“It’s important to create that new generation that will build the future we are all longing for. Now is the time for the new revolution in Africa. And the only weapon for this revolution is the brains we have, our ability of thinking.” – Simon Njami
A prominent intellectual, art critic and curator, Simon Njami together with an Italian non-profit foundation lettera27 are hoping to inspire a new generation of thinkers around Africa through AtWork, an educational format that uses the creative process to stimulate critical thinking among its students. Led by renowned artist-mentors, students participate in three day collective workshops to explore a certain theme through which they make personal and cross-cultural connections.
A part of the 2016 Dak’Art Biennale, Njami and lettera27 collaborated with the local arts organisation Kër Thiossane to host an exhibition of Moleskine notebooks created by the young artists that they have worked with in the various iterations of their programmes. Since 2012, AtWork has run workshops with young creative talent in Dakar, Abidjan, Kampala and Cairo, stimulating critical thinking and debate in order to inspire a new generation of thinkers around the continent. Curated by Katrin Peters-Klaphake, the exhibition marked the launch of their now successful crowdfunding campaign for AtWork Addis Ababa, which will be taking place as part of Addis Foto Fest in December of this year.
Visitors to the exhibition found themselves at the unexpected venue of a historic public library in Sicap Liberté 2, Dakar. When Léopold Senghor was president, this whole neighbourhood was a hub of cultural city life, and this public library an important part of that. However, in more recent years, the government has neglected the building and the space was subsequently abandoned. One of Njami’s visions for the biennale was to make art more accessible to people outside of the habitual international art crowds. AtWork’s library exhibition was one of the attempts made to take the biennale to spaces that it would not otherwise reach. The team renovated and repainted the library with the help of local volunteers in order to reintroduce those living in the neighbourhood to the building. Many residents came in and asked to be signed up once they saw the revamped space. One of those residents was an older Senegalese man who had been living in the area for many decades. He walked into the space with a sense of familiarity and nostalgia, later revealing that he had worked at this library in the 70s, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was still there, continuing to host arts and cultural events. Sicap Libertè 2 now has a renewed knowledge centre, and a new opportunity for learning and exchange.
Displayed on tables against the walls as well as hanging neatly from the ceiling were black Moleskines that reflected an incredible interweaving of personal stories, each unique in its subjectivity yet widespread in its reach. Whether through poetry, creative writing, painting or drawing, each book transported the viewer into the young artists’ world of societal and self-reflection. For example, Ian Mwesiga was a participant of AtWork in Kampala. His notebook was filled with self-portraits sketched in pen and pencil, often overlaid on one another, with his facial features often skewed. Mwesiga’s intention was to centre the other senses (besides sight) in the experience of drawing. He explored his face through touch and feel while closing his eyes, an exercise in the continued exploration of what constitutes the self.
Aligned to AtWork’s and lettera27’s mission, this exhibition is a consideration of knowledge, probing how we can build meaningful understandings about ourselves and the world, and asserting the idea of knowledge as a life-long pursuit. As Njami so eloquently writes:
“[It] is not an external element that comes to enlighten us. It is indeed recognition – that is, the realisation of what is already inside us, hidden in our souls, without our knowing or conceptualising it; in other words, it is the process of becoming aware of all the things we need to make sense of the visible and invisible world.”
AtWork’s next workshop will take place in Addis Ababa in collaboration with Addis Foto Fest and the internationally acclaimed artist Aida Muluneh. The participants, a mix of students from visual art and architecture schools, graphic designers and photographers, will come together to explore the theme of ‘What is home.’ As Njami remarked in an interview, when it comes to photography in Africa, it is always about reappropriating one’s own image, which raises the stakes as we all ponder what that image is going to look like, and what kind of futures young Africans imagine.
Atheel Elmalik is a recent graduate from Stanford University with a degree in Anthropology. She is an aspiring curator, focusing on African and African diasporic media and performance art.
AtWork Addis Ababa will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia over the course of Addis Foto Fest in December 2016. This article was first published in the September 2016 edition of ART AFRICA magazine.