The presence of artists of African descent at the Venice Bienniale 2019 can be roughly divided into two categories: those who showed in “their” national pavilions, and those who were invited by Ralph Rugoff, the artistic director of the 58th Venice Biennial, to contribute to his exhibition. The criteria for “artists of African descent” are hard to define because everyone is on the move: to study, to work, to join partners, or forced to leave. Some were born abroad, yet feel connected to the continent.
Generously counting, Rugoff invited ten of “African descent” to be part of his small group of only seventy-nine artists. This included three African Americans, who investigate the realities of black experiences. While recent biennials had double the number of artists, this time two sets of works were asked from each participant to be shown parallel, in both the Arsenale and the Giardini.
Egypt was the first African nation to launch a pavilion, in the Giardini Park in 1952. The number of national pavilions from the continent did not increase steadily over the many past decades, but rather was volatile. Madagascar and Ghana's entry only came in 2019, whereas others, present since 2013 did not come back. All in all, among eighty-nine national pavilions, only nine were hosted by African states. Some curators and critics explicitly questioned what it meant to have a national pavilion and if artists should be expected to represent aspects of “their” country, while many consider themselves global citizens nowadays (for example, Selasi 2019: 38). The Venice Bienniale was born in 1895, just a decade after the African continent was cut up as a prey by European statesmen at the Berlin conference and began to be colonized by those who then celebrated their cultural supremacy in the Giardini. Bearing that in mind, the increasing presence of former colonies as equal partners is vital to destigmatize the Biennial as an event launched by former colonizers.
Since its beginning in the Giardini, the Biennale has gradually spread out all over Venice, as no new buildings may be constructed in the walled-in park. In the 1990s, the Arsenale, ten minutes' walk from the Giardini, was added. Formerly used by the marine for rope making, the tunnel-like industrial space with rough brick walls hosts in the front each director's thematic show, while the rear half is rented out to nations who want to join the Bienniale. Yet even those spaces are now all under contract, so newcomers have to rent a palazzo or a church somewhere in Venice, as Angola and Côte d'Ivoire have done in recent years. Bienniale visitors have to walk a lot to find and view these off spaces and getting lost is part of the experience.
Ghana Freedom occupied a 20-meter-long section at the far end of the Arsenale's hall. Sir David Adjaye's architecture dissolved the squareness of the basic space by creating a cluster of oval cells, the outer ones cut in half to adapt to the limits. His organic floorplan became the logo of the pavilion, printed in gold on the black catalogue cover and press release jacket. The architecture echoed clichés of African villages: compounds of round houses. Indeed, the walls were coated with mud brought from Ghana. Curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim, with the late Okwui Enwezor as advisor, balanced artists of a wide range of generations with diverse ideas on “freedom” delivered through an equally wide range of media.
A yellow curtain by El Anatsui (b. 1944)—made, as usual, of thousands of bottle caps—Earth Shedding Its Skin (2019) ensconced the exhibitions on the stage behind it. The strategy to attract visitors with a familiar and aesthetically striking work by an omnipresent artist was obvious. Yet for travelers often exposed to El's monumental statements, it was more interesting to explore the intimate works by less-celebrated artists in the pavilion's interior: the photographs by Felicia Abban (b. 1935), the first woman in Ghana to have a portrait studio, starting in the 1950s, even before independence (Fig. 1); Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's (b. 1977) bold-stroked paintings of dynamic scenes with black persons interacting with each other; and Selasi Awusi Sosu's (b. 1976) films and photos of how glass travels.
Ibrahim Mahama (b. 1987) framed dozens of construction plans for a coastal railroad with fish smoking trays (Fig. 2). Arranged as an arch, the work embraced the visitors in symmetry with Anatsui's yellow curtain at the other end. His environment called A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History 1649 was based on research about how the tracks would cut up societies and destroy nature. He reflected also on the effects of globalization and neoliberalism on Ghana's traditional working and trading life.
John Akomfrahs (b. 1957) three-channel HD narration The Elephant in the Room spoke about the drama of involuntary displacement of everything on earth (Fig. 3). The film tryptich triggered the viewers' empathy with dramatic scenes of thunderstorms, elephants mourning for a dead fellow, and humans marching with their belongings through deserts. New and archival National Geographic-style footage, sounds in 7.1 cinema technology added to the emotional impact. In an interview with the Guardian, John Akomfrah called the Ghana pavilion and its contents “a charismatic example in a sea of whiteness” (Higgins 2019).
Like Ghana, Madagascar used a section of the long Arsenale building, yet shared it with Albania, no walls separating the two. Joël Andrianomearisoa (b. 1977) united countless pieces of black silk-paper, hanging densely packed in two rows, low enough to be touched, to form a piece entitled I Have Forgotten the Night (Fig. 4). The artist seemed to have been so inspired that he could not stop working until dawn. Ranaivo and Daydé wrote poetically in their curators' statement: “Joël deploys the intangible essence of the invisible … He does not pay tribute to a country, but to the majesty of beyond black and its mournful wanderings.” Directors of various galleries representing Joël's work stood during the preview below the black paper puff pastry and proudly explained that the pavilion lacking Malagasy public funding was financed entirely by galleries and sponsors. They obviously raised enough to launch a smart PR campaign with viral tools: badges, tote bags, flyers. The Revue Noir produced an oversized 1.9 kg catalogue, deliberately unpaginated. The editors said they wanted to avoid the linear orientation usually imposed on readers, yet thereby made it unquotable.
Nkule Mabaso (b. 1988) and Nomusa Makhubu (b. 1984), curators of the South African pavilion, called their exhibition The Stronger We Become to emphasize that “Resilience—in our time—has become conspicuously inexorable. Under the weight of our complex histories, being resilient is the capacity and the will to resist” (2019: 14). They presented the artists' works like a theater set: In a pitch-dark room Dineo Seshee Bopape's (b. 1981) installation and Mawanda Ka Zenzile's (b. 1986) paintings were dramatically lit with spots, while Tracey Rose's (b. 1974) video projected without separating walls added movement to the entire space (Fig. 5). Zenzile wrote on his paintings—of cow dung mixed with pigments—key statements of African intellectuals. The harmony of the soothing dark colors stood in sharp contrast to the injustice described by thinkers like Ngugi and Glissant.
The founding curator of the Zimbabwe pavilion, Raphael Chikukwa, already in charge of the four previous editions, presented Georgina Maxim (b. 1980), Neville Starling (b. 1988), Cosmas Shiridzinomwa (b. 1974), and Kudzanai Hwami (b. 1993) without theatrical effects (Fig. 6): white walls, natural light, and few spots in three rooms on the ground floor of a church's annex ten minutes' walk from the main venue. He said, in an email interview, that the pavilion's success has channeled a growth of the Zimbabwe art scene, led to the artists getting contracts with international galleries, and triggered the National Gallery to launch a Zimbabwe pavilion collection.
On her largest canvas, By The Fruit You Will Know Them (Fig. 6), Hwami cancelled out some faces and bodies of a chain of humans that she had initially rendered in detail. The partial eclipse, executed with rust-colored paint, talked about which spaces in society people are either given or denied and questioned who is in control. Archival photo prints in the background and a casual red splash added immense depth to the painting.
Neville Starling presented postcard-size images of various windows printed as ambro-type on glass, created in his analog lab. Deeply set in roughly carpentered white boxes, one had to step visually inside. Due to the old technique, the images floated in space rather than being stuck to a fixed surface. Starling talks about the fragility of an identity balancing between individual and collective memory and its external rules.
The Mozambique Pavilion, The Past, the Present, and the Inbetween, was stuck in the middle of an amateur show in the European Cultural Center (Fig. 7). To distinguish it from the surrounding buzz, the walls had been painted bright red. Texts in the giveaway journal stated that the three artists aim to show how the colonial period followed by a civil war influences today's Mozambique society (2019: 9). For example, Mauro Pinto's photo series of coalminers working under inhuman conditions, BlackMoney, stood out through content and presentation. The pavilion was produced by the Dubai-Venice-based agency Akka Project, curated by Lidija K. Khachatourian, also Dubai, and was sponsored by the Africa Legal Network and ADS investment solutions.
Rugoff did not experiment with unknown artists from the continent or diaspora, but chose those already well established and backed by powerful galleries. He might not have had time for research. The only exception is Frida Orupabo (b. 1986), discovered on Instagram by the invited artist Arthur Jafa. Rugoff made an effort to show, ostensibly, that he included black artists. He dispersed seven billboard size self-portraits by Zanele Muholi at regular intervals in the Arsenale. The series dominated the exhibition and made it hard to focus on other artists' work (see Fig. 9).
Michael Armitage (b. 1984) was given enough space for six immense canvasses to unfold a narration based on sketches made as embedded artist following journalists during a presidential election rally in Nairobi (Fig. 8). Armitage chose to express the contemporary content with a retro painting style reminiscent of Gauguin, reflecting Westerners' longings for exotic paradises. In combination with the nearby series of large paintings by Julie Mehretu, the zone looked like an art fair, a phenomenon normal for recent biennial editions.
Otobong Nkanga's (b. 1974) 26-meter-long river model, Veins Aligned (2018), of Murano glass with rare minerals from Africa and Veneto marble, split the visitor's stream right in the middle (Fig. 9) As in previous works, she described Earth as a body that is supposed to feed people, but is greedily exploited for resources. One may wonder to what extent her concern about overexploitation of materials and human resources is a calculated strategy to legitimize her art and sustain interest in it. Nkanga won an honorary mention of the Biennials Jury, just as Georges Adéagbo did twenty years before.
Another example of Rugoff explicitly showing art talking about black persons' realities was a portrait series low in contrast—almost monochrome—by Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983). All were intimate, small, but convincing character studies (Fig. 10). In the Giardini venue, however, her five large canvases showed the harmonious interactions of black people in both Western and Nigerian interiors. The same narration repeated in each painting made the set feel redundant, in spite of Crosby's intriguing technique of stitching color transfer bits of magazine pages to form bodies and furniture. On top, during the Biennial's preview, Victoria Miro Gallery's Venice branch opened a show with a dozen similar but smaller works, attractive for collectors but too much Crosby in Venice at one time.
Very close to the these artists' works, Rugoff placed Henry Taylor's 5-meter-wide tryptich representing Toussaint Louverture, an homage to Glenn Ligon, and mourners at the funeral of Carol Robertson in 1963 (Fig. 11) on a central wall, as if to state “Don't dare to say I did not include black experience!”
Some of the pavilions by African nations seized the opportunity to represent themselves as stipulated by the Zimbabwe Pavilion's slogan, printed on the back of their catalogue: “It is time to write our own stories” (Mabasa 2019). The challenge of having a pavilion in Venice is to “probe the politics of self-determination, situated-ness, political displacement and epistemic violence” in the words of the South African pavilion's curators' statement in the brochure (Mabaso and Makhubu 2019: 14).
The increasing presence of artists and curators of African descent in Venice is not about successfully begging their way into an existing system with preset rules. Truly not. Some manage to play with given parameters, yet modify them to add something new and even provoke a revision of notions about center and periphery. They have the potential to denounce the Bienniale's commercial tendencies and remind us of what it should focus on: to give space for questions and discourse through art about today's society. The Ghanaian Pavilion hosted a balance among artists' individual agendas yet told the visitors subtly about the multiple perspectives of their culture. After this grandiose debut, will the next curatorial team have the courage to invite artists who discuss difficult topics, such as denial of LGBT rights and officially encouraged homophobia? Others missed their chance, either by presenting decorative work—the Egyptian and Côte d'Ivoire Pavilions—or by limiting themselves to showing that crowd-funding and crowd-branding the myth of a single, genius artist can go perfectly hand in hand.
The wide range of artistic strategies on view in Venice raised the question whether the simplistic label “African contemporary art,“ as used by some gallerists and organizers of specialized art fairs and auction houses, is appropriate. Yet it works as sales point. Even if the so-called artists of African descent manage to tell their own stories in Bienniales, who controls the spin-offs, the markets? Aside from a few galleries in Johannesburg, Abidjan, and Nairobi, who can rival the British, French, and American galleries and auction houses whose agents were very present in Venice? Young artists are tempted to imitate those who made it to the stage abroad. If a new generation of young collectors on the continent buys works from local galleries and supports local museums, it possibly could create conditions that foster diversity and artistic research.
The panelists of the three-day African Artists in Venice Forum discussed the challenges of participating in the Bienniale without surrendering to a structure that originated in colonial times. The Forum was launched in 2017 and took place again during the 2019 edition's preview days.1 Numerous publications were produced for the different pavilions, some of which are noted in the references.