The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited

7.3 / An Unending Theft of Opportunity

The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited

By Bryan Granger December 16, 2015

We are pleased to bring you this article as part of "An Unending Theft of Opportunity" with permission from our sister publication, Daily Serving.


The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, is an ambitious show, but originally I pondered the reason for viewing the work of African artists through a lens of an archetype of Western literature, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. While such an endeavor may not seem particularly edifying at the outset, curator Simon Njami’s selection of extraordinary works and adroit sequencing makes for a fascinating and important exhibition.

(from left to right) Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny. Another Day without You, 2013; five C-prints mounted on disec; 39.5 x 70.75 in. each. Ghada Amer. The Blue Bra Girls, 2012; stainless steel; 72 x 62.25 x 54 in. Lamia Naji. Immaculé, 2011; six C-prints mounted on Dibond; 45.25 x 61 in. each. Courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah. Photo: Marc Newton.

The exhibition itself exists as three thematic sections: Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell. In contravention to Dante’s own progression, the exhibition begins with Paradise, and the museum has denoted each with white, red, and black wall colors or accents, respectively. By presenting this exhibition through the lens of The Divine Comedy, a number of the works certainly do appear overtly religious. In some works, a connection to religion is obvious, such as Dimitri Fagbohoun’s Refigerium (2013), a confessional featuring video installations, and Andrew Tshabangu’s photographic series On Sacred Ground (2008). But several other works share this affinity in more subtle ways: Bili Bidjocka’s large painting Purgatorio Le Vestibule de L’Enfer E’criture Infinie (2014) and Guy Tillim’s photographs of breathtaking landscapes provide a mystical Romantic sensibility within the Paradise section. Along with these, Cheikh Niass’s installation La Série Arc en Ciel (2012) consists of twelve vibrant banners hanging in a row from the ceiling of the galleries as an architectural allusion to medieval cathedrals.

Yinka Shonibare MBE. How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Gentleman), 2006; installation view. Courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah. Photo: Marc Newton.

Many of the pieces in the exhibition were not created with specific religious issues in mind, yet Njami’s curatorial decisions help the works to open up, allowing them to actively comment on the specific themes within. Among these works are a series of photographs by Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny called Another (2013). In these five images, Fanny photographs stairwells from odd, dizzying perspectives, creating the effect of living in a world in which the laws of physics do not operate as expected. These works are hung in a smaller gallery with Lamia Naji’s Immaculé (2011), another photographic series that shows close-up views—overtly formalist in nature—of specific materials like curtains or concrete bricks. These photographs are juxtaposed with Ghada Amer’s floor sculpture The Blue Bra Girls (2012), a work ostensibly referring to a notorious incident in which a girl in a blue bra was violently detained by police during the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in December of 2011. The weightless formalist photographs echo the airiness of Amer’s steel sculpture—fitting characteristics of Paradise—until the viewer grasps the brutal subject matter of the floor work.

(from left to right) Bili Bidjocka. Purgatorio Le Vestibule de L’Enfer E’criture Infinie, 2014; mixed media on canvas; 110 x 177 in. Kader Attia. Repair Analysis, 2013; three mirrors with metal staples; two 62 x 47.25 in.; one 47.5 x 27.5 in. Courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art. Photo: Marc Newton.

Amer’s work formally belongs within the Paradise section but deals with heavy subject matter, and this duality foreshadows the hybrid nature of many of the works in the show. One of the more common models in the exhibition is that of Western and African juxtaposition, and these highly politicized works are seen in Purgatory—the liminal state that’s neither Paradise nor Hell. Works by Yinka Shonibare MBE—How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Gentlemen) (2006)—and Edson Chagas—the Oikonomos series (2012)—read in such a way. Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s powerful installation Silence (2008–2014) also leans in this hybrid direction, consisting of twenty-four traditional Muslim prayer mats, each with a pair of glitzy high-heeled shoes. Here, Bouabdellah uses a symbol of Western women to probe an Islamic society in which women are often marginalized. Appearing also within this hybrid model, Wim Botha’s striking Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön) (2013) replaces the marble of the original classical sculpture with dynamic, slightly abstracted bronze work.

Julie Mehretu. Fragment, 2009; installation view. Courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah. Photo: Marc Newton.

Throughout the show, other themes appear, and one is that of a journey—or more simply, a progression through time and space. Among the works that speak to this issue are Youssef Nabil’s series I Will Go To Paradise, Self Portrait, Hyéres (2008), all photographs portraying an identical landscape—the edge of a lake with the sun at the horizon—in which the artist progresses either into or out of the lake, depending on how the work is read. Certainly containing a titularly and aesthetically proclaimed religious context, the work references the progression from one realm to the next, much as Dante did within his epic poem. Likewise, Nicholas Hlobo’s excellent Tyaphaka (2012), a work stretching over 1,000 feet through a hallway, physically leads the viewer from one end of the building to the other.

Moataz Nasr. Dome, 2011; installation view. Courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah. Photo: Marc Newton.

Much of the exhibition must be read formally due to a lack of context and didactic materials. Despite this lack of information, the group of vivid and outstanding works and installations can certainly exist on its own. Indeed, some of the most formalist works in the exhibition excel in such an arrangement, including Kader Attia’s Repair Analysis series (2013)—a number of mirrors cracked in half and stitched together with wieldy metal staples—and Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Cercles De Cristal (2013), three similarly constructed sculptural installations in white, red, and black. With works like these, it is fascinating to see how they operate in specific contexts—even those seemingly unrelated to the conception of the work. Still, installing such disparate works together in such a specific lens without much context encourages diverse readings of each—something that could equally enhance or diminish each artist’s contribution.1

One thing, however, remains clear: Simon Njami’s efforts to present the work of contemporary African artists within a Western context yields remarkable results. Njami’s inclusion of a wide range of media helps elucidate one of the show’s redeeming qualities—that art has the capability to address common issues throughout cultures, societies, and times. In presenting these works in The Divine Comedy, Njami urges his audience to continually strive to reexamine our own preconceived notions of the boundaries we habitually draw within the art world at large.

The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists was on view at the SCAD Museum of Art, in Savannah, Georgia, from October 16, 2014 through January 25, 2015.


"The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists" was originally published on Daily Serving on November 12, 2014.


  1. To point to one specific instance, Ghada Amer’s The Blue Bra Girls is presented without any reference to the notable event that Amer is addressing. Broaching the political nature of the work via text could certainly have provided additional dimensions in which to consider other works within the show as well.

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