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Heaven, hell, purgatory Revisited by contemporary African artists at MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst
Pélagie Gbaguidi, Dansleventreduserpentdanhomê, 2013. Installation view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Photo: Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt.

FRANKFURT.- Paradise, purgatory and hell: the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main is transforming into Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Fifty artists from more than twenty African countries are taking a look at this classic of world literature. The major show is covering the museum’s entire exhibition space of 4,200 square meters, and includes twenty-three works produced explicitly for this occasion. Taking their own widely differing cultural and religious backgrounds as a starting point, the artists investigate individual thematic sequences of the Divine Comedy.

The MMK planned this extensive presentation in collaboration with the internationally renowned author and curator Simon Njami, who has developed the exhibition.

In his epic poem, Dante reflected on theological, philosophical and moral matters that still bear relevance for the issues facing society, politics and the economy today, but also questions of faith. The exhibition proceeds on the premise that Dante’s visions are applicable to many cultures and many religions.

Curator Simon Njami explains his exhibition concept as follows: “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante. It is with something truly universal. Something that touches us all to the very core, regardless of our beliefs or convictions: our relationship to the afterlife. That is precisely the theme that is presented here by a rich choir of voices that, like an opera or symphony—regardless of the dissonances and contrasts—owes its beauty to the unique contribution made by each individual. In other words, it’s about our relationship to life, and thus also to death.”

The artists featured in this show have embarked on personal journeys of the beyond. In the process, they have concerned themselves above all with the timeless questions in Dante’s work, and how those questions relate to the topics of importance to us today. “In recent years the hitherto Western-dominated contemporary art discourse has come increasingly under the influence of non-European protagonists, theorists, artists and curators. In our society—defined as it is by globalization, migration and the crossing of cultural boundaries—it is of great importance for us to contribute to shaping these developments with exhibitions such as ‘The Divine Comedy’”, observes Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the Frankfurt MMK. In the wake of a number of Africa-related projects over the past years, this exhibition aims to inquire into the significance of African artists’ work not primarily in the post-colonial context, but above all with regard to their aesthetics. The focus is accordingly less on historical or political content than on art as an expressive means of transporting and communicating the unspoken.

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy between 1307 and 1321 during his period of forced exile from his native Florence, where he had his intellectual roots. His status as a political outcast moved him to contemplate on the conditions of his time, and his thoughts about the political, societal and religious circumstances are reflected in his epic. With this poem, he created a work that links central aspects of Christianity with the pagan ideas of antiquity: on his imagined travels in the otherworld, Dante has himself led through the realms of hell, purgatory, and paradise by his muse Beatrice and Virgil, the poet of classical Rome. The episodes he experiences there range from paradigmatic examples of human transgression in hell to repentance and recognition on the mountain of purgatory, and finally to salvation in paradise.

For centuries and to the very present, Dante’s literary work and metaphorical language have been an outstanding source of inspiration for visual artists. His verses open up pictorial vistas that have kindled great imaginary powers in painters and sculptors alike, and led to masterpieces in the history of European art—from Medieval manuscripts produced shortly after Dante’s death to works by Giotto di Bondone, Sandro Botticelli, Eugène Delacroix, William Blake and Auguste Rodin, and finally Robert Rauschenberg, a prominent representative of American Pop Art in the MMK collection.

On the three floors of the MMK, the artists will present their works in various media: painting, photography, sculpture, video, installation and performance. In some cases the otherworldly realms will be visualized as godless places brought to life by the power of the imagination; in other works they will be associated with ideas of divinity, hope or loss.

In the tenth canto of Paradise, Dante reflects on the unutterable and nameless primal force that created everything and exceeds the realm of humanity. This is where the artists take their point of departure in employing their artistic language creatively to formulate and convey unspeakable ideas.

The exhibition curator Simon Njami (b. 1962) has organized numerous exhibitions of contemporary African art, among them “Africa Remix” (2004–2007). He curated the African pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007 and the FNB Joburg Art Fair in Johannesburg in 2008, and has published numerous writings on African art.

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