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Viva Africa Viva! – Africa at the 57th Venice Biennale

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In 2015 at All the World’s Futures, Okwui Enwezor’s Venice biennale, African presence was celebrated and unmissable. In 2017, it is arguable that gaining a solid and substantial foothold in the world’s most celebrated biennale will take more than the leverage of one curator. The number of national pavilions in Venice remains a small minority of African states seven out of the possible fifty-five (Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Tunisia and Zimbabwe). Equally the number of African artists represented in Christine Macel’s Vive Arte Viva! exhibition was a minute fraction.

In terms of geographical spread, Africa was a spice rather than a main course of the curator’s vision with Abdoulaye Konaté’s spectacular tapestry work punctuating the discourse of the procession in the Arsenale, and Jelili Attiku’s equally spectacular procession featuring seventy women in a performance which characteristically of Jelili was as political as it was spiritual. While a predisposition towards euro-centrism is a usual suspect for under-representation, there are numerous other factors creating obstacles to participation and engagement. Some of these rest with cultural priorities of African governments, others with economic power disparities in the art market, as well as issues of infrastructure, art production and institutional orientation on and off the continent.

These were some of the issues which were addressed at the African Art in Venice Forum, a first installment of what is slated to be a regular event aimed at growing and enabling African presence in the Venice Biennale and beyond – as a rule rather than exception. Organised by an entrepreneurial team comprising Neri Torcello, Azu Nwagbogu and Azza Satti, the two-day forum created a focal point for African presence in Venice with a dense programme of 22 panel discussions and presentations featuring 75 speakers and representing the full spectrum of art world ecology from artists to critics, educators, curators, art historians, collectors and art fund operators, as well as auction houses. The effort to bring together and spotlight issues of sustainability of African art sectors made it a uniquely fruitful and honest encounter where stakeholders from all segments of the industry could openly discuss problems and solutions, which need to, and did, reach far beyond the Venice Biennale.

Peju Alatise, Flying Girls.

Nigerian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Photographer: Ibeabuchi Benson. 

Outside the forum the national pavilions made the complex issues of making it to and in Venice very real. For most African pavilions the effort of arrival remains the most urgent and resonant achievement. The beautiful palazzos and lavish openings do a good job concealing the immense brinksmanship of managing the almost impossible task of securing government approval and support, obtaining the budget at the same time as delivering work that is important artistically and represents the people as well as the state with a degree of integrity. And yet, while arrival is worth celebrating, the celebration cannot invariably overshadow the importance of art especially in the context of engaging with the very best the world has to offer.

Nigeria made a confident debut entry, with a three-artist pavilion featuring sculptural ensemble by Peju Alatise, installation from Victor Ehikhamenor and video from Qudus Onikeku, speaking to contemporary, traditional and historical collectively and individually. Ehikhamenor installation, featured his characteristic imagery transposed onto fabric encompassing the entirety of the first room of the pavilion to transport audiences to his Nigerian now. Conversely Atalise created an urgent and dark circle of joyful winged girls, those who were taken and need to be brought home now on wings of hope or prayer. Finally Onikeku’s video work documenting and presenting his dance practice, focused on one impressively cinematic and theatrical performance piece, which dynamically drove home the point of the pavilion’s theme 'How About Now?' by an urgent consciousness of being and time slipping away always.

Cote d’Ivoire staging a return second pavilion with six artists, after its first effort in 2013, putting again its best foot forward with stand out monumental new sculptures and installations from Jems Robert Koko Bi and Joachim Silue, both whom work with wood and augmentation to allow their materials to speak with beautiful understatement to construction and destruction, surface and meaning, transparency and occlusion. Conversely Ouattara Watts, lovely, intelligent and playful works on paper provided a respite from the deliberate heaviness of the sculptors. This seasoned and accomplished trio was augmented by Joana Choumali, whose photographs and embroidered photo-based works presented more like a beginning of an investigation rather than a fully elaborate body of work, which struggled to match her pavilion colleagues. Finally there was a puzzling inclusion of an Italian ‘illumination painter’ Raimondo Galeano, whose biography does not contain any nexus to Cote d’Ivoire and whose presentation was inexplicably separate to the rest of the pavilion.

Angola was notable for presenting an elegant single artist pavilion dedicated to AntÓnio Ole the master of video art. In many ways, this pavilion fell in line with the Venice national pavilions convention of honouring an established career and achievement with a pavilion representation. It was refreshing to see a pavilion focused confidently on articulating a vision and giving voice to accomplished and extensive artistic practice, which poetically traces the history of the country through cinema and music.

Over the past three editions, Zimbabwe, became known for launching international careers for its emerging artists. In this edition however featuring Admire Kamudzengerere, Dana Whabira, Charles Bhebhe and Sylverster Mubayi, it was up to Mubayi, the first generation stone-sculptor, to supply a genuine voice. His otherwise orphaned small black granite works in the pavilion, included a procession of snails carrying helpless humans towards a promise of light in the window, delivered a poignant metaphor of his homeland and a people in crisis even if disguised as comment on the European refugee crisis.

The refugee crisis was proving a foil for addressing national issues at the South African pavilion also. A highly successful two hander by Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng formally addressing the refugee crisis in Europe was equally a metaphor for the race relations at flashpoint in a country following Rhodes must fall protests. It is not so difficult to read Modisakeng’s installation featuring a triptych of three black bodies drowning white boats as a comment of structural power inequalities in South Africa, and Breitz interviews celebrities as a metaphor for impact of immediate value judgments as a space for perpetuating suffering and inequality.

Tunisia took the brilliant step, opting out of the national discourse and engaging with the refugee crisis most immediately by addressing the root of the problem – the idea of passports and visas and identity. The anonymous artist (that is correct), curated by Lina Lazaar, set up visa booths in three different locations around Venice and began issuing universal passports.

Egypt the most long-standing of all pavilions presented a beautifully executed but puzzling multi-screen video installation, by artist and commissioner Moataz Mohamed Nasr Eldin, telling a story of a village cursed by a demon and a courageous young woman, who attempts to break a spell of fear, which read like something out of one thousand and one nights and begging a resolution in 2017.

While there are tentative signs that at some African pavilions are becoming more established, it is hard to deny that there is greater pressure to perform on African pavilions in Venice than on those from more established art scenes. In some instances this raises question of whether African artists need national representation to effectively engage with the global art community in Venice or elsewhere.

The story of the Kenyan pavilion in Venice this year articulated the case against quite poignantly. With Kenyan government refusing at the eleventh hour to make good on their promise to fund the pavilion, the curator Jimmy Ogonga and the artists (Arlene Wandera, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Paul Onditi and the artist duo Mwangi Hutter (Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter) valiantly made the decision to go ahead and mount the pavilion on their own. Delivered on a shoestring, funded by good will, faith and collaboration, the pavilion was a breath of fresh air, in a biennale where money overshadows art almost invariably.

This argument was re-enforced by a number of counter-national pavilions in this biennale such as the immensely popular Diaspora pavilion, featuring numerous artists with Africa-related identities such as Sokari Douglas Camp, Yinka Shonibare and Kimathi Donkor. With works reflecting a panoply of joyful and uncompromising irreverence for authority and conventional structure, it spoke with a voice no national pavilion could entertain.

At a time when nation states are creating problems rather than solutions in the world, this edition of Venice Biennale in the African context, presented a space for difficult conversations and an argument for greater domestic and international empowerment for the art sectors.

- Valerie Kabov

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