“The Divine Comedy:
and Hell Revisited
SCAD Savannah, GA
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Washington, DC | 2015
Curated by Simon Njami
For this featured FSA Inspiration, we highlight an exhibition curated by Simon Njami who brought together more than 40 Contemporary African Artists to provide a modern reflection on Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century poem, The Divine Comedy. Written in exile during a politically tumultuous time in medieval Europe, Dante penned the first epic in the vernacular of Italian. Dante’s vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise reimagines Homer and Virgil’s narratives on myth and war as a medieval tapestry, weaving together poetry, theology, and astronomy on a macrocosmic scale. Unique to Dante, however, is how love acts as the primordial force that holds all things together, not agon (strife): “Love moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.145).
In his interview for Whitewall Art, Njami says that he chose Divine Comedy as a backdrop for the exhibition after the “striking realization” regarding Dante’s poem:
In his interview for Whitewall Art, Njami says that he chose Divine Comedy as a backdrop for the exhibition after the “striking realization” regarding Dante’s poem: “The humanity was reduced to Europe, and even more, to Italy. The reflections linked with the afterlife are not exclusively Western. All around the world (and this is what makes humankind), people have been wondering and guessing, trying to find answers. I wanted to share those questions with artists who were not part of Dante’s universe, and give to the notions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise a larger meaning than that of Christianity.” He also adds that “it is not about art, or Africa. It is about meanings. Some of the artists in the show are Muslims, some are Christians, and some don’t believe in any traditional God. They all live in the third millennium, while Dante’s poem was written in the 14th century. I wanted Dante’s work to be deconstructed from new perspectives. The challenge, if there was one, was to make the audience understand that Dante, like any artist, belongs to everyone. It is my conviction that our reflection is always richer when we are confronted to something that doesn’t seem to belong to us.”
“The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” is a tripartite of three different exhibitions, each showcasing artworks that reflect on one of Dante Alighieri’s realms: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. The project traveled to multiple locations, including MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, SCAD Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. In each institution, it was the first exhibition to occupy the entirety of the gallery space.
Please refer to the exhibition review by Kathryn Kramer to learn more about how the site-specific spatial setup within the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Gallery reflected upon the original circulation of Dante’s poem.
Selected Works from the Exhibition