Africa’s ‘first official pavilion’ at the 52nd Venice Biennale

El Anatsui, Dusasa I, Venice Biennale 2007. Photo:

The 52nd Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art opened to the public on 10th June. A 112-year-old institution, one of the most important events in the international art calendar, the Biennale showed signs of engagement with a fast changing twenty-first century art scene.

‘Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense’, is directed by Robert Storr, the first American ever invited to curate the Biennale. With his appointment follows a string of first-time participating countries. But arguably, the most talked about newcomer is Africa. The continent, is officially included under an ‘African Pavilion’, which Storr sees ‘at the centre of, and not peripheral to, the Venice Biennale’. A statement reinforced by his recommendation to award the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to Malian photographer Malick Sidibé.

The Venice Biennale has always been closed to Africa. The few exceptions being Egypt, South Africa (before the international boycott) and, in 1990, ‘Five Contemporary African Artists’ were invited to represent the continent. Since then, the art scene has considerably changed. Dak’Art, the Senegalese contemporary art biennale, has sustained itself since 1992. South Africa hosted two biennales, in 1995 and 1997, the latter curated by Okwui Enwezor who subsequently was appointed artistic director of Documenta 11 (2002). And, in 1999, with the support of the Ford Foundation, the Forum for African Arts, was created, with the mission to secure and sustain an African presence in Venice. Headed by Salah Hassan, the Forum put on two successful exhibitions: ‘Authentic/Ex-centric’ (2001), curated by Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe and ‘Faultlines’ (2003) curated by Gilane Tawadros.

These are but a few examples of exhibitions that demonstrated contemporary art practices from Africa and the diaspora. However, it took an ‘African tour’ to Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Africa, to convince Robert Storr to make a rather belated call for proposals for an African Pavilion.*
In February 2007, a jury composed of Meskerem Assegued, Ekow Eshun, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kellie Jones and Bisi Silva selected ‘Check List – Luanda Pop’, by Simon Njami, curator of the acclaimed ‘Africa Remix’ and Fernando Alvim, director of the Luanda Triennale. The project consisted of art works belonging to Congolese-born, Luanda-based collector Sindika Dokolo. The fact that a private collection was chosen to represent the continent prompted some controversy. Added to that where allegations on the sources of the collector’s wealth.

‘Check List – Luanda Pop’ is presented at the Artiglieri dell’Arsenale and features 30 artists, with a mix of established and emerging names. The show was conceived as a manifesto around collecting practice in Africa and the uncompromised will for the continent to engage with the international art scene on its own terms. The Sindika Dokolo Collection is one of first private African collection of contemporary art and, following the withdrawal of financial support from the Biennale – on the grounds that the selected project was coming from a private collection – ‘Check List’ was entirely funded by Angolan partners.

In terms of curatorial vision, the exhibition does not articulate any particular theme besides the intention ‘to represent the most significant panorama of today’s African creation’. It has been argued by some that such an exhibition could not claim to represent the whole continent. Safe from a few exceptions, the absence of recent South African creations was quite noticeable. So was the imbalance in regional representations. To such extent that during the presentation held by the curators on 9th June, Olivier Sultan, director of Musée des Arts Derniers (Paris), noted that given the number of Angolan artists, and those whose work engaged with Angola, like Alfredo Jarr and Dj Spooky, the show might as well have adopted a national focus. This would have clarified the curatorial rationale. Indeed, the Angolan selection is one of the highlights of the exhibition featuring new names such as Ihosvanny, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Nastio Mosquito, Ndilo Mutima and Yonamine, who explore a variety of media and provide insights into a country recovering from almost three decades of civil war (1974-2002).

Other highlights of the pavilion include Bili Bidjocka, L’Écriture Infinie #3 (2007), a participative project inviting visitors to write their comments on a book simultaneously projected on a screen; Mounir Fatmi, Save Manhattan 03 (2006-07), a ‘sound architecture’ using speakers to reproduce a pre-9/11 Manhattan; Kendell Geers, Seven Deadly Sins (2006), totem-like fluorescent neon lights; and Yinka Shonibare MBE, How to blow up two heads at once (2006), an installation of two characters, dressed in batik-like Victorian-fashioned clothes, pointing their gun at each other’s decapitated head.

‘Check List – Luanda Pop’ is one of the many flavours of contemporary art from Africa. It is hoped that the next editions of the Venice Biennale will give voice to other curatorial visions in order to reflect the artistic diversity of the continent. For Njami and Alvim, the ‘first official African Pavilion’ is not an achievement as such, but a significant step towards a long overdue recognition by such influential institution as the Venice Biennale.

Christine Eyene

First published on BBC/Africa Beyond in June 2007.

* The debate around the call for an African Pavilion was made public on ASAI website (read Open the Gate by Olu Oguibe)

For a more comprehensive review, read: Christine Eyene, “Exeunt Aesthetics: Africa at the Venice Biennale”, Third Text, Volume 21, Issue 6, November 2007.

All images: except otherwise stated.

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