Article by Simon Njami, 21 January 2010
BILI BIDJOCKA (Cameroon), Enigma #1, 2009
Collective Diary, exhibition. Curators Simon Njami and Mikaela Zyss, Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, Israel, January/April 2010
Every time I go back to Israel, I find myself torn between a host of complex feelings. This piece of land holds so many contradictions, so many absurdities and dreams. And God! Even the idea of God seems beholden to the contingencies of contemporary geopolitics. Just walking through the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem provokes an ontological unease. The omnipresence of the divine is asphyxiating. And its various manifestations, which are so frequently if not always conflicting, restore a doubt that has actually never gone away: how could a higher being with the slightest scrap of lucidity be the source of this lethal
frenzy? Isn’t this paralyzing, hysterical profusion of faith only there to cover the absence and the void? The same icy, sidereal void that came over me when I discovered the first images of Haiti in ruins? But I digress, Haiti has nothing to do with these travel notes. It invited itself without warning, imposed itself on my conscience.
And yet I have often seen Israel as a closed space, an island, not confined by the limits of water, but at the crossroads of exogenous expanses. This geography must not be interpreted in purely physical terms and naturally influences the behaviour of those who stand here at this crossroads, which by dint of being dreamed, asserted and envied has become fictional, a space that allies historical materiality to a messianic dream and where the clash between reason and passion sparks explosions that are unbearable to the human soul. The only way to break this vicious circle of myth vying with the brutal reality of history is schizophrenia. How to be
NGRID MWANGI ROBERT HUTTER (Kenya), Dressed Like Queens, 2003, video installation 21'35
trapped in a space whose contours you defined yourself? How to be the architect of your own confinement? Or how to live outside, when fear is debilitating and omnipresent? When you are trapped in a confined space, you have speech—the intelligence of words and forms which can take us beyond the real and imaginary borders that enclose and sometimes define us. It is from the tension between inside and out, which must here be seen as both physical and psychological, that any glimmer of hope could arise.
It is from this tension, and this tension alone, that new alliances could be conceived. Cosmopolitanism is opposed to the notion of purity. The great cities and old Europe are in the throes of reflections which suddenly take on a universal tone, once they have cast off the heavy straightjacket of historicity. The debates that have surfaced in France in the past few years are a good illustration of the way the world is moving and the issue of identity, which can no longer be conceived in relation to a given territory. A state that was built on the three words of its Revolution, liberty, equality, fraternity, now resorts to asking questions about the definition of a national identity. Yet public response has followed some strange paths since the suburban riots sparked by the desperation of young French people “of immigrant origin”, who felt like rejects of the Republic with origins that would never let them achieve full citizenship. The “integration” that was the key word in the strategy is strangely reminiscent of Stuart Hall’s warning to a Caribbean student at a conference we held in London: Beware! Every time they talk to you of integration, they will only be thinking of your disintegration; i.e., the loss of an original identity. If a nation like France finds itself caught up in these kinds of questions, how to avoid the turbulence in Israel? The problem with the political answers to these questions is the confusion that too often sneaks into the debates. In France, the Ministry of National Identity (anyone would think we were back in Vichy times) comes with the word immigration in tow. It is as though the government was making a blatant short-cut between two phenomena that cannot be systematically linked. Confusing nationality with identity necessarily harks back to conceptual dead-ends. A nationality is volatile, changeable and multiple, whereas identity is the very nature of what defines an individual. And that identity cannot be envisaged as a fixed, inert matter obeying pre-established rules. Identity has always been a fluid notion in permanent construction—even more so in the 20th century—and evolving in relation to experiences, meetings and discoveries. One can talk of a city-dweller’s identity, for example, as opposed to a rural identity: an African artist who was invited to a triennial held far off in a Japanese village thus discovered that the peasants in his home village in Cameroon had more in common with Japanese peasants than they did with him, an artist who defines himself by the urban space.
EL ANATSUI (Ghana), Area B, 2007, aluminium & copper wire, 140x236in, courtesy Collection A;D; Mirvish, Canada
The urban space is a kind of melting pot in which all particularisms, regardless of how original they may be, are cancelled out by the fact that the city is composed of nothing but particularisms. The city does not let you take root and represents the nomadic space par excellence—the space wherein the whole nation will come together and experience a neutrality that cannot be experimented in a village. Every city-dweller, to use an old expression, is a peasant who has crossed the boundary and found themselves vested with a modified identity. Israel could likewise be perceived as a huge megalopolis in which differences could fade away in favour of a common factor, a transversal and trans-ethnic recognition. If we carry the metaphor through, Israel is a complex capital: it is a fantasy in which each person is a stranger. The sole utopia which the scattered Jewish people who elected it as their home presented was that of a promised land and the dream of a territory where they would be safe from the vicissitudes of history. The identities that were forced to cohabit there presented just as many antagonisms as those found in the most far removed cultures. There were people from Eastern Europe, from North Africa, and, more recently, from Africa. Despite their blatant cultural diversities, between the pious and the atheists, the introverts and the extraverts, they had to find a modus vivendi that would enable them to live together. The Arabs—the Palestinians—represented another group with whom it was not so easy to cohabit, given that they were natives whom the migrants suddenly perceived as adversaries. The weight of history created an artificial unity on the one hand and antagonisms linked to territorial and religious claims on the other. If there is one thing, in this third millennium, which the inhabitants undoubtedly have in common, it is precisely this strangeness, which should not bring about hereditary divisions but a new whole that would not fall victim to past scars. While those who still refer to the nation as a founding element can find this new reality hard to envisage, it should be much more easily adopted by artists, who, by essence, are stateless.
JOEL ANDRIANOMEARISOA (Madagascar), Untitled, 2008, cigarette paper pasted on canvas, 46x38cm
The notion of bastardisation which thinkers on Creolity favour is closely linked to that of cosmopolitanism. The purity that some have long claimed has well-known consequences and can no longer represent a contemporary paradigm. In a world where it is getting harder and harder to discern influences, it would be foolish to keep our eyes trained on a futile ideal. It would be better to take memory as a dynamic and fictional element. Black Americans have not managed to pass themselves off as Africans and have had to rebuild a new history on the ruins of a failing memory, now confirmed in the perpetual ebb and flow that joins Africa to its distant diaspora. The cosmopolitanism that was still recently considered bad taste has thus become the prerogative of all. The human stain, to use the title of one of Philip Roth’s novels, has become the distinctive sign of a new mankind that uses a consciously or unconsciously reconstructed memory to attain other forms of narration. Going on the principle that all reality is nothing but a mental and cultural construction, the artist only has to lean on this virtual reality to give meaning to that which has none, i.e., add confusion to confusion.
It is this message that the twelve African artists in the exhibition “A Collective Diary” brought to the holy land. Some baffled journalists did not understand a simple fact to which they had to be initiated: Africa is a diasporic continent, a culture fluid, an objective virtuality. It is not defined by its physical form and its geography is even less capable of defining its inhabitants or its artists. For they do not live their “identity” as an imposition or a fatality, but as a mystery with which they maintain a very intimate relationship. The Israelis who viewed all these more or less dark or light negroes with the distance of alterity (they who represent the quintessence of alterity themselves) were thus surprised to discover their own reflection in works whose conception they were a far cry from imagining as close to their own preoccupations. Twelve artists, twelve at once similar and different voices to remind all those who might have forgotten that magic lies in mankind and nowhere else.
MOSHEKWA LANGA (South Africa), You Will Find Us Mixed, 2008, mixed media on paper, 106x75,5cm
It lies in the personal fictions which we reinvent over time and which miraculously find their place in the great theatre of collective fictions. But let there be no mistake. All fiction, whether it stems from the collective or, on the contrary, is inspired by the intimate, contains a gaze. And at the end of the day, only this gaze can give the illusion of a community. One should never die for a fiction, however close to reality it may be.
Simon Njami, January 2010
English translation by Gail de Courcy-Ireland