An Essay by Sean O’Toole
Written words long outlast the emotions that give them form, weight and meaning as a text. We all know this, whether we have kneaded words in the rapture of love, or poked and prodded at them with the measured disdain of a stern editorialist. (We? Okay, me.) Either way, the intention is that those words, cajoled into order, will have affect. Why else write? Often, however, they don’t, the written word generally ending up travelling through time as an archaeological fossil, a remnant of some dead emotion. This might read like scepticism bleeding into cynicism, which I won’t contest, but it also provides the necessary context to Jean-Loup Pivin’s rousing editorial introducing the launch issue of Revue Noire.
“Revue Noire should be savoured on a shady terrace like a glass of ginger,” reads Pivin’s first sentence. I hate ginger, passionately, but I love these words. They gather together to deliver the perfect how-do-you-do: effortless and leisurely, but also faintly patrician, maybe even a little cloying, which is how lovers can sometimes be. Let me be clear here: the art world needs more people like Jean-Loup Pivin. He is a lover and an aesthete, not a hectoring bullyboy from academia.
“Revue Noire is not concerned with theorising on the universality of art or conceptual blocks or on an ever-forgotten continent,” his launch statement promised. Hallelujah, we sighed. “It is a wave of emotion riding back from the shores of Africa, bringing with it imprints, forms, movements of obvious power, from Africa as well as from the black lands of New York, London, Kingston and Paris.”
In retrospect, the first issue of Revue Noire announced itself in the language of a promissory note, which on a continent beleaguered by debt was a brave undertaking. Revue Noire, however, delivered on its binding promise, each successive issue arriving in waves of emotion. Like the seas, magazines have their highs and lows. Issue eleven, the stodgy South Africa edition, holds little interest for me; however, issue three, the one dedicated to Rotimi Fani Kayodé, does. Its language is prescient: “We are living in the epoch of an illness whose name doesn’t matter anymore; an illness which makes young talent fade away.” South Africa has seen so much young talent fade away, and still we wait for an obituary writer to acknowledge them – the aristocrats, as Pivin identified them, “bold and brilliant, but black”.
Revue Noire was established to celebrate blackness. I can’t help but get tripped up by this fact. I’m a white boy lost on the edge of a new centre. Lou Reed comes to mind: “Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown? Hey white boy, you chasin’ our women around?” I take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one getting tripped up by the ridiculous fact of pigmentation. When Revue Noire travelled to South Africa for issue eleven, the editors ended up doing racial head counts, “to make sure that a racial balance had been achieved”. I can dig this, because we still do here in South Africa, no matter, as Simon Njami wrote in his editorial to the South Africa issue, that this is “a sad, ridiculous confession to make”.
Revue Noire invites commentary. I this vein, I could praise its verbal economy, berate its quixotic design strategies, marvel at its audacity, celebrate its unapologetic diversity, even smile, with a hint of nostalgia, at the fashion spreads and forgotten names. For effect, I could also talk about how Pivin and Revue Noire’s successive editors were neutral, not neuters, how they delivered on Rajat Neogy’s insight that “a good literary magazine is like a blind man’s stick”. But this tilts things in favour of objectivity. Revue Noire was never neutral; it did not aim to satisfy the anthropologist’s gaze or the newsman’s curiosity. It was about love.
Paging through back issues of this magazine, three things are clear in my mind. I need to learn French. West Africa is far away. I must write with more love, no matter the restraint so much a part of my inheritance as a white writer in Africa. Love: it is an aching word. It embarrasses, partly because when we read it, it represents the husk of a long ago emotion. But love is danger, and bravery, something Pivin courted when he wrote, right at the start of things, that Revue Noire is “an unconditional act of love proving that beauty is our life and we all have the same trust for it”.