Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas: A Barthesian multiplicity of cities presented at La Villette in Paris

An exterior view of the venue for Episode 1 of “Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas,” exhibited at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, 23 March – 28 May 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The curatorial challenge Simon Njami set for himself when conceptualizing the exhibition “Afriques Capitales“[“Capital Africas”] was to provide a discursive, dialogical space where contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the wider global African diaspora(s) could come together to “invent the city of all cities: a city that belongs to no one but in which everyone can find their own personal bearings” (Njami, 2017: 19).

“The Minaret” (2012) by Egyptian artist and arts activist Moataz Nasr. This illuminated sculptural installation was displayed on the ground floor of the Grande Halle de la Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.

The results of this creative, cross-cultural and pluralist dialogue manifested in the form of  a large-scale, international group show of contemporary visual art presented in two episodes (or “chapters”) across expansive exhibition spaces in Paris and Lille:

  1. The first phase (or “Chapter 1”) comprised more than 100 works by 50 artists at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris – sub-themed “Afriques Capitales, Métropolis: C’est beau une ville la nuit” and  “Intermezzo: un projet stéréophonique, ” 23 March – 28 May 2017 (discussed in further detail, below).
  2. The second episode (or “Chapter 2”) – titled, “Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance” / “Capital Africas: From Lille to the Cape of Good Hope” – displayed work by a further 20 artists, combined with additional works by 12 of the same participants from the Paris strand of the exhibition, presented at the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille (discussed and illustrated online at:, 6 April – 3 September 2017.
Detail from the vivid red wall hanging “Alep” (2016) by Malian textile sculptor and painter Abdoulaye Konaté, displayed at La Villette as part of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales” (2017).

“Referring to Raymond Queneau’s 100,000 billion poems, Roland Barthes reminds us of that essential truth: there is never one city, but always several cities in one – a multiplicity of possible combinations.

[“Roland Barthes, en évoquant les 100 000 milliards de poèmes de Raymond Queneau, nous rappelle cette vérité essentielle: il n’y a jamais une ville, mais des villes.”]

Simon Njami, curator of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas” (Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, 2017)

Installation view of a section of the large-scale sculptural work “Sentimental Negotiations, Act V” (2014) by the Madagascan conceptual artist Joël Andrianomearisoa. Photo: Carol Dixon.

For some of the artists Simon Njami brought together in Paris and Lille, his brief was interpreted as an invitation to construct symbolic representations of fantasy cityscapes – imaginary utopias and escapist places, where everything appears to be possible and life is completely unrelated to the ‘real world’ actualities of existence on terra firma.

Exhibition view of “Afriques Capitales”  taken from the Mezzanine level inside the Grande Halle de la Villette, showing Pascale Marthine Tayou’s sculptures “Falling Houses: 1, 2 and 3” (2014)  suspended from the ceiling, and works by Youssef Limoud (“Labyrinth”, 2017)  and Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (“Untitled”, 2014) displayed in the ground floor area. Photo: Carol Dixon.

For others, however, the curator’s concept was approached and interpreted as a provocation – infused with all the artistic licence to expose and foreground many aspects of the harsh dystopian realities of city life. Although such stark, difficult existences are experienced by a sizable majority of the populations living in urban metropolises around the world, the gritty realism of this less-than-utopian existence still so often remains hidden from view as city dwellers, commuters, tourists and sojourners ‘passing through’ a multiplicity of cityscapes strive to address the everyday complexities, tensions and challenges of cheek-by-jowl existence and interaction.

“My Nights are Brighter than your Days” (2016) by Ivorian artist Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny. Dimensions: 75 x 135 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The quotidian materialities of urban life encountered by individuals, couples, families and friends positioned in close proximity to a city’s multiple ‘others’ – often with ever-diminishing delineations between what constitutes private and public space –  were the interpretative context underpinning each individual art object, assemblage, series of images and architectural installation pieces positioned over four areas of the exhibition space, each of the works carefully arranged to present a sequence of multiple narratives to visitors as they perused and engaged with the different structures (or “dwellings”) installed on the ground floor, and then visited the soundscapes and sculptures on the mezzanine and upper balconies positioned in the east and west wings of the exhibition space.

The Ground Floor

Close to the exhibition entrance at the front of the Grande Halle were a number of photography-based artworks by photo journalists, documentary film-makers and collagists.  These included a four-part series of collages by the internationally renowned visual artist Godfried Donkor (“New Olympians,” 2017), the series “Symphonies Urbaine” (2017) by Parisian artist Lucas Gabriel, photographs of Addis Ababa (2015) and  downtown Johannesburg (titled, “Jo-Burg: Portraits on View,” 2013-14) by Guy Tillim, and video-based documentary work by the South African artist Tracey Rose (titled, “Die Wit Man” [an Afrikaans translation of “The White Man”]).

Detail from one of four collages by Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor from the series “New Olympians, V-X” (2017). Photo: Carol Dixon.
Detail from a street scene in Addis Ababa, taken in 2015 by the South African documentary photographer Guy Tillim. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Still taken from the video “Die Wit Man” [“The White Man”] by South African artist Tracey Rose – showing part of an installation performed at the site of King Leopold II’s grave. Duration: 53 minutes, 23 seconds. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Further into the exhibition space were additional photography-based works by (among others) the celebrated Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh – showcasing a triptych of striking portraits titled “Memories in Development” (2017); and also larger-than-life-size close-up shots of individual sitters taken by Kenyan artist Mimi Cherono Ng’ok displayed on the walls of some of the interior display structures, and poignantly juxtaposed next to very dynamic paintings by the Ivorian artist Ouattara Watts from the recently produced series “Flash of the Spirit” (2016) and Citizen of the World” (2016).

One of three images by Aida Muluneh from her photographic triptych “Memories in Development” (2017), which also featured regularly as a promotional image in press releases about Afriques Capitales.


A close-up from Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok’s intimate “Untitled” series (2014), positioned on the outer wall of one of the display structures within the exhibition space at La Villette. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Detail from the painting “Citizens of the World #2” (2016) by Ouattara Watts. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Positioned more centrally within the display space were also a very sensual series of nude photo-portraits (Sans Titre [Untitled], 2013) by Safaa Mazirh, as well as a thought-provoking, video-based installation piece addressing 18th-19th century enslavement histories and French imperialism by Alexis Peskine, significantly titled “Le Radeau de la Meduse” (2016) in reference to the famous 19th century oil painting of the same name by French artist Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) on permanent display in the Louvre.*

“Sans Titre” (2013) by Safaa Mazirh, presented within a series of photographic nudes displayed at Afriques Capitales. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Detail from a series of photographic images and filmed sequences created by French artist Alexis Peskine, titled “Le Radeau de la Meduse” (2016).
Photography by Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (Untitled, 2014) and an installation titled “Points of Resistance” (2017) by the French-Beninese artist Emo De Medeiros. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The Mezzanine Display Area and the East and West Upper Tiers

Positioned on the Mezzanine area, and across two upper wings of the Grande Halle, were several large installation pieces and mixed-media sculptural works. Firstly, in the east wing, was an ethereal and labyrinthine structure made out of delicate and very fragile white, paper-based illuminated panels, created by the Cameroonian artist Maurice Pefuria – titled “Continuum,” (2017).

“Continuum” (2017) by Cameroonian artist Maurice Pefuria, located in the east wing of the Grande Halle de la Villette, symbolising the fragility and precarity of life. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Centrally, on the Mezzanine level, were three works by the Nigerian artist Abdulrazaq Awofeso (“A Thousand Men Can Not Build a City” 2017), Egyptian artist Nabil Boutros (“Un Rêve,” 2016 – displayed as a cloud-like sculptural work suspended from the ceiling), and a dramatic work by the Bahamian mixed-media artist Lavar Munroe’s – titled, “Of the Omens He Has as He Entered His Own Village…” (2017), shown below.

Exhibition view of a striking sculpture by the Bahamian mixed-media artist Lavar Munroe (b. Nassau, 1982), displayed on the Mezzanine Level of the Grande Halle. Photo: Carol Dixon.

In the west, a vast video installation by South Africa’s William Kentridge dominated the entire 4th tier of this upper balcony area, presented as a sequence of dynamic silhouettes projected across three large screens and set to an accordion-based musical soundtrack to form the intricate audio-visual projection “More Sweetly Play The Dance” (2015).

Detail from the installation”More Sweetly Play the Dance” (2015), by the renowned South African conceptual artist William Kentridge. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Concluding thoughts…

It was absolutely wonderful to spend time viewing and engaging with the diversity of artworks presented in Afriques Capitales. This was especially significant because of the history of exhibiting practice at the Grande Halle de la Villette in relation to the early showcasing of contemporary visual art by African and Diasporan artists three decades ago during the ground-breaking (but also controversial) group exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989). There is no-one else curating and interpreting major international exhibitions at this present moment who is successfully addressing the political aesthetics, geopolitical complexities and cultural dynamics of globalisation, transnationalism, diaspora formation and urbanisation to the same depth of interpretation, intellectual sophistication and curatorial  nuance as Simon Njami.

Carol Dixon pictured at the entrance to the exhibition Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, 17 May 2017.

I close – as I began – with reflections on the significance of Afriques Capitales, expressed by the curator himself: an exhibition that had a profound impact upon me when viewed at La Villette on 17th May 2017, and an experience that has also prompted my imminent return to France to see Episode 2 of Afriques Capitales: Vers le Cap de Bonne-Espérance [Capital Africas: From Lille to the Cape of Good Hope] on display at the Gare Saint Sauveur in Lille later in the summer.

“The creolisation of the city refers precisely to the disorganised sphere that often overflows into the carefully calibrated sphere of the public domain. It expresses the dynamic and contemporary part of the city on which it imprints its particular rhythm… By losing the visitor in a world that cannot be entirely claimed by anyone in particular, we intend to force people to think in a different manner and to conceive of otherness in new terms”

[“La créolisation de la ville concerne précisément le domaine non organisé qui déborde souvent de la sphère calibrée du domaine public. Elle exprime la partie dynamique et contemporaine de la ville à laquelle elle imprime son rythme particulier… En perdant le visiteur dans une monde qu’il serait incapable de revendiquer totalement, nous entendons le contraindre à se penser autrement et à penser l’altérité en des terms nouveaux.]

Simon Njami – curator of the exhibition “Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas” (2017: pp. 19-21)

The exhibition Afriques Capitales / Capital Africas continues at the Gare Saint Sauveur, Lille, until 3rd September 2017.

A bilingual (French/English), illustrated catalogue of the exhibition has been published by Kehrer (in association with La Villette and Lille3000), with further context about the featured artworks and the exhibition’s core themes discussed throughout both episodes of the project.


*Alexis Peskine’s video-based installation piece “Le Radeau de la Meduse” (2016) takes its name from a famous 19th century oil painting by the French artist Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) – also titled, Le Radeau de la Méduse [The Raft of the Medusa] (1819). This work is considered to be one of the most iconic and influential artworks from the Romantic period of French painting, and references the shipwreck of a 19th century slave ship off the coast of Senegal.


An interview with curator Simon Njami, discussing his work on Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas in conversation with the journalist and cultural commentator Virginie Ehonian: (See also Virginie Ehonian’s extended interview with Simon Njami for Africultures)

Njami, Simon (2017) Afriques Capitales/Capital Africas, Exhibition Catalogue. Heidelberg and Berlin: Kehrer Verlag, in association with La Villette and Lille3000. 208 pages. 115 colour and b&w illustrations. ISBN: 978-3-86828-792-9. URL:


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