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Art curator Simon Njami loved the works of Dante, but he realized that the renaissance text about hell, purgatory and paradise didn't speak to the experience all readers, including himself. He set out to re-imagine the Divine Comedy, to update it and make it more universal, with an exhibit of works by artists from across the African continent. Jeffrey Brown reports.
We incorrectly described the number of artists featured in this exhibition. The correct number is 40 artists from 18 countries displaying works in this show.
Finally tonight, a look at one of the canons in world literature through the eyes of African artists.
Here's Jeffrey Brown with the story.
The assignment was to take one of the great artistic achievements of Western culture, Dante's epic poem "The Divine Comedy," and play with it, translate it, reimagine it, through the work of 13 contemporary artists from Africa.*
SIMON NJAMI, Curator, "The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists": When you say Dante, "The Divine Comedy," everybody think he knows it, even if few people have really read it.
Curator Simon Njami has read and loved Dante. But at a certain point, he came to a realization.
It was supposed to be a universal book dealing with hell, purgatory and paradise. And I wasn't in the book.
You were not in the book, in Dante's book?
I decided that I would update Dante and make it more universal.
The results are now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, works that reflect ideas of heaven, purgatory, and hell.
This set of arresting images was created by photographer Aida Muluneh, who spent part of her youth in Canada and the U.S., before returning to her native Ethiopia. Here, she reworked a very old tradition of body painting to make some very new statements about contemporary life.
It was really looking at how people wear masks in order to get ahead in life, when everything is concealed. And a lot of the messages that I put in here, it's really a conversation about spite and how I feel that that is hell.
So, you know, it seems like everyone is running around to make money, to have power, to go to different places, but the real person is not what you see. There is a new generation where we're expressing ourselves that, yes, we're Africans, but it doesn't mean that we have to do always the cliche definition of what is considered African art.
I happen to be an artist from Africa, but what is Africa?
Dimitri Fagbohoun is another global citizen-artist.
I could have been — specify and I will say that I'm from Benin. I didn't grew up in Benin. I grew up in Cameron, so am I the fruit of that story? I have been in France for 20 years now and I feel French. Am I French, therefore? So I'm all those stuff.
Set in purgatory, Fagbohoun created a kind of confessional, with a video inspired by a very universal experience, the loss of a parent, in this case his father.
What happened when you lose someone, what remains, the pain is what remains unspoken. So I had that feeling of things that I wish I would have told my father and I wish that I heard from him. And the best way to do it was a confessional
Hell, in this exhibition, is dark indeed. A menacing video by Kenyan artist Mwangi Hutter plays on a loop, headless duelers by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare are poised to do the unnecessary.
A ship of heads by Jems Robert Koko Bi of Ivory Coast sits motionless, recalling the one used by Dante and his guide, Virgil, to cross the River Styx. And light barely escapes a dome of darkness created by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr.
It's up to you. You could be up in heaven or you can be down in hell. So, it's like it can work both ways.
It's not a literal response to Dante, Nasr says, but a response to what he sees happening in Egypt today.
Instead of searching for love, there's — now there's a lot of hate, violent, killing, all these things that we hear about all the time, which is really very strange. But I don't give solutions. I just make them see, look. Like, I magnify things. I make them bigger than usual, so they can see it. So that's how I see that the role of the artist should be.
For curator Simon Njami, there's another goal here, beyond shaking up given notions of heaven, purgatory and hell, that goes to the idea of Africa itself.
People think they know Africa. I have been to all the countries in Africa. I don't know Africa. I don't know Africa, because there's not such a thing as Africa.
Wait a minute. There's no such thing as Africa, you say?
Africa is a construction. The only thing that is real is the shape of the continent.
What do you want people to take from this exhibition?
I want them to forget about their notion of hell, purgatory and heaven.
And I want them, for those who have some, to forget about any preconception they had on contemporary African art. I mean, definitions are terrible, because there's always a counterdefinition. And experience is much more open. So, I want them to experience it and to be surprised and maybe to reframe a couple of ideas of ideas they had before they entered the show.
Many will have a chance to do just that, as the exhibition travels to museums around the world after wrapping here in November.
At the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.
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