Afriques Capitales was presented as an exhibition in two episodes: in Paris, as part of the 100% Afrique festival by La Villette cultural park, and in Lille as part of the festival lille 3000. Funding for the exhibitions came from the Total Foundation (France) and the Sindika Dokolo Foundation (Angola).
At the time of this two-part exhibition, Paris abounded with African art. The Louis Vuitton Foundation, the Art Paris Art Fair, the Month of the Photo, the Institute of the Arab World, and even the department stores Galeries Lafayette and BHV-Marais featured Africa-themed exhibitions. At once expansive and focused, Afriques Capitales stood out with an incisive curatorial vision and offered a unique visiting experience, one that opened opportunities for unexpected confluences—particularly in Paris, where the installation was deliberately jumbled, chaotic, and lively.
Afriques Capitales presented works by sixty-eight artists, of whom seventeen are women, and included both well-known and early-career artists. The two exhibitions had some overlap in the artists and even the works shown, but the installations in each venue created distinct viewing experiences. Responding to Paris as an island and Lille as a crossroads city, Njami subtitled the Lille exhibition Toward the Cape of Good Hope and emphasized the theme of travel there, tying in to its location in a converted train station. Both episodes were accompanied by programming of performing arts, films, and workshops. Each time I visited the sites, I was impressed by the staff of “mediators” (gallery attendants) who led tours and engaged with visitors.
In Paris, the exhibition opened with Hassan Hajjaj's installation Le Salon (2017), a playful pop-art lounge with cheerfully clashing plastic mats, posters, and red Coke-crate furniture, recreating the environment of the artist's candylike portrait photographs (Fig. 1). Reached through a red plastic curtain, the cavernous main exhibition space beyond was lined in black and lit with blue, sealing off the daylight and reframing its nineteenth-century cast iron and glass architecture. Large wooden boxes delineated some smaller galleries and paths in the hall. As viewers made their way through the maze of structures and works, many of them very large scale, the exhibition yielded a series of small revelations: resonances between pop culture and politics, bodies and histories.
In Lille, the works were staged in a similar (if less grand) postindustrial venue, but the arrangement was more open, less mazelike. Its video works were shown in a row of cubicles resembling train cars, and its small galleries were likewise all in a block, so that viewers stepped from one surreal room-world straight into another. Notably, Nicola Lo Calzo's haunting installation Tchamba (2011–2017) used the language of ethnographic display—objects in Plexiglas vitrines, “context” photographs—but combined with immersive sound, severe lighting, and stone-covered floor, the room seemed designed to really invoke spirit, not just document this vodun practice dedicated to the spirits of enslaved ancestors.
In both exhibition venues, the ambiguous journey was a central theme among several recurring threads: dreams, struggle, identity and the body, and nostalgia. The ensemble was particularly strong in photography and video/film, while several monumental sculptures (a number of them created for the exhibition) generated moments of sensation and wonder, particularly in Paris, where Youssef Limoud's mountainous, ruined Labyrinth (2017) anchored the center of the hall (Fig. 2).
In the Paris episode, Alexis Peskine's video and photography project The Raft of the Medusa refers to Gericault's Romantic masterwork and exploits ironic consonances in the story of the eponymous colonial shipwreck and the dangerous sea voyages and daily struggles of contemporary African migrants. Clothed in plaid zipper bags (sacs imigrés), crowned with the mini Eiffel Towers that jangle from the arms of West African street hawkers at Paris tourist sites (five for ζ1), Peskine's characters pose in a series of melodramatic, dreamlike scenes. Other works approach the crisis of migration more straightforwardly, as in Leila Alaoui's video triptych Crossings (2013), which layers the recorded voices and exquisite photo portraits of African migrants over images of bare roads and inhospitable seas.
Some video works turned inward, tracing identity and embodiment. In Paris, Ghost Dance (2015–2017) by Samson Kambalu presented a film genre of his own invention, Nyau cinema, whose extremely short films expand simple impromptu gestures into ritual interactions with landscape. Presented in both venues, the absurdist Super Oum (2009) by Fatima Mazmouz shows the pregnant artist transformed into an awkward super-mama of quotidian tasks, injecting a provocative but masked/anonymized female body into whimsical and mundane domains.
The large-scale sculptures in both venues spoke of fantasy architecture and nostalgic imaginaries, often using materials with unusual histories. Recycling is pervasive in contemporary art, but many of the pieces here worked their materials in fresh ways. In Paris, Moataz Nasr's The Minaret (2012), with its broken materials and almost naïve form, seemed to present the possibility of renewal (Fig. 3). Lavar Munroe's Of the Omens He Has as He Entered His Own Village, and Other Incidents that Embellished and Gave a Colour to a Great History (2017) is a tableau of chimerical creatures made from the castoff, ephemeral masquerades of Afro Caribbean junkanoo (Fig. 4). As if brought back to life, its heroic-shambolic combat floated dramatically on a mezzanine above the other works in the hall.
In Lille, abstract sculptures seemed to slip in through the commotion, their presence quiet but penetrating. A pair of works by El Anatsui departed from the opulent, colorful tapestries for which he is best known. Delta (2014) and Metas II (Fig. 5; 2014) are steely white and seem deliberately cloudy and incomplete, with gaps, stops and starts; using modified newsprint, Metas II hints at lost or undiscovered information. Brooding and monochrome, Joel Andrianomearisoa's tactile monoliths amass materials like compact mirrors or paper into enigmatic structures that might be growing or decaying (Negociations sentimentales Acte V, 2014; La labyrinthe des passions, 2015, Fig. 6). Unlike the immersive, environmental sculptures in Paris, two pieces in Lille also worked memorably in miniature: expansive model cities installed on low platforms that gave viewers a bird's-eye perspective. Meshac Gaba's Sweetness (2006, 2017) is a pastiche of world landmarks formed in sugar, and Paul Alden Mvoutoukoulou's Medecine Blues (2017) is an urban archipelago made of pill blister packs. What kind of shimmering cityscapes have those commodities built?
Where the sculptures in both venues tended toward the fantastic, photographic works countered with a kind of monumental banality. In Paris, cityscapes from African countries and other regions presented those environments as unknowable, uncontainable, multiplying (but perhaps according to a pattern, as in Sammy Baloji's compound photograph Ouakam Fractal, 2015). Black and white photographs by Ala Kheir (Revisiting Khartoum, 2015) and Andrew Tshabangu (City in Transition, 2004) frame empty architecture and nondescript meeting places, cities as repositories of dashed hopes. In both episodes, Untitled Images (2014) by Mimi Cherono Ng'ok were exhibited as very large scale prints, heightening the unsettling, off-kilter intimacy of their truncated figures and lush color.
In Paris, François-Xavier Gbré's ensemble Wŏ shì fēizhωu / Je suis africain (2016) turned a sharp gaze on the notion of identity by way of anxiety over Chinese economic activity in Africa (Fig. 7). The coolly perfect, touchless fabrication of Chinese text in neon and cardboard, materials of commerce, contrasts with highly textured photographic images of African-Chinese construction labor and heightens the linguistic confusion of its deceptively simple title.
Painting was nearly overshadowed by projected works and installations, but artists working in this more “traditional” medium made interesting statements of their own. Featured in both episodes, Hassan Musa's paintings on printed cloth use refined craft to blend mythologies, art histories, and mordant criticism of politics and culture (Nage Icare!, 2008 and La Mulitplication des eclairs au large du Lampedusa, 2016, Fig. 8). In Paris, the physical, dancelike abstract paintings of Ouattara Watts felt almost old-fashioned but were similarly multireferential, reflecting the artist's long engagement with global black cultures (Flash of the Spirit #6, #7, 2016). In Lille, a pair of works by Kwame Akoto Almighty God acted as an interjection from a distinct art world (The Work of Demons, 2016, and My God, Please Heal Me, 2015). Each of these painters seems to be writing in code, but with such different languages: one intellectual-political, one loose and mystical, one righteous.
The engaging exhibition landscape in Paris did not serve all the artworks well. Pascale Marthine Tayou's Falling Houses 1, 2, and 3 (2014) are upside-down corrugated roof shacks whose walls are printed with a delicate and eclectic collage of sacks and suitcases, masks, quilts, and currency (Fig. 9); this work would have rewarded close viewing, but its installation over a set of partitions made some sides of it impossible to see at all. The challenges of exhibiting multiple video works are familiar to anyone who works with contemporary art, and in La Villette's resonant hall, a sound collage of urban recordings (Louis Gabriel, Symphonie urbaine, 2017) and the trumpets of William Kentridge's immersive multiscreen video More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015) were audible throughout. Overlapping sightlines and cacophonous sound may well have been intentional, and they certainly bolstered the exhibition's mode of mixing and entanglement. However, the sounds impinged on some of their quieter neighbors. Heba Amin's Project Speak2Tweet (2011–2017), for example, is a video work drawn from an archive of recorded phone messages from the Egyptian Revolution paired with imagery of deserted structures, two fragile imaginings of Cairo.
A few works were interactive. Emo de Madeiros's Points de résistance (2017) invited visitors to listen to recordings of resistance, from World War II broadcasts to Bob Marley, as they “cast” their fists in aluminum foil, to be added to the work and shared online. Ato Malinda's Africa Untitled (2009, 2017) is a three-dimensional moveable map of Africa with labels resembling playing cards. In the hands of the mediators, this piece functioned merely as a geography quiz. While I enjoyed watching a group of middle-aged African women visitors cheerfully schooling some teenagers, the interaction missed the point(s) of the work, which invites viewers to literally divide up the continent in an echo of the Berlin Conference (the piece was conceived for its 125th anniversary), as well as to playfully reimagine its geography.
With Afriques Capitales, Njami revisited longtime interests in urban life, postcolonial conditions, and artistic hybridity. Here, the theoretical framing of heterotopia—spaces of otherness, unruly places with multiple meanings—produced exhibitions that were discordant and disorientating, in very good ways. In the world of these exhibitions, described by Njami as the “city of all cities,” real-life specificities rubbed up against fantastic dreamscapes. The African capitals were both imaginary and insistently real.
A catalogue, in both English and French, served both venues. Edited by Simon Njami, Afriques capitales/Capital Africas was published by Kerher Verlag, Berlin (208 pages, 115 illustrations, softcover, ζ25.00).