Q&A with Curator Simon Njami

“Contemporary artists working on the African continent should concentrate on their soil. Dig it. Find its treasure and secrets and come up with something that will shake the world.”

Startjournal talks to Simon Njami, Independent Curator of contemporary art, Lecturer, Art Critic and Novelist about some contentious issues currently dominating discussion about contemporary African art.

Simon Njami
photo credit: Aida Muluneh


Startjournal: Who is an independent curator and what is the opposite of being one?  

Njami: As the name states it, an independent curator is an independent being. He does not work for any given structure, and the projects he is dealing with were not commissioned by anyone. He thinks alone and then tries to share with as many as possible. In-house or museum curators deal with an agenda that is not necessarily theirs, but that of the structure they are attached to.

Start: Which curator should the world be on a look out for?

Njami: Somebody who wants to take us out of the art business comfort zone. We need people who think and who can question whatever they feel like questioning. Because art goes far beyond art. It is politics, sociology, philosophy, hence, the necessity of mastering a variety of tools.

Start: You have been quoted by some Ugandan artists alleging that there is no art in Uganda. Could you please elucidate on this opinion?

Njami: When I say something, people should think twice before they think they have understood me. Art is not just about the artist. It is a whole system that contains different stakeholders. In order for it to exist, these different conditions must be gathered: curators, critics, galleries, museum, fairs and collectors. Now, tell me if all these conditions are to be found in Kampala or elsewhere in Uganda.

Start: Is a new trans-national ‘African art dialogue’ needed to foreground the various conversations, challenges and successes from other African centers of culture and thinking?

Njami: It always makes me smile when people say Africa, because most of the time, they have no clue about what they are talking about. If we really want to think Africa, we need to know what that Africa is. We need to network, to create a platform. There is not a single country in Africa, to my knowledge that could sustain the brutality of the rules applied in the global game. United, Africans would be stronger and would have a voice of their own.

Start: There is a new generation of Africans whose minds are not shackled by a past of oppression or power dynamics. How do we engage and inspire them to embrace art and culture?

Njami: By teaching them and giving them examples. No matter what business they might be in, they need to understand that there is no grandeur without culture. When we talk about Egypt, Greece, France or Italy, what do we talk about? Their economic strength? No! It is their culture.

Start:  In the midst of Western elitism dominating the arts and cultural practice and promotion in Africa today (with all these Non Government Organizations patronizing the arts), what is your counsel for the contemporary artist working on the African continent?

Njami: They should not care about what is happening in the West, because they will never be able to comprehend it fully. On the contrary, they should concentrate on their soil. Dig it. Find its treasure and secrets and come up with something that will shake the world. We need, first, to work on ourselves before we go out there. If not, we shall dissolve in oblivion and void.

Start: With references from your personal experience, what are the most effective tools to use when marketing an Art exhibition?

Njami: The story. There are good stories and bad stories. But there are stories that are told in such a manner that we are all trapped. We need, whatever we are doing, to make a story out of it. But making a story requires a lot of hard labour that we are not always inclined to endure.

Start: What situations might occur that would cause you to cancel or rethink an exhibition?

Njami: To discover that I am not ready or that something has occurred that forces me to reconsider what I had in mind. It could be an international or national event, or the discovery of another show that was dealing exactly with the same topics.

Start:  Which African artist/s should the world be on a look out for?

Njami: He is not there yet. He has to be a maverick; Just as Picasso changed the perceptions of art in the West. We need people who are not only artists, but thinkers. Some are already out there. We need to see the new generation.

Start:   Who is the new African art hero?

Njami: It is a game that is played without heroes.

Start:  What do you think of young African biennales like Kampala art biennale 2014?

Njami: I don’t know.  I did not attend the first edition. Nevertheless, like I said before, it is important for Africa to carve its own tool. But this game has complex rules that one should never forget. I am looking forward to the next edition.

Start:  What would you like people to remember you by?

Njami: By the number of people I drew out of the global limbo.

Simon Njami is an Independent curator of contemporary art based in France. He has curated the Pavilion Exhibition during the Art at Work Itinerary Workshop that travelled to several African cities including Kampala in 2012.  He is the co-founder of Revue Noire, a journal of contemporary African and extra-occidental art.


5 thoughts on “Q&A with Curator Simon Njami

  1. the first time I listened to simon njami, I was challenged by most of the things he talked about. but I thoughtful of a possibility that other people in the art world listen to him too.

    his submittion in the interview is so sharp that anyone knowing what he is talking about would not be left the same.I like the comments.I wish many of us would realy dig like he says or non the less leave this global limbo.
    am inspired.

  2. Wow! It was such an interesting talk. Am inspired and firm ready to think beyond Art. Thnx Start

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