The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists

1 March – 27 July 2014, MMK, Frankfurt

By Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Jane Alexander, Frontier with Church, 2012–14 (installation view, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2014). Photo: Axel Schneider. © MMK Frankfurt Abdoulaye Konaté, La Danseuse, 2007 (installation view, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2014). Photo: Axel Schneider. © MMK Frankfurt Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Silence, 2008 (installation view, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2014). Photo: Axel Schneider. © MMK Frankfurt

There is hardly any poem, hardly any piece of literature that has had to bear both the exaltation and wrath of pens (even metaphorical ones) of generations of reviewers, imitators, translators and critics afforded Dante Alighieri’s early-fourteenth-century epic, Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). It has been crowned one of the greatest pieces in world literature, and been damned as anti-Semitic, anti-Islamist, racist and more. Artists of all generations and cultures have tried their hands at unpacking Dante’s allegorical visions. Philosophers and theologians alike have cracked their brains on contextualising it and tying it to everything from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (1265–74) to contemporary music, cinema and other forms of cultural expression.

It is at this juncture in 2014 that the Swiss-Cameroonian curator Simon Njami strides in… Majestically and like a cowboy in one of John Wayne’s westerns, he calls the shots. In two directions. On the one hand he acknowledges the intellectual grandeur of Divine Comedy and on the other hand he condemns the lack of a significant African presence in this epic poem. This was enough of a reason to invite some 50 artists of African origin to deliberate on the journey of the soul in the afterlife, the underlying philosophical question behind the poem, in a survey show titled The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main.

It would be wrong however to think that this exhibition is an effort to translate the words of the poem into a visual language. The poem rather serves as a point of departure, even a bait: a magnetic point against which and to which the artists bring in their reflections – the latter nuanced by their diverse historical, socioeconomic and political backgrounds. Partitioned like the poem in three canticles – Paradise, Purgatory and Hell – the exhibition lures the visitor through the three floors of Hans Hollein’s architectural masterpiece, to confront artistic reflections of humanity’s biggest unknown, that which one must pay with life in order to experience – death.

It is no secret that Africa and Africans have been doing the balancing act between indigenous and imported religions ever since Christianity first set foot on the continent at the beginning of the first century. This exhibition seems to cover pendulumlike swings between these extremes

From the point of view of the Roman Catholic, concepts like heaven, purgatory and hell are stripped of abstract connotations. They are made real and given an image. At Sunday school and later during the sacrament of the confirmation you are told that on the final day, on Judgement Day, you will have to stand in front of God and all your good deeds and sins will be listed and you will be channelled to heaven or hell… and because God is such a kind God, he keeps an option for the benefit of doubt – purgatory. Heaven is that place of the ever-pouring milk and honey, of no distress or pain. A concept of endless satisfaction and ecstasy. Hell is that space of endless light. A light that emanates from the hottest flames one could think of. The very painful but slow and unending burn of that gorging flame in hell becomes the stuff of kids’ nightmares. And if you are lucky or unlucky (depending on where you stand) not to get an immediate visa into heaven or hell, you are sent to purgatory to work yourself up or down.

In the very elaborate exhibition publication, theorist Achille Mbembe begins his article, ‘Requiem for the Slave’, by stating, ‘Ancient Africa has no hell, no purgatory and no paradise. The idea of a unique, angry, jealous and vengeful God is an invention of monotheism.’ It is no secret that Africa and Africans have been doing the balancing act between indigenous and imported religions ever since Christianity first set foot on the continent at the beginning of the first century. This exhibition seems to cover pendulumlike swings between these extremes.

The philosophical journey starts in paradise with Jane Alexander’s Frontier with Church (2012–14). Thirteen fibreglass half-human, half-beast figures enact the moment before Dante’s meeting with Beatrice, the woman who symbolises the path to God. Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s installation Silence (2008) on the one hand comments on the Islamic practice of taking off shoes before going into the mosque by placing gold highheeled shoes in holes cut in the centre of prayer mats, but also offers a counter-comment on the position of women in Islam. Maybe a feminist statement on a male-dominated concept of paradise? Abdoulaye Konaté’s textile series Danse au camm (2008) explores the magic and heavenliness of the medium of dance. Closely affiliated to the medium of music, both dance and music stand in as the closest means through which the ‘Holy Ghost’ can be evoked – be it through Gnawa, Sufi or Gospel, spirituality finds form in music and dance.

The possibility of fixing things while in purgatory is extrapolated in Kader Attia’s research on the concept of repair materialised in his 2013 work Repair Analysis. Attia stitches mirrors with copper wires, thereby alluding to both the ad hoc surgery on the battlefronts of the First World War and the reparation of non-Western artefacts. The work talks about the impossibility of certain repairs and how reparation doesn’t simply imply the rendering of the original but rather the giving of new meaning, form and function through the process of repair. Issues of appropriation and reparation have been the backbone of Kader Attia’s work in the last half-decade. Other spectacular contributions to the theme of purgatory include Kudzanai Chiurai’s film Iyeza (2012), which is a rough citation of the Last Supper and a depiction of the sociopolitical status quo of most African countries that seem to be in a kind of political limbo; Dimitri Fagbohoun’s Réfrigerium (2014); and Andrew Tshabangu’s On Sacred Ground (1996–2008), a black-and-white photographic series on religious and spiritual cleansing as a possibility to free individuals and communities from the pain of everyday life. The strongest intervention within purgatory is Kiluanji Kia Henda’s series of five photographs, Othello’s Fate (2013), part of the ongoing project Self-Portrait As a White Man, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (1604). In this series Kia Henda explores the precarious state of the African presence in Europe, stuck between heaven and hell.

Yet it is important to mention that this exhibition is in no way an African exhibition. Not even if all the artists in the show are in some way or the other related to Africa

Hell seems the place to be, however… at least to sojourn and ponder, judging from the colossal contributions by Sammy Baloji (Kolwezi, 2012, a photographic series that depicts the hard labour of goldmines), Mouna Karray (The Rope, 2014, a photographic series that hints at one’s own attachment to hell, the tug of war one might have with oneself as a vision of hell. The rope takes centre stage in the piece and at both ends of that rope is the same person pulling to exhaustion) or Jems Robert Koko Bi (Convoi Royal, 2007, a mountain of blackened wood heads). Bili Bidjocka has more than often proven philosophical strength in his artistic practice. In Grâces & Intentions & Grâces (2014), the artist gets granular on the proverb ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Looking at this from the perspective of philanthropy, humanitarianism, third worldism, and looking at the dependence, corruption, blackmail these concepts have instigated in the world today, the expression adds a wholeness to its skeleton.

Yet it is important to mention that this exhibition is in no way an African exhibition. Not even if all the artists in the show are in some way or the other related to Africa. There is a cultivation of simplicity in many Western societies and media today that pushes towards finding the cheapest or easiest common denominator. There could be, and in the case of this exhibition there are, many reasons that bring people together other than that they happen to be from the same continent. In the case of Simon Njami’s Divine Comedy, this common denominator is the zeal and zest to understand the complexities of what an afterlife could entail, taking Dante’s epic poem as a point of departure. This is the answer I gave to the older German guy (whom I had never met before) who whispered in my ear – with a mixture of despair and perplexity – while I was looking at Joël Andrianomearisoa’s five-by-three-metre shimmering installation of hundreds of pocket mirrors, Sentimental Negotiations Act V (2013), “This doesn’t really look like African art.” 

Read 'Art in Context Africa, Part II: Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung on the tenses in Theo Eshetu’s The Return of the Axum Obelisk', from the October 2014 issue.

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.