As Njami likes it

Simon Njami on the show he has curated for the Jo’burg Art Fair and why he has called it As You Like It

In an interview, the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat responded to a critic who tried to ascribe his interpretation to one of his own canvases. He said: “As you like it.”

Basquiat’s answer is charged with irony. He uttered it at a time when his career had impressively shot up. He had left the New York subway, the walls of which bore his signature, having been invited, along with two other very young artists, to Documenta in Kassel, Germany, where his work was very successfully received. In New York, he became the new idol.

At the time when he spoke these words he had moved beyond the phase of empathetically wanting to impose his own interpretation as the only possible one. Even better, he understood how the art world worked and set himself apart through his personality and character. Thus he erected an insurmountable wall between himself, his work and his commentary on it. The work no longer belonged to him. It entered into the public domain and, from that point onward, everyone could add their two cents’ worth. Not that Basquiat considered the specialists’ opinion an absolute truth.

But, because of the way in which the art world is organised, the specialist’s opinion, according to his or her influence, will be decisive in the manner in which the artwork’s arrival in the public domain will proceed. If the critic is influential, the work will inevitably attract the interest of a gallery or a dealer, as well as institutions, whose role it is to endorse the aesthetics and seize the opportunity so as not to be left behind. There is, therefore, an objective collusion between the various players, even if some deny it.

We simply have to face the fact that it has become difficult to draw a clear divide between the dealers and art historians or critics, seeing that some dealers display the qualities often ascribed to critics.

It is the complicated analysis of these sometimes incestuous relationships that exist between the market and art production that governs the design of the exhibition, As You Like It.

Obviously, we do not use this expression ironically in the same way as Basquiat used it. Here we are rather dealing with Shakespeare and the concept of freedom. This freedom means that all markets are regulated by the law of supply and demand. The market is the specific space in which the customer is king. The galleries, which operate like supermarket shelves, offer products that the “customer-king” is free to buy, or to ignore. The customer suddenly becomes the main character of this new scenario and both the artist and the gallerist are reduced to playing a secondary role.

For the Jo’burg Art Fair we have aimed to pervert this well-established system by throwing in a contradictory element: the exhibition. As You Like It is a journey on the other side of the mirror. Its purpose is to initiate an open dialogue between the two extremes of the art world: the producer and the buyer.


The Jo’burg Art Fair takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre from March 14 to 16 and includes commercial shows and the curated exhibition As You Like It. There will be a programme of discussions on March 15 at the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein about the African art market and the impact of art fairs on cities. The extract by Simon Njami was taken from the art fair catalogue. On March 15 there will be a party at the old JSE building in Newtown. More on

This story was commissioned by Art Logic for the Jo’burg Art Fair

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