Simon Njami

Escritor, crítico de arte y comisario de la bienal de arte contemporáneo de Dakar


Any form of reflection comes from shadows; from that ungraspable space from which we are trying to bring things to light. I work in shadows and I try to give forms to shadows, not contours but forms. Shadows are not absent, but hidden, ungraspable. When the Plaza de Mayo widows were gathering to claim their beloved ones, they were in an intimate communion with the disappeared (los desaparecidos). In a beautiful song, “Dancing with the Missings”, the singer Sting tried to describe what they were experiencing: their brothers, husbands, daughters, and sons were there all of the sudden, like invisible ghosts; like a writer (ghost writer) who would never be credited for the book that he however wrote.


Shadows are at the heart of any artistic attempt to reveal the invisible because, as Hegel stated: we cannot know what we know. We are, therefore, condemned to find out what are those different pieces we are made of. And to that end, we create stories that are pure fictions, little arrangements we make with the so-called reality.


What stories allow us to do is to tell about moments, ideas, feelings that are invisible; to create a form of “usness” that goes beyond any border. When a storyteller talks, he is at the centre of the game. We see him and we know that he is creating a world of fantasy. He remembers, and while remembering, he creates. The listener is never asked to agree but to believe. A story is not directed to our brains but to our inner self. Any time I hear “once upon a time”, I am trapped. I retrieve those magic moments of my childhood when no reality was forced upon us. A land of freedom and of oblivion. I sink. I move from my reality to a world of fantasy that yet becomes more real than the “concrete world”.


Our personal story only becomes History when it is shared. But that very notion could be assimilated to a ruin, or to an ensemble of ruins which, to quote Toshome Gabriel describes as an ensemble of confused and blurred remembrances and it is from those ruins that we envision the world. The very gaze that Maurice Merleau-Ponty places at the heart of time is the memory that builds us.


It is what enables us to read a book that will become unique. That form of memory could have been named shadows because it is composed of an ensemble of contradictory items that Henri Delacroix, a French psychologist called the “the chaotic world of sensations”. What is meant here is that we all share the same inner chaos but that what we call language is the tool that can transform this chaos into forms. What is its function in the constitution of a memory and what kind of ruins does it leave behind if not to create what I would call a positive misunderstanding?


That particular form of misunderstanding reminds us of our humanity and of that forgotten story that sleeps in all minds. Misunderstandings make room to spaces in between where a dialogue can occur. We need this space in between that creates something else that forces us to fill the gaps that allow the awakening of any possible community.


Misunderstandings create shadows and shadows lead to opacity or even more, to darkness. When Conrad wrote his novel, the darkness he was referring at was not related to any physical space, even if he located the book in Africa, but to the inner self. We should not mind that darkness, as long as we associate it with the magic of the shadow, the magic of the unseen that necessarily requires an initiation to become intelligible. That magic is contained in the spoken words; in the mystery of story telling. It does not claim any objectivity, contrary to what is called history. History can only be performed.


I have this dream that comes regularly. It is always night, in some forest. It is hot and I sweat. And a strange music starts. And I feel my feet, my arms, my head, my entire body taken by the rhythm. I close my eyes. When I open them, I see dozen of forms inviting me to join them. I see Guevara, I see Boris Vian, I see Pushkin, I see Cassiopeia, I see the Queen of Sheba and the Queen Nginza. They wave at me. And I follow them. And we dance.


And I dance with my mother. I dance a waltz as if it were the first and the last dance ever danced on earth. She may not visible to anyone, but she is really there, with me.