Thoughts on the African presence at the 53rd Venice Biennale
“Perhaps new worlds emerge where worlds meet.”
When questioned by Frieze website Editor Sam Thorne about “the controversy surrounding the African Pavilion in 2007”, Daniel Birnbaum, Artistic Director of the 53rd Venice Biennale, stated that he would be “working with artists from African nations, as well as elsewhere, but… not call certain sections ‘pavilions’”. The show, he said, would consist of “a single articulated exhibition”. (1)
Two years ago, I traveled to Italy to review the much talked about African Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. (2) This year I visited Venice to find out how African artists would be integrated in the International Exhibition. Although my interest does in no way limit itself to African art, for the purpose of this piece I choose to solely focus on the continent’s participation to the Biennale.
“Making Worlds”, the 53rd International Art Exhibition takes its cue from American philosopher Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking (1978), “a book full of relevant observations that has been an inspiration when preparing this project”, Birnbaum writes in his introduction to the Biennale catalogue. The rationale foregrounding the exhibition, he explains, is that: “a work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity. It embodies a vision of the world, and if taken seriously must be seen as a way of making a world.”
These words are an invitation for the viewer to look at the creative process and environment that inform and inspire the artists. They also acknowledge art’s ability to create a world of its own. Art is to be approached as a product from the world, but also, by its very presence — or materiality — , as an intrinsic agent of the permanent alteration of the world.
Announced along those lines, Birnbaum’s proposal offered visitors license to interpret the work beyond the artist’s specific localism, through the prism of a globalism that combines the dual immediacy of lived experience and the remoteness of the spectacle of a world brought to us by the ever-evolving information technology.
While the International Exhibition was successful in aligning the selection along the proposed theme, national emphases remained the governing structure of the Arsenale. In fact, despite the ongoing questioning on the relevance of national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, Paolo Baratta, President of the Venice Biennale Foundation, writes that: “The old, unique formula of an exhibition with various countries’ Pavilions now seems more vibrant than ever”. This view reflects the politics behind the new Italian Pavilion presenting an exhibition directly organised by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs and Activities, curated by conservative critics Luca Beatrice and Beatrice Buscaroli. Thorne asked Birnbaum his opinion on the Italian curators refusing to “show any Arte Povera artists, as they are ‘alien to our art history’”. Birnbaum clearly replied that he was not involved with the National pavilions. […]
One of the challenges faced by the Venice curators, and viewers alike, is for the former to maintain the alertness of the senses throughout such a large-scale exhibition, and for the latter to allow themselves mental space for this lengthy sensory experience. Quite a challenge for the art consumers we have become, performing the prowess of fast-pace absorbing of abundant fluxes of visual and sound material. A phenomenon against which Steve McQueen’s time-suspending Giardini (2009) acts as an antidote.
It seems that the layout of the International Art Exhibition took this factor into account by pushing the senses to their paroxysm with Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Human Being @ Work (2007-2009). This installation combines objects, materials, mixed media techniques, sound and video, to recreate human activity in what is set to evoke “a small African village”. This work clearly challenges preconceived idea of a passive continent in constant need of international aid. Tayou’s display consists of a mix of objects that form part of Africa’s cultural heritage. As for the videos, they present relentless activities, amplified with hammering sounds that testify to Africa’s contribution towards the production of goods aimed at a global market. Tayou’s intervention speaks beyond the local context and is a good example of how contemporary African art practices are perfectly conversant with current artistic idioms. Human Being @ Work has received rave reviews from many international visitors, including French critics Harry Bellet and Philippe Dagen from Le Monde. (3)
Some of the observations by the French critics included a sense of “déjà-vu” concerning Michelangelo Pistolleto’s broken mirrors entitled Twenty-two Less Two (2009). So could have been said of Moshekwa Langa’s Temporal Distant (with a criminal intent), you will find us in the best places of which an earlier version was presented at the South African National Gallery (Cape Town) during the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. That being said, this piece was new to the Venice context, and the landscape and architecture composing Langa’s imaginary world worked pretty well both in the exhibition space and as a response to the theme.
As for the national African pavilions, these raised a number of issues in terms of aesthetics, exhibition design, and “national” narrative.
It was somehow difficult to discern the curatorial intention behind the Egyptian and Moroccan pavilions. “Lightly Monumental” curated by Adel El Siwi, featuring himself and Ahmad Askalany, dwelled on the coexistence of the past and present in today’s Egyptian life. Egypt is a country from which hails a number of groundbreaking art practices but this did not reflect in the pavilion. As for the Moroccan Pavilion, it was disserviced by the overwhelming architectural features of the Church Santa Maria della Pietà. Neither did the work blend in, nor engage in an aesthetic or spatial dialogue, with either the iconography or the architecture of the church.
Spanish curator Fernando Fancés, Director of the Centre of Contempoary Art (Madrid) faced the same issue with ‘Go Noge Mene’, the exhibition of Gabonese artist Owanto. But he certainly had more room to play with, and produced an exhibition allowing the work breathing space, without being affected by the architecture of the venue. One has to note though, that Owanto’s exhibition is more relevant within the frame of a personal narrative than as a “national” pavilion. Which, in a way, illustrates Birnbaum’s thought that artists are not representing their nations, but “solely their own visions”. Owanto’s iconography refers to sculptures she has created over the past twenty years and evokes her personal history as a woman of Gabonese descent.
Likewise, Djahazi, the Comoros Pavilion by Italian artist Paolo W. Tamburella reflects the artist’s “ongoing interest and research on modernity and postcolonial conditions”. As Octavio Zaya explains, Tamburella centered “his project on the Djahazi, the Comoros Island’s traditional vessels, which were used to transport heavy cargo through the Mozambique Channel and the wider world of western Indian Ocean, and also served as the main means of transportation by Arab slave traders in past centuries.” When Paolo W. Tamburella travelled to Comoros, he soon found out that the Djahazi had been abandoned in the port and were sinking in the water.
Zaya continues: “Paolo W. Tamburella has fixed and restored five of the twenty-eight boats forsaken at the port, with the help of workers from Moroni, but not as an antiquarian and nostalgic affectation. On the contrary, in Venice, this vessel, which will be loaded with the regular shipping containers used in most of today’s trade, will stand as a metaphor for an ambivalent globalization […].” (4)
Should this work be presented as a Comoran pavilion? I am not sure. But the project certainly touches on a (re-)definition of the notion of national pavilion.
Africa succeeded in making its mark at the 53rd Venice Biennale but only once nation and continent became irrelevant. Likewise, the personal narrative of Owanto, an artist of mixed heritage, and the socio-political engagement of Tamburella, reached beyond the limits of a fixed cultural identity. Paradoxically, I left Venice with a sense that, somehow, the African pavilions failed to give African curators a voice. And when they did, these fell short of curatorial vision. […]
Does Africa need a stronger presence in Venice? Some argue for, others argue against it. (5) What is sure is that, were more African countries to participate in the Biennale, it is essential that national commissioners valued the experience of the curators from the continent and allowed them to make a significant contribution to this grand artistic Mass.
Edited from a piece first published on Creative Africa Network in June 2009.
- Sam Thorne, “53rd Venice Biennale”. Frieze, Issue 120, Jan-Feb 2009.
- Read “Africa’s ‘first official pavilion’ at the 52nd Venice Biennale” and Christine Eyene, “Exeunt Aesthetics: Africa at the Venice Biennale”. Third Text, Volume 21, Issue 6, November 2007.
- Harry Bellet and Philippe Dagen, “La Biennale de Venise en panne de directions”. Le Monde, 5 June 2009, p. 22.
- Octavio Zaya, “The Djahazi: sailing trough the ambivalent seas of globalization”, in Daniel Birnbaum (cur.), “Making Worlds – 53rd International Art Exhibition. Venice: Marsilo, 2009, p. 166.
- See Mario Pissara, “Death to Venice! A South African perspective on the irrelevance of representation at the Venice Biennale”, Asai, 07 May 2006.
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