Simon Rouby and Native Maqari, winners of the Villa Kujoyama, tell us about their latest project
Simon Rouby and Native Maqari’s practice and research revolves around migration and the black experience. They spent three months at the Villa Kujoyama, in Kyoto, to understand the journey of Yasuke, the first non-japanese samurai. Their research led to their latest project Détours d’un Quartier monde, created in collaboration with the artist Smaïl Kanouté. The project is exhibited at the ICI – Institut des Cultures d’Islam until 30 july 2023.
Updated on 04/08/2023
You both have very different backgrounds. Can you tell us a little about that?
Simon: We both have a background in drawing, and I have also made some animated films, but we met in the graffiti environment when Native came to Paris from New York in 2004. When we work together we never really draw, it’s more of a dialogue and that’s why we tend to end up being curators or organizers for collaborations.
Native: Simon studied animation at Cal Arts and I studied comparative literature in New York and Cairo, Egypt. We both grew up doing a lot of graffiti and when I first moved to France I was lucky to be dropped in the centre of the movement which back then was in Belleville, Paris. There was an avant- garde collective called 1984 being formed and that’s how I met Simon.
You first joined forces in 2017 for a project called Blackout. Could you tell us more about how you began to work together?
Native: We had worked together on multiple projects before with the 1984 collective, but Blackout was our first official, institutional collaboration as a duo. I was participating in a project for the Nigerian Pavilion in Venice and Simon was at the Villa Médicis as a laureate that same year. I’d just come back from Spain where I was helping refugees from North Africa and the Middle East with translating paperwork. Simon’s project, The Sleeping Giant, was also centred on that. We just happened to have our heads in the same place. We knew what we wanted to say, it was just a matter of finding out how we were going to say it. Blackout is centred around cheap labour and migration which was very topical at the time in Italy.
Simon: In Blackout we physically erased Villa Médicis and a couple of other monuments with facades that are meant to be symbols of power. I was trying to expand the concept of cinema – remove the red velvet seats and even the screen to see what happens – so it was natural that we experimented with this massive projection on to the Villa Médicis, which symbolically removed it in order to better reveal its true symbolism.
You have just returned from a residency in Japan at the Villa Kujoyama which involved research into the figure of Yasuke Kurosan, a black Samurai. Could you tell us about the project?
Simon: After Blackout we met in Nigeria a few times and worked on a project in Native’s hometown, Zaria. That project got us interested in equestrian processions called Durbar, where all the noble families come and pledge their allegiance to the Emir of the town. We were invited to follow a specific family and later, when we were looking at images of the procession, we felt there was a strong similarity between the figure of the Haussa warrior and the figure of the samurai. The figure of the black samurai was embedded in the hip hop culture of the 1990s and we started looking at the historical reality of that. Yasuke was a slave brought over by the Jesuits in the 16th century when they were first trying to colonise Asia and reach Japan. He was brought there by Valignano, the main representative of the Pope in Asia at the time, and traded in the diplomatic negotiations that happened with daïmo Nobunaga. Yasuke arrived as a slave and rose to become a noble, a Samurai. This figure was the starting point for our project, but we didn’t want to treat him too literally. He was more of an inspiration for a comparative study between the Sahel and Japan.
Native: Yasuke could well have come from a noble family. A lot of slaves came from opulent, prosperous societies with a sophisticated culture. The collective refusal of Europe and the West to acknowledge that has to do with the fact that they needed to objectify these people and remove all semblance of humanity in order to commodify them. It can be difficult to study them as a scholar because of lack of data, but as artists we have the freedom of imagination, and we can use fiction to push the research further.
How did you take advantage of your residency at the Villa Kujoyama?
Simon: In order to develop the idea we had to go to Japan for long enough to meet a lot of different people. We were supposed to go in 2020, but that was postponed multiple times for obvious reasons, and we didn’t end up going until 2023. Our original plans had been thwarted so many times that we decided to just take it as it went, and that ended up being the best plan. One meeting ended up leading to another. The fact that we had Villa Kujoyama as a stable base helped the natural flow of the research. We got to meet artists, musicians, scholars... It was a very rich experience.
For your latest project, Détours d’un Quartier monde at the Institute des cultures d’Islam, you are working with the artist Smaïl Kanouté. What inspired this project which features Yasuke?
Simon: Smaïl Kanouté is from the Goutte d’Or area of the 18th arrondissement in Paris. Historically it is the neighbourhood of the African diaspora. We first met Smaïl because we had similar interests around Yasuke. During the first lockdown we zoomed and discussed approaches around the character. Smaïl is a performer. He travels in order to meet different communities and then uses his body to convey theses different facets of the black experience.
The first thing we did with Smaïl was to use one of the rituals of the Durbar tradition which is turbaning. It’s a ritual which signifies that you are receiving a higher noble title. After witnessing the ritual in Nigeria Native decided to learn the process, and the first person he turbaned was Smaïl. So that was a very ritualistic way in which to introduce him to our research.
With Smaïl, we decided to apply all this research to Paris. In the project there are two circles. One is the size of the planet, inspired by our research in Africa and Japan, the other is inspired by the smaller 1 km diameter circle we were allowed to navigate during the lockdown. It reduced our world to “planet Goutte d’Or” and the final show is about the neighbourhood. We invited artists from around the corner to show work, so there we were acting as artists and curators.
Native: That reduction to a 1km diameter played an almost physical role in the creation and curation of the project. Everything comes from that circle – the artists and the materials for the exhibitions and installations, but at the same time they come from all over the world. It’s both local and international, intimate and distant.
What are your plans for the future, both individually and together?
Native: We’re stuck together! We just tied our futures together in a monumental project in Nigeria.
Simon: The natural evolution of us working in Nigeria and inviting people to work with us there led us to create an art centre and artist residency in Abuja, Nigeria. It’s been open a year now but is still in the first stages of development. It’s called Sahel Studios. It’s an artist run space and we’re running it until it functions autonomously, and we can become artists again.
We have plans to invite Japanese artists there and are planning to keep going with our research comparing West Africa and Japan. We’ll probably show work next year which will be a continuation of our research into calligraphy, traditional music and instruments. That could be performances as well as exhibitions and installations.