On the eve of the Dakar biennal, we interview its curator, Simon Njami. He’s been responsible for some of the most iconic moments in art in the past few decades: from the seminal magazine Revue Noire to the landmark 2004 Africa Remix, which was the largest exhibition of contemporary African art ever seen in Europe.

From 2001 to 2007, he was the director of Les rencontres photographiques de Bamako – ‘Bamako Encounters’. In 2014, he gathered around 50 artists – half of whom were unknown – from 20 different African countries for an exhibition inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy at the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK, the Museum of Modern Art) in Frankfurt.

Born in 1962 in Lausanne to Cameroonian parents, it was only during his teenage years in Paris that he discovered his ‘negritude’. At the age of 23, he wrote his first novel, a thriller called Cercueil et Cie (Coffin & Co, named after one of Chester Himes’ hero). Six years later, in 1991, he co-founded the art magazine Revue Noire in Paris and published the essay ‘James Baldwin ou le devoir de violence’ (‘James Baldwin or the Duty of Violence’) with the great African-American author himself. His biography C’était Senghor (This was Senghor), based on conversations with the former President of Senegal, was published in 2006.

In this intimate and revealing interview Simon Njami talks with his customary intelligence about his life as a writer, the temptation of provocation and the controversial issue of the repatriation of African art.

In your novel African Gigolo, you feature an African young man who leads a bohemian life in Paris. Are you hiding behind this character ?

Quite the opposite! I realised I was African rather late in life and didn’t want to be mistaken for others, especially not that type of African who gets on my nerves. African Gigolo is the story of an irresponsible partygoer. He gets mail, puts it down and opens it later. He doesn’t read a letter sent by his mother, telling him his dying father wants to see him…

When did you discover that you were African?

When literary critics labelled me an ‘African writer’, I told myself : ‘Hey, I’m wearing that hat’. I’m not Swiss, although I was born in Lausanne. I’m not Parisian, although I grew up in Paris.

I prefer champagne to palm wine.

The Tierno Monénembos and Achille Mbembes of this world made my own Africanness the ‘negritude’ of others. Why not, if it helps changing things ? But I don’t have many amulets at home and I prefer champagne to palm wine.

Your business card reads: ‘Simon Njami, the man with no job’. How do you define yourself?

As a writer, first of all. I never stop writing or taking notes in airplanes, where I spend a lot of my life – anecdotes and thoughts beyond the art world. I have co-written film scripts with my friend Jean-Pierre Bekolo, the Cameroonian filmmaker. Art allows me to tackle matters from a wider perspective, and not to be continually based in Paris. I would shoot myself if I was living there the whole year round. Everywhere, from Rio to Tokyo, we ask ourselves the same questions but in a different way.

I don’t work for anyone. I dislike being seen as a ‘specialist’. I’ve done certain things too quickly and too soon. At the end of the 1980s, somehow everything happened at once. I was teaching comparative literature in the US when I launched Revue Noire with my friends, the architects Jean-Loup Pivin and Pascal Martin Saint-Léon. At that time, I was talking to gallery owners who insisted that contemporary art did not exist in Africa. Being the only ‘nègre’ in Beaubourg annoyed me. I told myself at one point that I would put ‘les nègres’ at Centre Pompidou and get them to see exhibitions.

Creativity is the iceberg showing slow and steady change in the depths below the surface.

At last, during Africa Remix in 2004, there were black people, Africans and Arabs in the public. We launched Revue Noire to tell about all this creativity. The next step could be an international publication with a section showing how Africa is integrated into the world.

How would you define African photography?

Photography is necessarily contextual. First, it’s about the gaze and who is taking the picture. In Africa, it’s also a matter of reappropriating one’s own image. The South African photographer Santu Mofokeng questions the role of humanity in his work. Africa is only 50 years old. It has done a lot to rebuild the past, live the present and look towards the future. We’re still far from what would satisfy me personally but we’ve come a long way. They’ve worked hard, those artists!

Creativity is the iceberg showing slow and steady change in the depths below the surface. Art is the first reflection of powerful undercurrents at work.

Does contemporary African art deal with the present? Does it look towards the future?

Any thought about the future implies reflecting on the past. When someone says ‘I am African’, what does it mean? The word refers to 54 countries, 54 different Africas, each with its own history.

Colonialisation, a common past, had different overtones. It took the Portuguese, for instance, a very long time to understand which way the wind was blowing. They only decolonized in 1975. These singular histories are a pit for inspiration. Saying ‘I am Angolan’ is not equal to saying ‘I am Cameroonian’. Saying ‘I am Bassa’ also refers to a particular experience in Cameroon.

Mostly, what matters is the message. In Africa, the statement ‘I am an artist’ means occupying a marginal spot in society, the position of the madman, a guy seen as uncontrollable and not serious. This allows one to think differently.

In my sense, a photographer who takes pictures in his own land is shooting himself. If you speak Lingala and you are photographing in a land where Lingala is spoken, people will not feel the burden of an outsider gaze. Your way of portraying these people is similar to the way you would like, as a photographer, to portray yourself. That’s the essential difference between a vision you’ve chosen and one that objectifies you and is defined by the other.

There’s mostly a mistaken longing for a fantasized Africa, with no real historical knowledge.

Every artist worthy of the title says ‘I’ and begins with himself – the starting point of any thought. One must start from this ‘I’ which is also a ‘We’, and not from an external point of view.

Is there a nostalgia for the faded greatness of the precolonial empire, particularly notable in Malian blues music?

Blues is just a musical expression – as rumba in Congo or makossa in Cameroon. There’s mostly a mistaken longing for a fantasized Africa, with no real historical knowledge. In Mali, many talk about Soundiata Keita but few know what he has done exactly and what’s his heritage. ‘We, Africans…’ means nothing.

Some questioning seems even negative or justifies stagnation. Ideas put forward by Cheikh Anta Diop, for example, do not interest me much. To say ‘We were Egypt’ seems almost counter-productive. If we were Egypt, it’s even worse to be where we’re at now… Nothing to be proud of!

In the same way, to bang on about Haïti as the first black Republic is a cruel reminder of the current situation. Clinging to the past prevents from facing the current catastrophe and the future.

Do you feel like a bull in the Afrocentric china shop?

Afrocentrism is easy and comfortable. By the way, I stand against the restitution to Africa of works of art displayed in European museums. The Tunisian President Ben Ali used the Bardo National Museum as his own private collection. Before demanding that the British Museum gives back some pieces, we must know where and under what circumstances they will be kept. Given the current lack of organisation, chances are that these works will be lost.

It’s not enough to say : ‘White people looted our treasure’. So what ? I never stop repeating, wherever I go, that white people might have taken these pieces, certainly, but Beaubourg in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London are the only places that twenty years on, the next generations will be able to see the work of Yinka Shonibare. Will we hold the Europeans responsible for this? No. The fault will be African, because no one on the continent would have bought their works. Afrocentric romantic illusions are of little interest to me.

Is art political?

Everything is. So is the art world. Art seeks to break the ‘polis’ of this world and widen it to a broader ‘we’. Those who are aware of it use it to make things change. Nevertheless, in order to play this game, one has to know the rules and understand what is at stake.

The mere fact that African societies do not aknowledge art’s influence give artists an enormous potential for subversion.

Does art have an impact on politics in Africa?

Egyptian artists were at the forefront of the protest before the Revolution. Senegalese young rappers launched the movement Y’en a Marre (‘Enough is enough’) in 2011 and mobilized against president Abdoulaye Wade’s prospect of a third term. In Burkina Faso, artists and the civil society were also heavily involved in the ousting of Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. Art has a dual function, especially in Africa where it’s not taken very seriously. It’s a space of relative freedom, as long as you act in an intelligent and non-confrontational way. The mere fact that African societies do not aknowledge art’s influence give artists an enormous potential for subversion.

The Spear, a painting by South African artist Brett Murray, might have become an issue of national importance because it shows the genitals of President Jacob Zuma. Still, it’s a bad painting! Its style and substance are not very interesting, for the moralising Protestant that I am. There are many other ways, besides easy provocation, to criticise someone.

In contrast, Fela Anikalapo Kuti was just singing songs, but his message is still accurate. Fela has been the most interesting political figure in Nigeria. Wole Soyinka, Nobel prize laureate, also played his part, but to a lesser degree. All interesting propositions come from intellectuals and artists.

What do you mean by ‘moralising Protestant’?

I was raised in a Protestant family. The word Protestant includes ‘protest’. I quite like the idea that a guy rebelled against a certain vision of Christianity.

Some artists are part of the establishment, especially in West Africa, where tradition means singing praise…

My friend Alpha Blondy shocked me with his Tcha Tcha Houphouët. Others like Tiken Jah Fakoly pursue their work independently. Their methods might still have to be worked out, but at least, they contribute…

What do they contribute to? To changing the balance of power?

Before Revue Noire, there was no nigger on the art scene. In 1991, the first black people appeared in la Documenta de Kassel. Today Okwui Enwezor is the curator of the Venice Biennale! It would have been unthinkable in 1990. An artist like Pascale Marthine Tayou tours the globe. A generation of young curators is beginning to emerge. We have progressed a lot. There’s no longer an international show without a nigger or an African, like William Kentridge.

What are your influences?

Aimé Césaire and Boris Vian. Vian is the one I feel the closest to, because he’s bicolour. Not mixed race, but bicolour: both black and white.

Like you?

We are all bicolour, apart from those who haven’t read Jean-Paul Sartre or Mikhail Lermontov. Africans who have been to school are the most bicolour, because what they learn in class isn’t what they’re told at home. Personally, I’m not going to behave as if I never read Boris Vian.

Before Revue Noire, where had you been on the continent ?

If I have a vague idea of Africa, it’s because of Revue Noire. Few people can say they have been to every single country in Africa, including Sudan, Somalia and the whole of North Africa. Before Revue Noire, I had been to Cameroon, and also to Senegal and Egypt on holiday – like everyone

Which country did you find the most striking ?

South Africa, because of its schizophrenia: despite its struggle against apartheid, this society is remarkable for its xenophobia against Mozamicans and Zimbabweans, who nevertheless helped build the country. South Africans no longer know who they are – blacks and whites – because of their history. The same situation prevails everywhere in Africa, to a less spectacular degree.

How does Africa inspire you as the ‘latest frontier’ of global growth?

A few million people, amongst Africans, haven’t received the news yet. But something is stirring, that’s undeniable. More and more African collectors are emerging outside of South Africa. Having said that, one has to tickle an elephant for a while before it starts laughing. In practice, change takes a while, even if it seems inevitable.

Find out more about the Dakar biennal