Letter from an outsider

Simon Njami: “The masters acted as mentors, big brothers, uncles”

Enos Nyamor, a participant at our C& Critical Writing Workshop in Nairobi two years ago, visited this year's Kampala Art Biennale and wrote a critical review for C&. The Biennale's artistic director Simon Njami disagrees with Nyamor's views. Here is his reply to the young writer:

Inside The Library (Studio Bili Bidjocka). Courtesy Kampala Art Biennale.

Inside The Library (Studio Bili Bidjocka). Courtesy Kampala Art Biennale.

By Simon Njami


I could have used this poem where Rudyard Kipling writes to his son and gives him advice to help him become a man. But I am not Kipling and Enos Nyamor is obviously not my son. And I should not even be using Kipling as an example. I might be judged as someone who takes his references outside of Africa, which, according to your editorial line, is obviously a sin. Therefore, I shall use the classic quote from Amadou Hampaté Ba: “Every time an elder dies, it is a library that is burning”. Hampaté Ba is an interesting metaphor for all the essentialists who claim their Afrocentrism, because the old man was not an outsider and yet dared to use the word “library”. We are not going to duel here on what is or is not a library. We are not going to state that it is a European concept because we have memories of Alexandria or Timbuktu. Library is just a word. And as the thinkers of the Négritude have proved, a word is a mere phenomenon that only comes to life when it is loaded with meaning. My “younger brother,” aka the author of the review, for instance, uses English. I could have told him that the English language is one of the most powerful instruments of colonialism. Yet, the way it is spoken in the streets of Nairobi, Lagos, Brooklyn or Kingston is an example of appropriation on which I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate. As for the notion of “master,” I was quite surprised to read it was a Western invention. From the history I know, I thought the African artists who carved the masks and the sculptures that can be admired throughout the world were masters and had apprentices working with them. The masters acted as mentors, big brothers, uncles – if that vocabulary is more agreeable to my younger brother’s ears. Their role was to help the younger artists to find their own language. The young artists were not, as it was stated, assistants. On the contrary, they were assisted.

I am an outsider who has been travelling African countries for six months every year for 30 years in order to learn about practices, politics, and societies. Being an outsider –which I really enjoy – provides me with the necessary distance we need in order to understand processes. That necessary critical distance enables us to grasp a bigger picture and to escape the easy game of ethnocentrism. One can only decipher a phenomenon by comparing it to similar situations. If my younger brother had that distance, he would have known, for instance, that the Bidjocka studio did not use bamboo but papyrus. It might seem a tiny detail, if papyrus were not the first “paper” that was used to produce the first written documents. As an outsider, I have decided to call myself a librettist because a librettist is nothing but a storyteller. I feel guilty, I must confess. I should have used the word “griot” which would have been more situationally correct.

I have a piece of advice for Enos Nyamor: When you have the opportunity to visit an exhibition presenting living artists who are present at the event, you should make some time to meet them, to ask them about processes, experiences, in order to have an enlightened view. To meet the curator or seek an online interview with him would have also helped. Not for the sake of agreement, but rather for a critical debate that would reveal the evidence of things not seen. Africa does not need to be patronized or protected. It is strong, vibrant and does not fear to interact with the world. Africa does not fear globalization; it is the privilege of Western countries that are closing their borders and their souls.

To end this little refreshing exercise, I shall underline the fact that critical writing – in which Enos Nyamor received some training – could be seen as a Western invention. Being an outsider, I don’t look at where the tools I am using come from as long as they serve my purposes. And I have been conducting workshops in Africa that are focusing on critical thinking. I would be more than happy, if he so wishes, to have Enos Nyamor as one of my students. I think he might learn one or two useful things.


Born in 1962 in Lausanne, Simon Njami is a writer and an independent curator, lecturer, art critic and essayist. He was this years’ artistic director of Kampala Art Biennale, which took place in Kampala, Uganda from 24 August to 24 September.



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