Hassan Musa does not hate irony and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Western art has allowed him to create a playground of infinite variations.
His perception of the works he revisits is nourished by distance in time and space. A symbolic distortion that allows the burden of proof to be reversed, as one would say in law. The witnesses summoned to the stand, Delacroix, Titian, Caravaggio, Vermeer, suddenly find themselves transported into a topicality and a contemporaneity of which they perhaps had no idea, even though they were – each in their own way – revolutionaries. And it is perhaps this idea of revolution – in the sense of recurrence – that the artist discreetly introduces: the concept of eternal return so dear to Nietzsche. In French, the title of this series itself, The Peaceful Boatman* contains a polysemy that explores both interior and exterior senses. As for our moment in time, Musa stresses the human flows that some people have decided problematic. While inscribing very contemporary issues in his work, he manages to incorporate twists from a historical perspective.
Are the myths of the past so different from the myths of today and, above all, who could this mysterious boatman be and where does he get his peace of mind? Immigration, let’s use the word, needs boatmen. These shadows that operate in the shadows and charter floating tombs. There are official boatmen, international organisations, states. The most famous boatman I can think of didn’t have an easy job. But isn’t that, basically, the fate of any boatman? Charon had to close his ears to not to be moved by the lamentations of those who he was going to – once across the Styx – deposit at the gates of hell. But let’s come back to the artist who, omnipresent in his project, tells us about other forms of passage. Hassan Musa does not transport humans but spaces and temporalities. An Alchemist Magician, he takes us on a journey through deliberately anachronistic and visionary settings in which are mixed high-vis jackets and lightning bolts, Lampedusa and Batman, wordplay and visual games that transform the contemporary world into an illusion revealing all our obsessions, our hidden vices and our unacknowledged fears. The boatman, in this case, could just as well be perceived as a scout, in the primary sense of the word : the one who shows the way.
The passeur in the sense of transmitter is also the one who ensures a certain continuity and is concerned about the generations to come – the memory of the women and men who have lived; the transmitter is a link. And it will come as no surprise that Musa has a passion for one of the great transmitters of the twentieth century, Josephine Baker. Despite the badly timed and somewhat late celebrations, who among the young girls and boys of the twenty-first century really knows who Josephine was? Contemporary memories are cluttered with stereotypical images: the dancer with the banana belt, the muse of Le Bal Nègre, the queen of the Music Hall. But who knows how much of a resistance fighter Josephine was? I do not want to mention here her role during the Second World War or other facts such as her participation in the fight for desegregation in the terrible
1950s and 1960s in the United States. I want to talk about a radical ontological resistance that allowed her to elude all misconceptions, all clichés and allowed her, whatever the circumstances, to always be herself, evolving from one world to another without worrying about physical and moral boundaries. And at a time when some bad apostles would like to force citizens to give up a part of themselves to prove their adherence to the culture that welcomes them, she reminds us of the two loves she proclaimed loud and clear: “my country and Paris”. She would probably be prosecuted today for advocating communitarianism.
It would be stupid (but we are never immune to this highly contagious disease) to imagine that Musa used a passing news item to get interested in the girl from St. Louis. For years, and this corresponds perfectly to his artistic quest, this alchemist has been interested in the life of the lady. About the way she was perceived, the misunderstandings her life has raised and the way she presented herself to the world. There are passeurs, as we have seen, who exploit all the misfortunes of the world to carry out their culpable industry and others, on the contrary, who know how to do nothing other than reach out their hand to those who will come. James Baldwin, another great passeur of our time, wrote, when the authorities of a racist America arrested Angela Davis, that this story concerns us all: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night”.
Musa tells us that all the stories in the world are interdependent because they are made by humans. And nothing human should be foreign to us. This is what the peaceful passeurs all around the world remind us.
Simon Njami is a writer, curator, essayist and art critic. He is a specialist in contemporary art and photography in Africa. He is known for, amongst others, Africa Remix, The Divine Comedy, several editions of DAK’ART the Dakar Biennale, and Bamako Encounters – African Biennial of Photography.
*[Translator’s note: Passeur, in French, can mean a ferryman or boatman, a smuggler and also someone who is a transmitter of knowledge and culture from one era to another.]