This past May I spent several days at the Venice Biennale, arriving a week after the opening when the crowds had thinned and the art paparazzi had flown away. The exhibition installations were still invitingly fresh (they tend to be a bit dogeared by the end of summer) and it was even possible to move unimpeded through the spaces at the Arsenale and the Giardini.
The Biennale elicited a number of mixed reviews—some, like Laura Cumming in the Guardian, describing it as “a glum trudge,”1 while Roberta Smith in the New York Times seemed less exercised and more admiring of the exhibition's overt political and moral agenda.2 But, would one really expect anything less from Okwui Enwezor? “All the World's Futures” is the logical extension of Enwezor's past “idea driven” exhibits including “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994” (2002) and “Documenta 11” (2002). Like “Documenta 11,” he has chosen a large number of artists from underrepresented regions, including twenty-one African artists. Since most of these artists live and work between Africa and various cities in Europe and America, they can hardly be characterized as “outsiders” to the Western contemporary art scene or its markets. At the same time, however, their lives do challenge the persistence of the nineteenth century notion of a national identity and speak to an emergent global community.
All of the artists that Enwezor did choose, whether from Africa or elsewhere, do in various ways tackle the intertwined histories of capitalism, nationalism, colonialism, labor exploitation, and racism. Enwezor clearly anticipated the critique he would receive and in the catalogue he laid out his curatorial intentions very explicitly, “… An exhibition as a space of public discourse, as a stage of anticipatory practices, and as a statement of intent, can no more assert a distance from its cultural context than it can repress the very social conditions that bring it into dialogue with its diverse publics.”3
While the exhibition is certainly uneven, a truism for any of these international biennales, many of the works are visually arresting and do engage in powerful and complex ways with the curatorial themes. Here I focus on just a handful of works that I think are particularly successful in this regard. These include a sculptural installation by the Raqs Media Collective of New Delhi and works by African artists Sammy Baloji of the DCR and Ibrahim Mahama of Ghana.
Raqs Media Collective's Coronation Park from 2015 includes a series of fiberglass statues and empty plinths that line the walkway at the entrance and down the center of the Giardini. The heroic-sized white fiberglass statues—a figure with face cut away, a headless figure and a figure represented by only an empty ceremonial robe (Fig. 1)—sit atop stark black plinths. Enigmatic statements—“But he did not want to shoot the elephant” and “In the end he could not stand it any longer and went away”—appear on the plinths for the statue of King George V and the statue of the empty ceremonial robe, respectively. Delhi's Coronation Park, which fell into ruins following Independence, included statues of viceroys and other colonial administrators and was the venue for the 1877 durbar held when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, the site for the celebration of the coronation of King Edward the VII in 1903, and the venue for the durbar celebrating the coronation of King George V in 1911. This installation in Venice stands as a potent and poetic reminder of the vainglory of the British Raj.
Sammy Baloji's two works in the Belgium pavilion engage the history of colonial modernity and of labor exploitation in the Congo. In Sociétés secrètes (Fig. 2) from 2015, his use of embossed copper plates recalls the central role that copper mining played in the region of Katanga and its importance to the Belgian colonial economy. The series of scarification patterns embossed on these plates speak to the labor of the many different ethnic groups in the colonial economy. The photos of three medals once awarded to officials for their colonial service and a facsimile of a letter detailing Belgian surveillance of locals alludes to a Belgian “colonialist secret society” and brings object and archive together in a very powerful way. In the second work, Essay on Urban Planning from 2013, Baloji engages with colonial ideas of modernity and of labor exploitation through a visual essay on the 1929 health project which was aimed at the eradication of flies in urban Lubumbashi. In his essay, Baloji creates a tapestry of photographs of pinned flies from museum collections interspersed with aerial photographs of the Lubumbashi landscape. Mounted near the photo montage there is a facsimile of a handwritten order and an archival black and white photograph of two Congolese sitting on either side of a large pile of flies. The order reads, “Each worker must bring 50 flies in order to receive his daily ration. October the 30th, 1929.”
As a West Africanist I found Ibrahim Mahama's site-specific installation Out of Bounds (2014–2015) both visually compelling and content rich (Fig. 3). Hundreds of cocoa bags are sewn together interspersed with roping and other materials and cover the walls of the long alleyway leading to the exit of the Arsenale. Strong breezes off the canals serve to animate this installation. The history of cocoa production, once the major agricultural export of the Gold Coast colony, is a story of the push and pull between local entrepreneurship and large, mostly British, corporations. This complex history of production, of labor strikes and of concessions won and lost is alluded to in this work in the very materials, the construction and the ways that the work is animated. While most visitors walking through the installation are probably unaware of the deep history, they are certainly moved by the sensory experience of the work.
Laura Cumming, “56th Venice Biennale Review—More of a Glum Trudge than an Exhilarating Adventure.” Guardian, May 10, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/10/venice-biennale-2015-review-56th-sarah-lucas-xu-bing-chiharu-shiota. Accessed November 2015.
Roberta Smith, “Review: Art for the Planet's Sake at the Venice Biennale.” New York Times, May 15, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/16/arts/design/review-art-for-the-planets-sake-at-the-venice-biennale.html?_r=0. Accessed November 2015.
Okwui Enwezor, “The State of Things.” In La Biennale di Venezia: 56th International Art Exhibition: All the World's Futures (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2015), pp. 17–18.