Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2016
Mara Ambrožič and Simon Njami, eds. The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists Exh. cat. Berlin, Frankfurt, and Washington, DC: Kerber in association with Museum für Moderne Kunst and National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 2015. 376 pp.; 212 color ills. Cloth $85.00 (9783866789319)
Exhibition schedule: Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, March 21–July 27, 2014; Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, October 16, 2004–January 25, 2015; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, April 8–November 1, 2015

Simon Njami remains a consistent voice in defining and elucidating twenty-first-century art created by African artists. The exhibitions he curates provide insights espoused by art practitioners of African descent with new interpretive criteria. Njami furthers this aim in his latest collaboration with Mara Ambrožič: The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists. This mammoth project is composed of three exhibitions, each dedicated to a realm of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Similarly, the extensive catalogue is organized into three sections that advance Njami and Ambrožič’s aim to enact and encourage contemplative gestures akin to those demonstrated in Dante’s epic poem. The first section, comprising seven essays, establishes the multidisciplinary structure of the exhibition. The following section documents the art included in the exhibition at Museum für Moderne Kunst. Each realm of the afterlife—listed in the exhibition catalogue as Paradise, Purgatory, and Inferno—is prefaced by an essay in which Njami acts as a guide akin to Virgil, leading the reader through theological, sociopolitical, and art-historical considerations. The final facet of the exhibition catalogue, entitled “Beyond Words,” is a textual and visual encyclopedia authored by artists featured in the show. Njami and Ambrožič construct an exhibition and companion publication that aims to demonstrate the dynamism of interdisciplinary interpretation as well as the potential in politicizing Dante’s paradigms and universalizing themes.

The catalogue is necessary to thoroughly understanding the exhibition’s multiple objectives. The volume’s first essay, written by Njami, is entitled “The Secret of Eternal Life,” and it charts a critical path that beckons the reader to consider and revise universal and personal myths (32). Observing patterns in the relationship between the artists’ biographical influences and artistic production, Njami curated with this in mind: “The aim is not to abolish the otherness without which life would be so bland, but to broaden it by reviving all its polysemic and polyphonic power” (33). Although the auditory component of the exhibition is silenced in the catalogue, the experience of “polysemic and polyphonic power” was indelible in the exhibition’s iteration at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in the sounds that resonated from Mohamed Bourouissa’s All-In (2012; assigned to Purgatory at NMAfA, yet placed in Inferno in the publication) and Mwangi Hutter’s In a Pure Land (2014) Inferno installation. Two compelling aspects of this project are the ability to evoke individual contemplation and challenge a plethora of conventional themes associated with the Divine Comedy.

Njami insists on articulating an oppositional stance in “questioning the codes and values by which we are governed nowadays” (31). He weaves together sources from Western art history, chemistry, and philosophy in order to contextualize each realm. In the publication, he commences Paradise with Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918), Inferno with Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing (1605–6), and Purgatory with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s figurative oilstick drawing Untitled (1981). These artworks function as signposts visually articulating Njami’s formal criteria and conceptual concerns. Written in his signature poetic, reflective writing style, Njami demonstrates in each introductory essay the deliberative engagement this body of art intends to evoke. In the entry that precedes Paradise, entitled “Albedo,” Njami discloses that the artworks assembled were meant “to allow us to break with the clichés and think other possibilities. Invent other dreams than the ones with which we have been inoculated” (123). Governed by design elements of light, value, the color white, and architectural balance alongside an objection to “art’s decorative assumptions,” the art in this section seeks to question and in some cases subvert a broad range of conceptions concerning the monotheistic heavenly afterlife. Guy Tillim’s series of crisp, matte photographs, which includes Second Nature (2011), represent some of the most effective artworks. Furthermore, Paradise offers reconsiderations of ritual as evidence in two installations: Jane Alexander’s Frontier with Church (2012–14) and Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s Silence (2008–14).

The central role of Njami’s personal reflections on Purgatory is clearly articulated in “Rubedo” with statements such as “I prefer to imagine purgatory as a place where one roams . . . [where] humans will have the choice between paradise and hell with no judges pointing the finger at them” (190). In this exhibition space characterized as “no man’s land,” Kudzanai Chiurai’s 2013 color film Iyeza animates the familiar compositional form of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–98) to address contemporary debates on the evolution of transnational, global identities as well as the experiential consequences of passage versus confinement. The dynamic multimedia installation by Dimitri Fagbohoun entitled Refrigiderum (2013) materializes Njami’s conception of “Rubedo” or “the work in red.” Assembled in memory of the artist’s departed father, this installation offered the opportunity for a rich explication on the relationship between African-derived and Roman Catholic religious expressions as a metaphor for tension and harmony in personal memories, rituals, and belief systems. The text published alongside the installation in the exhibition catalogue is restrictive in analysis. Njami thoroughly discusses the “camouflaging” function of Catholic iconography, while remaining silent on the significance of African-derived religious symbols in the interior of the confessional. Furthermore, there appears to be minimal interest in documenting the dynamism of the artwork by not including reproductions of the interior of the confessional structure.

In the final essay for Inferno, titled “Nigredo,” Njami explains how he uses hell as a platform to echo his progressive rejection of the mythic category of the contemporary African artist (263; also see Njami, “Chaos and Metamorphosis,” Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2005; and Njami, “Mozart and Me,” in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, ed., Laurie Ann Farrell, New York: Museum for African Art, 2003). In it Njami claims: “The artists assembled here assert once and for all that black does not exist, just as nothing which can be called African contemporary art exists either. Black only exists as an internal emanation, a personal projection more than a reality” (263). This proposition is reinforced across the art, united in their meditations and interpretations on “a shadow that is now palpable and physical, now metaphorical” (263). Joël Andrianomearisoa’s screen-like mixed-media installation consisting of black wood and pocket mirrors, Sentimental Negotiations, Act V (2013), conveys Njami’s formalist emphasis. One additional insight that is prominent is the inscription of meaning on sites throughout the African continent as seen in Fernando Alvim’s Bolero (2012) and Sammy Baloji’s Kolwezi (2013). There was varied success in translating the interpretive nuance established in the exhibition catalogue essays to the exhibition text at the NMAFA. Perhaps because of this disconnect, the political-revisionist affirmation concerning the African artist as global artist became muted.

Six additional essays authored by curators and museum administrators as well as a philosopher, a theologian, and a political scientist construct a rich interpretive framework for the project. Contributors include Zdenka Badovinac, Roberto Casati, Johannes Hoff, Clive Kellner, Achille Mbembe, and Pep Subirós. In her essay, Badovinac encourages a consideration of cold war politics and the development of Eastern European avant-garde aesthetics as factors that influence the practice of contemporary artists of African descent. One of the most illuminating inclusions is Casati’s “Stones, Shadows and Visions.” Describing the essay as “inferential musical chairs,” Casati puts forth a thought-provoking metaphysical analysis of visibility in Dante’s hell. (55) He posits that this realm is governed by two laws: the “Axiom of Visibility” and the “Axiom of Perceptibility” (60). A product of intellectual collaboration and dialogue between Casati and Njami, this essay advances the objectives Njami identified for Hell. Another equally insightful text is Kellner’s reflection on the role of messianic iconography in South African art of the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. This essay outlines a history of how racialized representations of Christ conveyed political resistance during the 1960s with art actions such as Ronald Harrison’s 1962 The Black Christ. This case exemplifies how African diasporic iconographic developments of the twentieth century were rooted in the exchange of visual strategies.

The final two essays, by Mbembe and Subirós, work in tandem to address the relationship between Dante’s configuration of the afterlife and traditional as well as contemporary African cultural paradigms. “Requiem for the Slave,” by Mbembe, traces heaven, purgatory, and hell across African histories of antiquity to the advent of imperial world religions in Africa. With this trajectory in mind, he probes shadow and visibility, concluding with the association of the slave and “the ghostly subject” (104). Subirós furthers this inquiry by examining the migratory experience that is intrinsic to the contemporary artist of African descent. Following an overview of purgatorial spaces across religious and secular sources, Subirós persuasively posits two examples of “a contemporary purgatory without paradise”: Mount Gourougou and the Temporary Centre for Immigrants (in Melilla and Ceuta, Spain) (109). Epitomizing the political tenor Njami establishes, Subirós contends that individuals in these contemporary purgatories committed “the sin of not having the means required to migrate legally” (111). He proceeds to argue that artists play an important role in engaging in “collective obfuscation” and interceding “where language falls short” (110–11). Despite the absence of an in-depth interpretation of the art in the exhibition, these essays augment the project’s conceptual tenants and demonstrate the fertile results of interdisciplinary discourse.

Despite varied success in the reproduction of multimedia art and installations, the exhibition catalogue for Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory Revisited is both a collectible object commemorating this mega-exhibition and a rich teaching tool for undergraduate and graduate art instruction. At the same time, the catalogue struggles to capture the dynamism of the artworks, resulting in uneven visual documentation. The photographic reproductions for installations by Alexander and Fagbahoun restrict the experiential range of the art. Nevertheless, both exhibition and catalogue make a critical intervention in rigorously demonstrating the thematic and philosophical potential in curating art by artists of African descent. Interrogating Dante alongside contemporary representatives, Njami and the other contributors implore the reader to view each artwork with formalist considerations and as an additional canto in this adapted configuration of Dante’s universe. Both he and Ambrožič effectively demonstrate the potential in creating new aesthetic and conceptual configurations in contemporary art that undermine parochial notions of African art.

Melanee C. Harvey
Lecturer in Art History, Art Department, Howard University