Simon Njami's divine discovery.

The African origins are unmistakable, the themes are universal and beauty reigns in Simon Njami's Divine Comedy, the exhibition currently on display in Frankfurt, Germany. Divine Comedy speaks volumes about current debates around what ‘Africa’, or ‘African’, is; about the protests against stereotyping the continent.

Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare
Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare

Here we go again, I think when I overhear two ladies leaving the stalls of the Amsterdam City Theatre, where we have just cheered a great Congolese acting performance, as well as a countertenor from the same country. “Those South Africans are good!” says the one. "They were Congolese," replies the other. "You're kidding!" Long before that, during the break in a South African modern dance performance, I had heard someone lament: “I hope they are going to start to do some African moves soon.”

The second example is from twenty years ago, the first is recent. Streams of embarrassing clichés about Africa still abound. People on that continent speak ‘African’, and all its women wear colourful scarves around their heads. ‘The African’, as I recently heard again on the radio, is always cheerful and expressive and direct. Or he is quiet and soft spoken and polite, because one cliché gets easily swopped for another. A recent publication speaks of ‘the hunt for a mzungu (white man)’, apparently observed by the author in a Nairobi nightclub, and immediately extrapolated to a general ‘mating dance’ that all African women anywhere, the author suggests, engage in as soon as they spot such a hapless target. Wishful thinking or a nightmare? Where are the observers and psychoanalysts of white male authors?

The conflict between ‘Hutsies' and ‘Tutsies’, the developments in 'Zwambibwe’; I shudder when I recall all the toe-curling, uninformed but brazenly bandied about, judgements come by: all expressions of a pitiable contempt regarding, ummm, yeah, Africa.

But is one wrong to call anything ‘African’? "Africa does not exist," is the headline of a recent article on a Dutch opinion site. "Why do more than 1 billion people from Cape Town to Casablanca still get lumped together?" it asks, and lists a long list of examples similar to the above. It is clear that the writer has reached a point where she once and for all wants to get rid of all the picturesque, offensive crap. Very understandably so. The war against all these things must be waged. However, does the realisation that Africa is a continent with much diversity warrant the conclusion that ‘Africa does not exist’?

I wonder if it serves a purpose to declare Africa non-existent. What is the point of full-scale agitation against every (granted, often romantic) adjective that could in fact sometimes correctly be applied to that part of the world? First of all, like all clichés, some characteristics ascribed to it – space, time! – are right. Maybe not in the bustling cities, but there are still vast areas where hills are rolling and horizons are endless. I have noted, with increasing astonishment, the refusal in recent years by some African artists and writers to be classified as African artists and writers. Sure, one doesn’t want to end up on the ‘travel’ or ‘exotic places’ shelf in bookstores, or be seen as part of the handicraft on display at ethnographic museums. But among my less ‘Africaphile’ acquaintances in the Netherlands, the notion that there would not be an ‘Africa’ at all is simply not understood.

Curator Simon Njami
Curator Simon Njami

I remember having discussions about this with said acquaintances. In these discussions, I often put forward the argument that it was difficult to just talk about ‘Africa’. “But you live there,” was invariably the answer. My tales about my life there had piqued their interest because it was different, in many ways, from theirs. How could I have been living in a place that had no particular characteristics? When I explained that I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, and not ‘Africa’, they would still ask if that country was not part of Africa, just like the Netherlands were part of Europe?

They would also point out that I was always arguing in favour of a more unified Europe. So one could talk about Europe, but not about Africa? They found it confusing.

Courtesy of Edson Chagas
Courtesy of Edson Chagas

Dante Alighieri

Off to Frankfurt! There, in the Museum of Modern Art (MMK), is a collection on show, curated by Simon Njami, of hundreds of works by African artists. It is called The Divine Comedy, after the poem written by Dante Alighieri during his exile from his hometown, Florence, between 1307 and 1321. The Divine Comedy, a journey through the hell of human misdeeds, the purgatory of repentance and redemption of paradise and heaven, inspired Njami in his search for contemporary artworks that speak to religious, philosophical and moral issues. Religious wars, social inequality, moral decay and political extremism characterised the times of Dante as much as they characterize ours: to be more up to date and current than this exhibit is practically impossible.

Clichés and stereotypes are nowhere in sight

Njami has let artists loose on all these issues, which he rightly regards as universal. And the result is of immense value. It does not caution ‘others’ to keep their hands off Africa: it appropriates universal problems, as much part of the ‘other’ world as of ‘theirs’, to itself. The exhibited works come from all parts of the continent, the diaspora, and – strikingly – the Northern Arabic part too.

Courtesy of Bouabdellah Zoulikha
Courtesy of Bouabdellah Zoulikha

The starting point is not politics, or history, or (thank goodness) post-colonialism, but aesthetics: pure beauty explodes from the paintings, installations and videos. It is a liberating experience. The admonishing finger telling others and ourselves ‘how to speak about Africa’ is nowhere in sight. Africa just is, and it imposes itself in all its diversity.

The exhibit is unashamedly African

Like in the tenth canto of Dante's Paradiso, the artists choose the primal force that created everything and that transcends the boundaries of humanity as a starting point. Unspeakable ideas are expressed in artistic language, from Aida Muluneh to Yinka Shonibare. Guy Tillim, Nabil Boutros, Kudzanai Chiurai, Jane Alexander and Nandipha Mntambo give us a feast of recognition. We are introduced to Edson Chagas, Ato Malinda, Lo Ndary and many others. What is there to see? Everything. Simon Njami (1962), co-founder of the Revue Noire and curator of Africa Remix, biographer of James Baldwin and Leopold Senghor, could have done Africa and the world no better service.

This exhibition ran in Frankfurt until July 27, 2014 and will be on view in three more cities worldwide. More information: www.mmk-notes.com

Bart Luirink is editor in chief of ZAM