing of an image. With color photography, people started to look for something that seemed closer to reality: when you have a nice colorful dress, you want it to be visible and bright. Black and white could not provide that. Today, digital is mostly dedicated to ID pictures. What it did is that it almost killed traditional studios, for once digital technology appeared every family could afford its own camera—at least in cities. The professional photographer became useless.

Jean Depara, Young woman posing for Depara at night, ca. 1955-1965, from the series Night & Day in Kinshasa.

PK: What contemporary photographers are you excited about? What’s essential reading on photography from Africa?

SN: I don’t like to name specific people, but one could guess, through the work I have been doing, whose work I feel like analyzing. What I am asking of a photographer, of any photographer, is to propose a gaze that is unique, and to embark me on a personal journey—no matter what the subject is. The treatment, the angle, the framing are what attract me. I don’t want to sound too vain, but I think the Anthology of African Photography published by the Revue Noire is still the landmark for whoever wants to have an overall idea on the subject.

PK: What are you working on now?

SN: It would be a long story, but there are a couple of things I can mention: Art at Work, a touring show conceived with David Adjaye around the new ways of displaying art in Africa; a photography master class organised during the Lubumbashi Biennale in Democratic Republic of Congo; and in a long run, the Divine Comedy, a 60-artist show focusing on a new reading of Dante’s work.

Paula Kupfer is the assistant editor for Aperture magazine.

All photographs © Jean Depara/courtesy Revue Noire Gallery, Paris