The Shock Of Being Seen, By Simon Njami

The Shock Of Being Seen, By Simon Njami

The shock of being seen

«The white man enjoyed three thousand years of the privilege of seeing without being seen; he was pure look, the light in his eyes extracted each thing from the shadows of its birth, the whiteness of his skin was also a look, a concentration of light. The white man—white because he was a man, white as day, white as truth, white as virtue—illuminated creation like a torch, revealed the secret white essence of beings. What did you expect when you untied the gag that had silenced these black voices? That they would sing your praises? When these black heads that our fathers had forced to bow down looked up, did you think you would read adoration in their eyes? Here are black men standing before us and I hope that you, like me, feel the shock of being seen.»[1]

Let us start by pointing out that the term black does not refer to any particular colour. As Fanon would say later, it is all about expressing humanity. Just as in 1980s England the word black grouped into a single problematic all those who were not of British origin, including Greeks and Cypriots at one point, black should be read as a metaphor. Like the rallying cry of those whom Fanon (again) called the damned of the earth. Sartre’s words should thus be read as an opposition between colonial powers and colonised peoples. Which means the shock of being seen is no longer just an ontological experience, it is part of a political approach that led inexorably to the independences. For the person seeing, it triggers a process of awareness. If the former master is the object of this newfound acuity, he can either passively subject himself to it or turn it into food for thought. But here the former master should only play a secondary role. Whether he is capable or not of interiorising the changes that his sudden objectivisation will entail is up to him. Post-colonial history tends to prove that the West has not been capable of integrating the new power-play that came with the birth of independent nations whose aspirations no longer corresponded to the hegemonic, monolithic plans that had previously been imposed on them. But let’s leave the West where it is. Our point here is not to start psychoanalysing the former dominants, but to explore the mechanisms which would lead from political emancipation to an intellectual emancipation of the black continent. The faculty of seeing overturned the old ruling postures and status quo by transforming the former colonised person into a responsible being whose aspiration to think himself and project himself in time and space is displayed with the inevitable energy and urgency of centuries of silence. In this game of mirrors, the transformation of the Other’s status leads to another relationship to the self. By seeing, the ex-colonised switches from object to player, putting himself in a position to use what Merleau-Ponty calls his «seeing power»: «My body is both seeing and visible. He who looks at all things can also look at himself, and then recognise in what he sees the «other side» of his seeing power.»[2] The first effects of this metamorphosis that stretched (bar a few exceptions) from the 1950s to the early 1980s—or even to the 1990s with the fall of apartheid and the installation of the peace process in Angola—were the end of colonisation and the advent of African independences.

The shock of being seen sparked Africa’s need to think herself for herself and launch the existential experience that references shot of the scoria of a history it had long been absent from would represent. In the years prior to independence, thinkers set about theorising this desire for dealienation. Precursors such as W.B. Dubois, Aimé Césaire or Frantz Fanon, to name but a few, strove to build up a critical system that was specific to the ex-colonised. If the continent has sometimes seemed chronically powerless, this must not be read as an inability to seize its own destiny, but rather as the consequence of the fits and starts that go with a process complicated by redistribution of the world map and the interplay between the major economic powers. Political reflection was nonetheless well underway on what the post-colony, as Achille Mbembé called it, should be. The disillusions that accompanied the 1960s and the end of a number of myths enable us to draw up an inventory of the past fifty years and learn lessons from them. While politics and the economy still seem to have trouble defining an original methodology, the reflection that began in contemporary art in the early 1980s has produced tangible effects. The Dakar and Bamako biennials, the brand new Luanda Triennial, publications like the emblematic Revue Noire, Coartnews, Nka or Arts South Africa have established the grounding for an endogenous debate without which the notion of African contemporary art would have remained an unfounded abstraction. These experiences illustrate what Sartre called «the split»: «The herald of the black soul went to white schools, following the old rule that forbids the oppressed any weapons they have not stolen from their oppressor; it is through the clash with white culture that his negritude switched from immediate existence to the state of reflection. But at the same time he more or less stopped living. By choosing to see what he is, he has split himself in two, he no longer coincides with himself.»[3]

No longer coinciding with oneself no doubt represents the awakening of artistic awareness. This firstly means that we are capable of taking the indispensable step back from ourselves that is needed for creation. Hence the importance of finding a language that suits the expression of a world of sensations in harmony with a history that leads to an original project. Not by flashily displaying a mastery of new tools, but by matching a message to an appropriate aesthetic medium. Reproducing imported concepts is not enough. By splitting in two, the African is forced to cast a critical gaze on himself and others, to reinvent himself and deconstruct both endogenous and exogenous perceptions. In other words, he is forced to rewrite his story with a vocabulary and syntax that open unexplored perspectives. The existence of contemporary creation in Africa comes at this price. This is why Check List does not aim to be simply an exhibition. What would be the point of an umpeenth African exhibition if it did not use the evidence of the past to take the discussion on Africa a little further? Who is still interested in «discovering» new artists that the system could integrate? The African Pavilion, officially part of the programme of the Venice Biennale for the first time, calls for the establishment of a place for thought, confrontation and proposals. A space in which each person is invited to look at works and their presentation for what they are, not for what one would like them to be. We want to address both sense and the senses. Minds and bodies. We are aware that this project is at once humble and arrogant: we refuse to believe that there is either good art or bad art, an African art on some parallel plane to world art. Check List is intended as a manifesto for expression far from established trends and conventions that will finally allow this story that escaped the artist El Anatsui’s memory to be finished: «When I last I wrote you about Africa/ I used a letter-headed parchment/ There were many blank slots in the letter…/ I can now fill some of these slots because…/ I have grown older.»[4]

The blank spaces in the parchment have started to be filled in the Alexandria Library, the universities of Timbuktu and elsewhere. Successive authors have forever taken it in turns to write them. Their names were Luther King, Nasser, Neto, Lumuba, Um Nyobe, Sankara, Ben Barka, Cabral… Others are still with us, like Mandela. The opening lines of a new cultural history were written in the days of the first independences, through the Festival Mondial des Arts Nèges in Dakar wanted by Leopold Sedar Senghor, and the Pan-African meetings in Algiers and Lagos. Then came the Cairo Biennial, the Fespaco, the Dakar and Bamako biennials and the Johannesburg Biennial, nipped too soon in the bud. The creation three years ago of the Sindika Dokolo Collection—the first private African contemporary art collection—and the launch of a triennial in Luanda soon afterwards are a new chapter in this book being written every day. Luanda, the real-life illustration of the concept of Chaos and Metamorphosis, is emblematic on several levels. This African capital of a country torn apart by an excessively long war of independence, then by a civil war in which each of the two major blocks played a sinister game of chess to divide the country into two apparently irreconcilable sides, is slowly finding its feet again and starting to heal its wounds. Symbol of an Africa that still has to fight to assert its freedom and autonomy, the country is rebuilding itself. In this will to exist, this vital drive, it is the unalterable strength of an entire continent that is being displayed. Luanda Pop is a metaphor for this thirst to be part of the world. It is not trying to contain this movement within a particular geography. On the contrary, it is about using the experience of a moment taking place before our eyes to write a brand new chapter. It is about logging it in a temporal perspective which links together the initial momentums that sketched the contours of a possible Africa and has us assert that, contrary to what some would have us believe, the continent is not an immobile zone, it is not the heart of darkness. Africa is young. With the endless battles it has had to wage for its survival its population proves, just by being alive, that fatality does not exist. This is how this project should be read. It must be analysed cold, for what it is. Far from sterile passions and preconceived ideas. Far from fantasised projections and age-old certitudes. The artists represented are not looking for sympathy or recognition. They are simply expressing themselves. Stoked by centuries of history, their voices rise up with renewed energy and strength. We are not trying to create a new presentation of the age-old battle that pits Centre and Periphery against each other; in our view these quarrels are now of no interest whatsoever. Centre and Periphery do not exist. To finally understand and admit this is to agree to be fully part of the inexorable march of time. This may not be much, but it seems to be what lies at the heart of every contemporary artist’s preoccupations. Regardless of where they come from. It is the only way of reaching what Deleuze called the world of sense: «this world of sense, with its events-singularities, offers a neutrality which is essential to it. And this is the case, not only because it hovers over the dimensions according to which it will be arranged to achieve signification, manifestation and denotation, but also because it hovers over the actualizations of its energy as potential energy, that is, the realization of its events, which may be internal as well as external, collective as well as individual, according to the contact surface or the neutral surface-limit which transcends distances and assures the continuity on both its sides.»[5]

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Orphée Noire [Black Orpheus], PUF, Paris, 1948. This translation (and all others of French quotes unless otherwise stated): Gail de Courcy-Ireland.
[2 ] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’oeil et l’Esprit [Eye and Mind], Gallimard, Paris, 1964.
[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Orphée Noir, préface à l’Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, Paris, PUF, 1948
[4] El Anatsui, in International Review of African American Art, 9, n°3, quoted by Simon Njami in El Anatsui : A Sculpted History of Africa, Saffron Books & October Gallery, London, 1998
[5] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Meaning, Constantin V. Boundas (Ed.), Translated by Mark Lester, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, p.104.