I arrived in Paris in April 2018 via the Institut Français for a residency at Cité Internationale des Arts. In September 2019, Le 6b — the artist residency in Saint-Denis — approached me to discuss the possibility of curating a drawing exhibition at its exhibition space. On the 10km RER-D train ride from Paris (Châtelet) to Saint-Denis to meet them, I was greeted with a diverse population. There was a distinctly African presence, especially from North and West Africa.
Two months later, I conceptualised a new project, neuf-3, and persuaded Le 6b to accompany me on a new adventure. Of course, then there was the funding, which took me 18 months to raise. neuf-3 is a socially engaged public art project, drawing inspiration from Any Given Sunday, the project I curated in Cape Town in 2016.
Yet neuf-3 is different at the same time, and very much focused on the local context of Paris and Saint-Denis: the socioeconomic issues, the politics, and taking consideration of the history of Africans in Paris. In the last century, the French capital was home to black intellectuals from across the globe. Figures such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, the Nardal sisters (Paulette, Jane and Andrée), Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and many others made Paris their home from the 1920s.
Visual artists — such as African American Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nigerian Aina Onabulu, South Africans Ernest Mancoba and Gerard Sekoto, Cuban Wilfredo Lam — contributed to the Parisian artistic scene alongside the modern avant-gardes such as Maurice Vlaminck, André Derain, Pablo Picasso, the surrealists and the CoBrA group, to name a few. Despite this, many of the African artists who came to Paris then, and since, have gained recognition more easily elsewhere; the city’s institutions remained closed to them.
So, neuf-3 is also about paying homage to Paris’s African communities and acknowledging the contemporary African art scene. It is not asking for validation from Paris’ institutions; rather, it is particularly aimed at the residents of Saint-Denis with its high percentage of immigrants of African origin.
Many of the suburb’s citizens don’t frequent Paris’s elite museums, so I selected work by eminent artists with a particular focus on issues of African representation, memory, history and identity that would engage the Dionysiens — as the residents of Saint-Denis are often referred to. I too am now a resident of the suburb, since December last year.
The reproductions of artworks are displayed on shop fronts, in the niches of historic buildings, in the streets, public squares and around popular places, such as the train and tram stations.
For example, William Kentridge’s portrait of Frantz Fanon, or Samuel Fosso’s self-portrait of Kwame Nkrumah, or Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s paintings inspired by family photographs, or Barthélémy Toguo’s work on immigration and discrimination, or Dalila Dalléas Bouzar’s portraits of Algerian women, are only some of the works by some of the participating artists that pay tribute to the African communities of Saint-Denis — and of Paris.
Riason Naidoo is the curator of neuf-3. The show can be viewed here