2017 was supposed to be one of these special years: a summer of the arts, also coined as “Art-Mageddon 2017” in some European art magazines.1 It was the year that aligned three major European art events—the Venice Biennale as well as Documenta in Kassel and Skulptur Projekte Münster, the latter two in Germany. Whereas Venice is on the agenda every second year for global art travelers and the elite of artists and curators in the field of contemporary arts, they have to wait five or ten years respectively to visit Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster. In the debates on contemporary arts, these events are regarded as indicators for the developments in the international art world. The rare concurrence of the three events invited comparisons concerning format and content, the rigor and coherence of the curatorial concept, the quality of the display and the selected art projects and—of particular interest for the readership of African Arts—the appearance of African and African Diaspora artists in the shows.
One has to acknowledge the differences between the art events not only in regard to their specific history but also to their profile and mission: from the oldest Biennale of the international art world in Venice to two contemporary art events that, from their beginnings, have often been venues for very controversial debates around art, politics, and public space. The resulting debates around participation and neglect, presence and absence of artistic positions from the Global South, therefore sit in front of different backgrounds. Whereas Venice is (still) based on the dual concept of a main show curated by an artistic director and the individual presence of a growing number of national pavilions, Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster were always meant to “curate the present”2 by working along more or less explicit curatorial concepts that also often reflected topical political discourses. All three events are born in very distinct moments in time and engage very differently with their own history. The Venice Biennale and Documenta will be the focus of this First Word, since I had the opportunity to visit only these two.
Venice's major art show had its first edition in 1895 and already in its early years it opened up European avant-garde art movements. African sculptures were shown in 1922, but after that year, African artists were not shown at the Venice Biennale until the 1990s. The exhibitions “Authentic-Ex/Centric” curated by Salah Hassan (2001),3 “Fault Lines” curated by Gilane Tawadros (2003),4 as well as the controversial so-called African Pavilion that showcased the private collection of the Congolese businessmen Sindika Dokolo under the title “Check List Luanda Pop” (2007)5 were then dedicated to African and African Diaspora artists. In 2015, the Nigerian museum director and curator Okwui Enwezor, who had been in the same position at Documenta in 2001, was the Head Curator of the 56th Venice Biennale. Enwezor's Biennale was therefore also the reference point in particular for the involvement of African artists, and the 2017 Biennale's curator Christine Macel from France failed at this point in particular. Projects by only nine African artists were shown in the main exhibition, themed “Viva Arte Viva,” at Arsenale and Giardini.
Most of the national pavilions showcase only works by artists from their own countries. This can create an often unwelcome side effect, in that the artist thus becomes the “representative” of their country and is seen first and foremost as the “South African“ or the “Egyptian“ artist. Nevertheless, the selection for the Venice Biennial is considered as very prestigious. Discussion of the growing number of “African Pavilions” is rife in the circuits of contemporary African art discourse and it is worthwhile to look into the dynamics of 2017.
This year's African pavilions showed both an increase in quality of display and content—such as in the pavilions of Zimbabwe and South Africa—as well as a form of radical obstinacy in doing a pavilion against all odds—as in the case of Kenya. The increasing number of pavilions representing African artists certainly shows that the formerly fixed structure of the international art world that focuses on the Global North and manifests itself in Venice every second year has been unsettled a bit in the last fifteen years. The presence of the eight African pavilions at the 57th Biennale in 2017 reconfirmed this slow but steady process. Angola, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Nigeria (Fig. 1), South Africa (Fig. 2), Tunisia, Zimbabwe (Fig. 3), and Kenya were present with their pavilions presenting very diverse curatorial concepts. Their history and financial background is another difference. Whereas Egypt is part of the illustrious round of pavilions with a permanent venue in the Giardini, all the others have to continually redefine their territory in Venice's crowded urban space. Zimbabwe, South Africa and Cote d'Ivoire have been successful in establishing a continuity of some years and showed very strong artistic positions with compelling curatorial concepts and displays. On the map of the Biennale they have already become reference points. Zimbabwe is has been present for four years and this continuity allows for an in-depth engagement with the Zimbabwean art scene on an international platform. Showing excellent works of young emerging artists, every edition speaks of a dynamic art world in Zimbabwe despite its political complications.
The Angolan pavilion has been present since 2013, when it won the Golden Lion. It was very straightforward this year with its focus on the early films of Angolan artist António Ole in a very white-cube space (Fig. 4). Tunisia's project The Absence of Paths (only its second pavilion since 1953) brought in a performative dimension—issuing universal passports to become a citizen of the world—that was definitely lacking in this year's Biennale. Whereas Enwezor's Biennale in 2015 had ongoing performance pieces such as the reading of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, this year performance and site-specific works were very rare. Nigeria was present for the first time, after its initial attempt in 2015 failed, with a pavilion titled “How about Now.” The Kenya Pavilion deserves a special note here. After two catastrophic editions in 2013 and 2015, when an Italian collector showcased (or attempted to do so) mostly Chinese artists and his very own works, this year Kenya's contemporary art scene took the reins. Despite having gone through the necessary planning steps and bureaucracy within Kenya, their approved government funding ultimately failed to materialize. The artists organized themselves under the curatorial guidance of Jimmy Ogonga and managed to create a kind of “low budget” pavilion in a decamped school on Giudecca Island in the periphery of Venice. The charm of this pavilion—titled “Another Country” with a certain tongue-in-cheek understatement—arose not only from the selection of the artworks but also from the fact that the space was very specific—simple and pure in a very positive sense, and thus different from the repetitious, overloaded beauty of the typical Venetian buildings where one finds most of the pavilions that don't find space in the Giardini or Arsenale area. In contrast to the aesthetic overdose of what I would call “decorative contemporary” in parallel projects of the Biennale, such as the show “PERSONAL STRUCTURES—open borders” at Palazzo Bembo and Palazzo Mora organized by the European Cultural Foundation, the Kenyan Pavilion convinced with its clear message. A Pavilion should give space to the artists and their projects and intelligently frame them with a topical curatorial statement, rather than just assembling artistic positions.
The presence of eight pavilions from the African continent might suggest an increasing acknowledgment of contemporary art and its cultural capital by the governments in the respective countries, but analysis of the economic background shows that a number of the pavilions are not state-funded and depend on the financial engagement of private donors, such as the sponsorship of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in the case of Angola or the Nigerian pavilion that has been sponsored by His Excellency, Governor Obaseki of Edo State. The Cote d'Ivoire pavilion included the disturbing presence of a room with an illuminated painting by an Italian artist. This might indicate the compromises that have to be made in accepting such private funding.
One tendency in all the pavilions was to limit the display to a few but very high quality art projects instead of presenting an overview of the diversity of artistic positions. This shows not only maturity in the selection procedures of the curators but also an emphasis on the curatorial position as such. This last point is central for my experience of these major art events of this summer. Only where the curators managed to link their concept to the topical themes of our troubling times were they able to give a meaningful perspective on our worlds’ condition. “Curating the presence” should make an effort to position oneself in that contemporary moment, and whereas the main exhibition “Viva Arte Viva” at the Arsenale and Giardini failed in this attempt by stringing together loosely connected themes, some of the African pavilions were able to make strong statements—South Africa and Tunisia with engagement with migratory politics ahead of everyone.
A strong political conviction was also the basis of Documenta 14. Whereas in Venice, it was difficult to make an overall statement about the whole event because too many voices, positions, and even notions of art manifested themselves in very diverse exhibitions, Documenta in the German provincial town of Kassel has to prove itself in the context of a long history of very politically engaged editions. Here again, Okwui Enwezor's Documenta 11 in 2002 has been one of the reference points in subsequent years. This year a number of African and African Diaspora artists were present in diverse venues and their positions were among the strongest in the whole show. Furthermore, the Berlin-based Cameroonian curator Bonaventure Ndikung was invited to be curator at large in the team of Head Curator Adam Szymczyk. In total, and compared to Venice, this year's Documenta was much rougher and somehow callow, but in the end it was a refreshing counter-position to the somehow smooth and shallow Venice experience. The loud and brazen positions in works such as WhoreMoans: An Uncivil Memoir of a Rough Ride (2017) by Tracey Rose, the complex and anti-decorative installation The Chess Society. J'ai l'impression qu'il y a une histoire d'amour entre la fille de salle et le grand noir qui fait le ménage (2017) by Bili Bidjocka, or the intense participatory performance work Carved to Flow (2017) by Otobong Nkanga were part of an overall framework that intended to disturb and unsettle experience. The curatorial experiment to have a second venue in the Greek capital Athens provided not only the main title “Learning from Athens” but also invited heated discussions about the role of the art world in times of global political, social, and economic turbulence. These debates questioned whether Documenta was able to fulfill its goal of providing space for a political discussion through arts or if it failed by being too intellectual and abstract. Some of the multilayered positions of the African artists played a crucial role in these discussions. Emeka Ogboh's Sufferhead Original (Kassel Edition) (2017)—a dark stout beer created for the art event—produced a tension between art, consumerism, and branding. He had transferred the gustatory experiences of Africans in Germany into the form of Germany's most famous product and at the same time referred to Fela Kuti's political hymn in his title. Emerging Ghanean artist Ibrahim Mahama (an alumni of the Fine Art Department at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology) was invited to Kassel after he had presented a strong installation at Venice Biennale two years before. Even if similar in form and material, his installation Check Point Sekondi Loco. 1901–2030. 2016–2017 (2016–2017) was certainly one of the strongest positions at Documenta 14, covering representative buildings with his textile covers made out of jute bags (Fig. 5). Beside the intense visuality of the works, their immediate reference to human labor and world trade was perfectly embedded in the overall exhibition concept, while their overall impression created a creepy and uncanny experience in the urban space.
Probably the most disputed piece by an African artist at Documenta was Olu Oguibe's Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for Strangers and Refugees) (2017). The purist concrete obelisk is formally perhaps a modest gesture in public space; nevertheless it refers to Germany's position in the context of global migratory movements. Linking it to his second work, Biafra Time Capsule (2017), at the venue in Athens, he reminds us of the historical dimension of migration and some rather forgotten moments such as the Biafran War (1967–1970). The obelisk is inscribed with a quote from the Book of Matthew that reads: “I was a stranger and you took me in,” written in German, Turkish, Arabic, and English (Fig. 6). Oguibe also received Documenta's Arnold Bode Prize of the city of Kassel in recognition of the topical and political dimension of his work. Positioned in public space, the monument will hopefully be one of those works that persist and will thus be integrated in the city's palimpsestic structure with all its traces of past Documenta editions that serve as a constant reminder of the presence of art in our everyday life. Having the work of a Nigerian artist as such a reminder for humanity in a German provincial town is a huge step in the direction of debating power structures differently. Bringing the Global South in monumental form into the city structure of the Global North is maybe one of the most important achievements of this year's Documenta.
Let me finally draw your attention to another highlight of this “summer of arts” that took place in Africa, where the notion of “summer” becomes meaningless. An exhibition should be mentioned when speaking about the Biennale and Documenta that didn't take place in Italy or Germany or even Greece, but in Ghana. During the ACASA Triennial Symposium, we had the opportunity to visit the end-of-year exhibition “Orderly Disorderly,” mounted by the Fine Art Department of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra. It combined student work with a number of pieces by advanced artists to create a dialogue of form and content. The ACASA symposium provided an interested audience. For the very first time the conference took place on the African continent and rightfully so. It enabled many African colleagues to attend for the first time, and the diversity of scholarly and artistic presence was thus very rich. A visit to the exhibition was part of the symposium's program.
I had been able to spend some days in Kumasi before the Symposium and to visit the Fine Art Department on the KNUST campus. We were showed around by professors who are members of Blaxtarlines, a project space for contemporary art at the department. I left Kumasi impressed by the motivational spirit that spoke through the group and the surroundings of the school. The Fine Art Department of KNUST just seems to be an awesome place to study, with a highly motivational atmosphere for practice and thinking while at the same time being situated within a prestigious university campus where traces of Ghana's independence years can still be traced. The acknowledgment of this local history was also perceptible in the way the Blaxtarlines members introduced us to the sculptural works in the public space on campus.
My excitement for the Fine Art Department grew even more when I visited the end-of-the-year show in Accra, curated by the professors together with their students. Having been at Documenta and the Venice Biennale before coming to Ghana, these two shows served as a backdrop for my experience of “Orderly Disorderly.” I was walking around thinking “This should have been part of Documenta.” This was not only because most of the artworks were of very high quality in terms of form and content but also because the way the show was embedded in the fantastic modernist space of the museum was just perfect. Parts of the museum's permanent educative installations remained in the room and created an interesting aesthetic dialogue with the well-placed art works. The whole exhibition could have been shown in Kassel, since there the venues in the city space also played a particular role and were anything other than white cubes. It was exactly this intelligent and exciting way of using space by contesting the regime of the white cube while giving each artwork the space it deserves that made “Orderly Disorderly” such a great show.
FOR THE FUTURE
The dynamics of the global art world in the summer of 2017 showed once more that the direction of its attention is still controlled by the major events in the Global North, when at the same time gems of exhibitions on the African continent are widely unnoticed. Shifting the power dynamics of the international art world should mean, on the one hand, interjecting African artists and curators into major art events such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta, thus constantly questioning their introspective perspective and destabilizing their structures. Sindika Dokolo is endeavoring to bring Documenta to Luanda in Angola, which could also be an exciting and important strategy to shift centers.
But on the other hand—and maybe even more importantly—we should continuously give more serious attention to events on the African continent as such: its exhibitions and Biennales but also what happens in the art schools. “Orderly Disorderly” was visited by an international audience thanks to the ACASA symposium; otherwise perhaps only a small number of these experts would have had the opportunity to see this major show. As a result, very little is written about these events, whereas press and scholarly coverage of the Venice Biennale and Documenta is more than adequate.
This brings me to my last point: In a number of the art schools I have had the privilege to visit in recent years, at universities such as the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere University in Kampala, the Faculty of Fine Arts at University of Nigeria in Nsukka, or the aforementioned Department of Fine Art at KNUST, not only great art and education but also important art historical knowledge is produced. In all these schools you find shelves full of unpublished masters and PhD theses. I am sure there are not only many wonderful exhibitions we should not miss, but also even more important texts to read and think about. This for the future.
“2017 Will Be One of the Busiest Years for Art.” artnet News, 2 January 2017, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/2017-busy-year-art-events-714185.
Nanne Buurman and Dorothee Richter, “documenta. Curating the History of the Present.” 33 (June 2017). http://www.on-curating.org/issue-33.html#.WdsbvGLPa03.
Salah M. Hassan, et al. “Authentic, ex-centric.” Forum for African Arts, 2001.
Gilane Tawadros and Sarah Campbell, Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes (London: Institute of International Visual Arts in collaboration with the Forum for African Arts and the Prince Claus Fund, 2003).
Nadine Siegert, (Re)Mapping Luanda: Utopische und nostalgische Zugänge zu einem kollektiven Bildarchiv (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2016).