"We are always somebody’s stranger"
Three Questions for Simon Njami

As the curator of the trailblazing exhibition “Afrika Remix” (2004) and the cofounder of the art magazine “Revue Noire,” Simon Njami has fundamentally changed our view of contemporary African art. For Berlin Art Week, the Paris-based author and exhibition maker organized the show “Xenopolis.” At the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, he presents six international positions that deal with different aspects of urban life. “Xenopolis” is part of the exhibition project “Stadt/Bild. Image of a City” for which four of the German capital’s leading institutions are cooperating: Berlinische Galerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Together they are investigating the question of how we experience modern metropolises – particularly Berlin – and how our image of the city is changing.
The positions in your exhibition “Xenopolis” at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle seem to be quite divergent on first sight. How did you choose the artists and what was the “leitmotif” for your selection?
The positions are not different at all. What is different are the points of views, in the very sense of it. The artists in the show are coming from a different background, be it biographically or intellectually. I wanted to have as many voices as possible so that the audience could be offered different keys to enter the city. It has to do with heterology where you have different discourses coming together in one location. That situation opens other perspectives and allows us to experience heterotopy and heterochrony at the same time. I wanted to write a symphony and, as you know, it takes many different instruments to achieve a decent one.

The title “Xenopolis” also reminds of Xenophobia – a very current topic not only in Germany. Refugees fleeing to Europe, economic, social and cultural borders are becoming more and more pressing issues. What can exhibitions like “Xenopolis” archive in this context?
  First of all, remind to people that xenos is the stranger and that there is not only one way to deal with the stranger. From that radical, we can also build xenophilia, which would be the contrary of xenophobia. The show, by bringing together strangers that don´t all look strangers (most of the time the stranger is judged on his appearance), the audience might experience the declaration made once by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. “I is an other”.  I am trying to force people to think beyond preconceptions, and realize that we are always somebody’s stranger.

You are referring to Roland Barthes and to the idea of a semiotic reading of the city: ‘The city is a discourse, and this discourse is actually a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by inhabiting it, by traversing it, by looking at it” How do you personally experience the „language“ of Berlin?
I remember my trips to Berlin before the fall of the Wall. I spent entire days just strolling through the city, trying to find landmarks, trying to find history. The Berlin that I rediscovered after 1989 was like a field of ruins that attempted to reconstruct my memories. Cities are like this, too. They are the ideal graves for our piles of memories. Amongst all the other places directly tied to ghosts and memorial ruins, however, there is Alexanderplatz which does not cease to interrogate me. I believe I had known the place well even before coming to Berlin for the first time – on account of Alfred Döblin’s novel. The book which I had read when I was very young and its action set in the 1920s are imprinted in my memory to create a reality like none other. And every time when I find myself at Alexanderplatz and close my eyes, I can hear the sounds of the city of that era, the voices, the disputes; I am in the midst of these modest people somewhat dirty, somewhat villain, with their prostitutes and their procurers, their swindlers and, why not, their good and honest sides. I feel the extraordinary resonance of the city in my whole body, the giddy round of human passions, the permanent danger that lurks around the corner of every road, this urge for the metallic smell of blood … Of course, this Alexanderplatz – which I have never known but which sticks in my memory – does no longer exist. Yet I always look for it, relentlessly, and I relive it deep inside me every time I find myself again in the heart of this reconstructed, rearranged Berlin. It is true, I love the city. I love the perpetual movement that lives in it and the surprises that it holds in store at every street corner. The city forces me to be the avant-garde reader that Barthes evokes. And at the same time, it throws me directly into the contemporaneousness of our times.