Look Now – The 55th Venice Biennale

-By: Katrin Peters-Klaphake

This year is the 55th edition of the Biennale di Venezia, the biennial of contemporary art in Venice, Italy. In the current edition, the prestigious global art show mirrors historical shifts in the art world with traditionally peripheral regions like Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia and the Arab world challenging old cultural and economic leadership of the global North. This text reports on some of those exhibitions, from the perspective of a Makerere University gallery curator.

The announcement of the international jury members of the biennale triggered special attention; the jury of five was composed of a majority of four women and the Nigerian curator Bisi Silva was one of them.  As the news broke that the first time participant Angola had been awarded the Golden Lion for its pavilion, the interest and reflections on the role of African countries and artists at the biennale got a meaningful boost. The BBC published a review of the African participations entitled “Africa triumphs at the Venice Biennale”.  Africa’s representation comes in a variety of forms: as national pavilions, artists participating in the international exhibition, as well as, artists and curators involved in pavilions of European countries.

The Olympics of the art world

The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and most important cultural institutions in the world. Founded in 1895, it has been held nearly every other year. Tourism and internationality were important aspects from the beginning. Starting in 1907, countries were invited to build their own national pavilions in the exhibition grounds II Giardini. Today there are twenty-nine national pavilions in the Giardini. Among the eighty-eight participating nations in the “Olympics of the art world” are six African countries: Angola, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Of these, Angola and Ivory Coast participated for the first time while Egypt and South Africa have long participatory histories. Since 1952, Egypt has held a permanent pavilion in the Giardini. Egypt is also the only African country that made it into the prestigious gardens, figuring as the main stage of the festival. South Africa, after half a century of inconsistent representation in Venice, has this year been able to secure a permanent space in the Arsenale, a huge former military depot.

The Encyclopedic Palace

The title of the international exhibition is The Encyclopedic Palace, curated by the New York based Italian Massimiliano Gioni. It was ispired in 1955 by the Italo-American self-taught artist Marino Auriti who envisioned a one-hundred and thirty-six story building the Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace): a museum that would house all the knowledge of the world, connect histories and geographies, art and sciences. Massimiliano Gioni curated an exhibition which aims to capture the power of imagination and the desire of knowledge.

Gioni explains: “Blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, the exhibition takes an anthropological approach to the study of images, focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination. What room is left for internal images — for dreams, hallucinations and visions — in an era besieged by external ones? And what is the point of creating an image of the world when the world itself has become increasingly like an image?”

J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere in the Encyclopedic Palace at Arsenale
Press photo

Three senior African artists are part of the selection. They are: Papa Ibra Tall, the Senegalese modernist and representative of Négritude, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from Ivory Coast, the creator of a visual language on hundreds of paper cards, and the Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere with his black and white portraits of hair styles. Further continental input is seen through the acclaimed diaspora artists Steve McQueen and newcomer Lynette Yiadom Boakye, a British-born painter of Ghanaian descent.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré in the Encyclopedic Palace at Arsenale       Photo: Peters-Klaphake

On entering the main exhibition hall at the Arsenale, the space opens up into a round room displaying a model of the encyclopedic palace surrounded by a large selection of Ojeikere’s intriguing portraits. The images are strong and powerful. The classic presentation in a straight line on high walls gives them distance and perspective. The presentation in such close proximity to the model of the utopian museum evokes connotations of the origins of humanity.

The woven rich and expressive images of Papa Ibra Tall from Senegal share a space with Ivorian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s colourful visual language cards. Together they reflect a view on the world rooted in their West African culture. In an article on the presence of African artist in Venice, Sean O’Toole remarks: “The presence of African artists at Venice has always been marked by a kind of disjuncture. What should the objects from here say to people there? Whose story should they tell? What is the role of counter-narrative and dissent in a space that often looks and feels like a United Nations art Olympiad?”

Papa Ibra Tall and Frédéric Bruly Bouabré in the Encyclopedic Palace at Arsenale
Photo: Peters-Klaphake

The choices of art works from Africa in the Encyclopedic Palace represent canonic African art – senior internationally recognised artists who are known not only on the continent but also in the Western World. Bouabré was part of the 1989 pivotal and much disputed exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre”, in Paris. He also participated at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and in 2002 at the “documenta 11” in Germany, which by many is considered to be the most important event in contemporary art worldwide. Papa Ibra Tall had a retrospective of his life’s work at internationally observed Dak’Art, the biennial in Dakar, Senegal, in 2012. Despite a little touch of exoticism and otherness, they blend into a conglomerate of artistic approaches and complete the vision of equal coexistence in the world’s (art) history.

This globalised kind of normality, which is observed and accepted, is also reflected in several of the pavilions. For example, the pavilion of Belgium, a former colonial power, appointed the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee as curator; or the German pavilion – that swapped buildings with France – where renowned South African photographer Santu Mofokeng exhibits next to Ai Weiwei, Romuald Karmakar, and Dayanita Singh. In the Irish pavilion Richard Mosse shows the multi-media installation “Enclave” which by using infrared film to transform traces of Congolese reality into surreal images.

The Pavilions from the Sub Saharan region


In the Angolan pavilion the curators Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera (jointly operating under the name Beyond Entropy) present the exhibition “Luanda, Encyclopedic City” showing works from the series “Found Not Taken” by the photographer Edson Chagas. Internationally the decision was perceived as big surprise. The pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion for best national participation and honouring “the curators and artist who together reflect on the irreconcilability and complexity of site.” The jury had specifically paid attention to countries who managed “to provide original insight into expanded practice within their region.”

Angola Pavillion
Press Photo

Chagas’ photographs of found and rearranged trash objects printed on cheap paper in poster size are piled on twenty-three wooden pallets in the picturesque setting of a medieval mansion. The visitors may collect and take them to a new space just like the photographer did with the depicted objects. Yet, there is not so much of a visual clash between the contemporary photos and the historic space as one might expect. The beautifully composed photographs blend in with the colours and atmosphere of the richly decorated renaissance mansion.

The history of Angola’s presence in Venice and its role as an oil-rich country and thriving economy fits the logic of this festival where economic conditions play a major role. Economy is understood both in terms of being financially able to participate and the positive impact this will have for competing on the global art market. It is also important to note that art from Angola was not entirely new to the Biennale professionals and audience. In fact, it featured significantly six years ago in the first so-called African pavilion which mainly drew from the collection of a Luanda-based art collector.

Angola Pavilion
Press Photo

Ivory Coast

The other biennale rookie, Ivory Coast, presents four artists under the curatorship of prominent art historian Yacouba Konaté. Among them are Frédéric Bruly Bouabré with his visual alphabet and renowned sculptor Jem’s Koko Bi who, among others, participated in several editions of the Dakar Biennale. The show entitled “Traces and Signs” further featured paintings by Tamsir Dia and photographs by Franck Fanny.

Pavilion of Ivory Coast, Convoi Royal by Jem’s Koko Bi
Photo: Peters-Klaphake


The Kenyan pavilion, where eight Chinese, two Italian and two Kenyan artists are presented, instigated irritations and discussions because it was apparently a single-handed initiative. Paola Poponi is a Kenya-based Italian, who serves as commissioner and curator in one. History repeats itself — ten years ago Kenya participated with a national pavilion initiated by Kenya-based Italian artist and gallerist Armando Tanzini, who essentially presented his own work. In both cases no Kenyan artists, curators or art managers were involved or even informed, and no statement of the Kenyan government was made available.

Kenya Pavilion
Press Photo

A Kenyan pavilion comprising primarily Chinese and Italian artists – one of them, again, Armando Tanzini – situated between Kenyan artists would indeed be interesting if it meant a critical investigation into the Italian and Chinese presence in Kenya. They could potentially comment on their respective impact on culture and economics. Rich Italians have purchased large properties along the Kenyan coast, and the Chinese are investing in infrastructure and trade. Instead, an eclectic selection of art works is compiled under the esoteric sounding title “Reflective Nature: a New Primary Enchanting Sensitivity”.  Should it be accepted that a private initiative can constitute a national pavilion?

Kenya Pavilion
Press Photo

South Africa

South Africa started off with quarrels about the curatorship, but after a literally last minute appointment curator Brenton Maart produced “Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive”, a large and dense group exhibition. Fifteen artists display their works in a relatively small space exploring the topic of art and the archive in photography, video, collages and installations giving a relevant cross section of contemporary South African art practice.

South Africa Pavilion

After their debut in 2011, Raphael Chikukwa, curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, and commissioner Doreen Sibanda mobilised all forces to continue Zimbabwe’s presence in Venice. Zimbabwe has been isolated from world affairs for many years; thus, taking a stand at an international event is of great importance to Chikukwa. Moreover, he claims the right for Africans to tell their own stories after more than a century of heteronomy through colonial powers.

Pavilion of Zimbabwe, Voti Thebe
Press Photo

DUDZIRO: Interrogating the visions of religious beliefs” investigates the impact of religion in society today. Five artists have been commissioned to reflect on issues and effects of faith in paintings and sculptural installations. The selection of Voti Thebe, Rashid Jogee, Virginia Chihota, Portia Zvavahera and Michele Mathison is quite balanced in terms of gender, age and cultural background, aiming to represent the cultural variety in Zimbabwean art. Furthermore, the Zimbabweans are hosting artist Thierry Geoffrey with his “Emergency Room”, an interactive performance that opens up artistic intervention and collaboration.

Venice and the World

As everywhere in the world, biennials are blooming on the African continent. Last year in October, Kampala’s first festival of contemporary art KLA ART 012 was launched. Later the same year, Regard Benin was held in Benin. Picha Bienniale in Lubumbashi, DRC, will take place for the third time next month. The third Luanda triennial is scheduled for the end of this year, as well as the SUD festival in Douala, Cameroon.  Also, the above mentioned Dak’Art is coming up with the 11th edition in May 2014, focusing explicitly on artists from Africa and the diaspora. The other festivals are not limited to artists from the continent, but aim to encourage interaction and exchange. These initiatives prove that regional contemporary art scenes are vibrant and developing fast.

The Venice Biennale undoubtedly remains one of the most important platforms for international contemporary art and its market. A national participation allows for visibility, for a national statement and leaves a footprint in certain version of the international history of art. On the other hand, the necessary financial and organisational investments are so significant that it is questionable how many smaller and poorer nations will ever host their own pavilion. While the concept of national presentations is still shaping the specific formation and perception of this event, a growing number of collaborations and fringe events challenge and morph the long serving structures.

Possibly the specific Venetian model of national participations is losing more and more of its meaning in an increasingly globalised world. In an interview with Griselda Murray Brown of the Financial Times, the famous Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar said: “Venice is still an exclusive club. Things have changed slowly but the official pavilions in the Giardini still gather the most attention. You have 160 countries that are not represented officially and, when they are, they have to struggle financially to find a space in Venice. […]The national pavilion model does not represent at all what the world of culture has become. I see a [not too distant] future where the entire Giardini will become a park of exhibitions and the curator will invite artists from around the world to occupy it. Slowly, the pavilions will fade into history.”

Katrin Peters-Klaphake, curator at Makerere Art Gallery/IHCR.