Hamedine Kane lives and works between Brussels and Dakar. Through his practice he frequents borders, not as signs and factors of impossibility, but as places of passage and transformation, as a central element in the conception of itinerant identity. He uses words and images to highlight the notions of exile, wandering and movement but also to replace ‘political time’ with ‘living time’. GLEAN invited Kane to contribute to this issue as a Guest Editor, inviting two writers and introducing the work of a fellow artist. Kathleen Weyts interviewed him on the eve of the opening of the Kaunas Biennial in Lithuania.
Hamedine Kane’s practice bustles. He has spent the summer in Senegal, working on a new project. As we speak, he has just finished installing his work at the Kaunas Biennial, after which he will present installations in Riga and Ljubljana. At the beginning of September, he will travel to Rome to start his residency at Villa Medici.
KW: You’ve been working like crazy.
HK: Yes, and the new installation is huge, I even installed a small cinema. But I’m very pleased with the result.
KW: When we invited you to select two writers for this issue, you proposed Seloua Luste Boulbina and Orcel Makenzy.
HK: Seloua is a philosopher that I really appreciate. She introduced me to a lot of other writers, like Edward Saïd and Frantz Fanon. She has a very sharp way of dealing with postcolonial issues, and she also has an appetite for creating relationships with artists. I think artists need philosophers and vice versa. Writers and scientists in general need artists to clarify their thoughts and concepts. And artists need their insights: they reinforce our practice with theoretical content and allow us to question the form and the objects we create. For the last seven years, I’ve been having a dialogue with Seloua about her practice, her thinking and mine. And, for this invitation, I thought she would be the most appropriate person to share her observations on artists.
I have developed a relationship with Seloua that is one of constant dialogue. It’s not really the usual correspondence that you might have in the old way — two artists or two writers, or an artist and a writer, exchanging letters. We see each other a lot. She often comes to see my exhibitions and I go to attend her lectures. Afterwards we have a drink and talk. Sometimes she invites me to philosophical meetings where she asks me to speak. Our dialogue develops around many themes … of course, themes related to exile and mobility, but also themes related to Africa’s position in the world, Africa’s relationship with its former colonies, and the relationship between African countries.
In her thinking, she opens up possibilities for dialogue in a more interesting way than is usually the case. In fact, her text talks about the in-between worlds that artists live in. An in-between world is a concept and an idea developed by Edward Saïd: we live between two worlds, and between these worlds there are interesting things to discover. The fact of being between Africa and Europe, for example. At the same time inhabiting these spaces in a way that’s a bit constrained, sometimes a bit difficult, and so you have to negotiate. I like this idea of negotiation that she develops in her text.
KW: The in-between world is physical, but it’s also mental?
HK: Yes, above all it’s mental. In-between worlds become interesting when they play with the mentality or psycho-psychic of the people who experience them. It starts as a crisis and then it becomes something to think about or something that inspires you to create. It’s a way of living in the world, but in a sensitive way. That’s what in-between worlds are about. But it’s also the spaces that exist, the spaces of countries in conflict — for example, what we can see in Palestine, it’s also the restricted spaces for mobility, for migrants. Calais, for example, is an in-between world. All the work I did there was inspired by that.
KW: You spend a lot of time in border areas. Now you’re in Lithuania. The Ukrainian war is very close. There’s also a history with Russia that’s very violent, very recent. At the same time, in Africa today, especially in West Africa, the old tensions between the Western world and Russia are playing out. How do you see this?
HK: Yes, these are issues and situations that really interest me. Russia’s war in Ukraine is a kind of permanent situation here. People are afraid and they talk about it all the time. It’s a kind of trauma. I’m not here by chance. I’m here because I think political issues are important in my work; I think that’s why I was invited, to try to get a real analysis of what’s going on. But what’s also important here is that history seems to be repeating itself to some extent. Here I’ve tried to evoke, in the School of Mutants, the presence of African students who went to study in Moscow, but also in the whole Eastern region, in satellite countries like Ukraine and Lithuania, but also Poland and even East Germany. That was in the 60s. I want to understand what they learned there and how it affected them when they returned to Africa. These are often people who were very involved in the decolonisation of Africa. It also raises questions about the Russian presence in Africa today, which is very complicated. I think it’s a disaster for countries like Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), and I can imagine Niger in the near future if the situation is not resolved soon. I think artists are invited to position themselves in relation to this current situation and reality. I don’t know if we have a lot of power to change things or if we have a very strong voice, but I think it’s really important to be aware of politics and to get involved. It’s very interesting to be here right now, on the border between Lithuania and Russia, and to feel things physically, to see the fear in people’s eyes, in their behaviour, to witness how these tense political situations also affect people’s mentality, their freedom of thought and expression. Europe is in a state of crisis, it’s not limited to Eastern Europe. People here feel deeply European. They have the impression that in Brussels or Paris, for example, people are more outraged about the situation in Africa, forgetting that Europeans themselves are on the brink of war. I think that understanding this, whether here or in Africa, would enable us to have more accurate analyses or responses, to understand that the current crises affect Africans, Europeans and the rest of the world equally and that no one is immune. I think it’s good that artists can create spaces for production and dialogue like this, so that the freedom to think and act doesn’t disappear.
KW: Do you think art can change the world?
HK: It’s an old question, and it’s a bit presumptuous to say ‘yes’. What I mean is that it’s the power of artists to act on their world, on reality and on what’s happening around them, and to be concerned about all the issues in society. I think that the changes that can happen, whether they are revolutions or major social or political changes, are also brought about by very long-term commitments. I think that activists, artists and intellectuals, all play a role in creating or bringing about change. That’s what I really think. I don’t have a lot of power, but every time I’m given a space to express myself, I use it to say the things that I think deeply, in a committed way, and I use it to invite other voices, as I did here with Seloua and Orcel Makenzy.
KW: What’s interesting is that you don’t work in the isolation of the art market. You move around, you function in biennial and artist-run spaces that directly address an audience. You don’t isolate art as an object you can obtain, but you use it as a physical and a mental space, linking it to philosophy, politics, science. Is the School of Mutants your expression of the in-between?
HK: Yes, exactly. It’s a very precise analysis. The market is too strong, the demands are too great — so for me the attitude as an artist is an attitude of resistance. At the moment, if you want to be an artist, you have to find your own space. The idea of creating the School of Mutants with Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro really came from there. We were thinking about how we could create our own tools for production and mobilisation that we could activate anywhere and everywhere without it getting out of hand, without creating a production company. We’re the ones who decide what’s going to happen inside, what’s going to be said inside and how we’re going to do it. Godard used to say, ‘You don’t need production companies, you need production offices everywhere.’ That’s more or less what we try to do. The School of Mutants is really a production tool. It’s also a space of freedom where we can welcome people, where we can welcome artists, movements, thinkers and citizens. It’s also about looking at the academic field today, at universities. What kind of knowledge are we producing? What are we training people to do? To be free, to simply produce, to consume? The School of Mutants is trying, in a very modest way, to take a step to the side and create a free space for mobilisation and production that can both create and shape thought and that has the flexibility to be constantly renewed. We don’t really need the means of crazy production. You can do small things or even big things with very little means.
KW: You’ve studied intensely the utopian education systems that had a great impact on Senegal after independence. Isn’t what you’re trying to do with the School of Mutants also a kind of reproduction of the utopian idea of what education could be?
HK: Yes, but to put it very simply, I think everyone can teach, everyone has something to teach, and we all have something to learn, whether it’s about the world, other people, art itself. What is art today, what is beauty, what is a beautiful object, what is thinking, how do we think? For example, in my village, it’s very interesting to look at how we create spaces for thinking to happen. Since I’ve lived in Europe and Africa, I’ve seen a lot of differences. Now that I’m also going to art schools — and that’s how I met Brahim Tall, by the way — I can see how difficult it has become to have the freedom to think and to see. How difficult it is for people to live in our societies, which are becoming more and more anxious. The institution and the global economic system are so dominant, it prevents people from taking their destiny into their own hands. People are under a lot of pressure, and that also applies to the art world. I think my desire comes from this observation, which is a very personal observation, but also from reading people like all those writers and thinkers I quote in my work when I make installations, but also from people who are not known at all in the West. It’s my grandmother, my uncles, or people I meet, crazy people. I love spending time with people who are considered crazy in Senegal. They’re also considered marginal, but in fact they’re very much in love with their freedom and their power to act.
KW: We’ve already talked about Seloua Luste Boulbina. The second writer you suggested is Makenzy Orcel.
HK: Orcel Makenzy is a writer of my generation. We met two or three years ago during a residency I was doing in Paris at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Montmartre. We talked a lot about the act of creation, about writing, about the convergences that can exist between poetic or novelistic writing and film and visual work. I think there’s also something bigger that connects us. Makenzy is Haitian, Caribbean. I’m African, so we have ancestors in common. What I really want to do in my work now is to try to connect the Caribbean and African spaces and explore how we can talk to each other. These are also in-between worlds. There is also the common legacy of the slave trade. The Caribbean-African links existed in the 1960s when the first African students came to study in European universities, in Belgium, France and almost everywhere else in Europe. But after independence there was a kind of break. One of my projects is to reactivate this dialogue between Africans and Caribbeans. The other thing that really interests me about Makenzy is that he’s really an old-school poet. Of course he writes a lot of novels, but he’s really a great poet who works with language, who creates language. That’s what he really is, a creator, an incredible stylist. His writing has a very powerful beauty, it’s a language that overflows. He creates a language that comes out of his creoleness. It’s very refreshing for me. It’s like something new has suddenly appeared on the scene. I thought it was important to continue this dialogue with him through your magazine.
KW: You also introduced us to the work of Brahim Tall, a young Brussels-based artist whom you met a few years ago at LUCA School of Arts …
HK: I’m being invited more and more to art schools nowadays, and, when I have time to do it, I try to make myself available, to share my personal experience: what is it like to be an artist today? How did I become one? What interests me? Brahim is a very interesting person who really lives and acts in the city. He’s also a kind of a ‘mutant’ and has a lot of questions. He’s very, very curious. He’s very interested in form and in the meaning of things. He’s interested in photography, film and music, but also in activism, identity politics and gender issues. I’m interested in the latter because it’s not my world at all. It’s also about alternative spaces where people are completely attached to freedom and that’s what drives creation. The few times I’ve seen Brahim I’ve felt a bit of that strength. The other thing that interested me is that Brahim is of mixed origin.He’s of Dutch, Belgian and Senegalese descent. He doesn’t know Senegal very well, but he has this yearning for Senegal. This yearning for a country you do not know, I find it very moving. I think he can also use it as a tool for production and creativity. I’ve still got a lot of his work to discover, but I’m spending time with him and maybe would like to invite him to an exhibition of this kind. I find it important to share my production and exhibition spaces. If artists have spaces, I think they should share them with other artists who don’t, that’s how we expand our space for production and freedom.
KW: Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Moussem, the Brussels nomadic arts centre? You made an exhibition with them for the Moussem Cities Dakar project, but you continue to work with them as an artist-in-residence. Can you tell me a little bit about what this entails for your practice today?
HK: Strangely enough, I don’t work much in Brussels or in Belgium in general. I get invited to all these biennials in the world, but there’s not much space to show my work in Belgium apparently. Moussem invited me for one of the first big exhibitions of my work in Brussels. I would like to thank them for that. I like the fact that Moussem is an arts centre that is interested in artists from the South as a whole, and that it was founded by people who don’t necessarily come from the professional art world. There’s also a sense of freedom. I’m in residence, but I’m not obliged to do anything specific. They provide a space and production facilities that you can use whenever you need them. I’d like to work with them more, but I’ve been so busy all year, so unfortunately I haven’t spent much time in Brussels. There’s a new team in place now, which I feel is quite dynamic and I think we’ll be able to get things done in the future. I’d like to work on another big exhibition in Brussels if that’s possible, because Brussels is also my city now — I feel a bit Belgian, at home there. I think it would be good if I could work a bit more in Belgium, to take advantage of the artistic space, to continue the dialogue with artists like Sammy Baloji and Vincent Meessen and curators like Sorana Munsya. I work also with the ERG (School of Graphic Research), so I participate a bit in the artistic life of the country, but I haven’t had many opportunities to present my work. So I think that’s what we’re going to be working on with Moussem in the coming months and years, to organise spaces not only for shows, but also for creation and production.