The African Pavilion

Venice

Months before it opened, critiques of the inaugural Africa Pavilion were circulating online. On 9 October 2006 disagreements between curators Olu Oguibe, Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan over the Biennale selection process went public at the Africa South Art Initiative website. On 27 February 2007 news of Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim’s winning curatorial proposal, ‘Checklist: Luanda Pop’, an exhibition drawn largely from the Luanda-based Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, prompted questions about working with a private collection, while artnet.com alleged ‘unsavoury’ business activities against Sindika Dokolo, the Congolese collector behind the collection.

By 7 June, when Robert Storr and Njami met to discuss the Pavilion in a keynote dialogue organized by the Arts Council England-funded International Curators Forum in Venice, tensions were high. Njami went on the offensive, confronting Storr, demanding clarification as to why his team had only two months to prepare and why promised MoMA funds had been withdrawn. Storr attempted to placate Njami with the prospect of stronger pavilions in the future; Alvim, sensing the imminent closure of a window of opportunity, stood up and shouted at Storr, vented his frustration at his team’s treatment by the officials in Venice and marched out.

You may say that there is always melodrama at Venice, and that these disputes are the latest in a long line of similar grievances. But these discontents are more than that: they reveal the painfully restricted space practitioners are still obliged to inhabit in order to create platforms through which the complexities of African contemporaneity become visible, audible and speakable.

Underlying the fractiousness was the sense that the very idea of an African Pavilion was impossible, that the very name raised expectations no single exhibition could begin to fulfil. The notion of one pavilion that could function as a platform for a continent was guaranteed to satisfy no one and to displease everyone.

Filmmaker and theorist John Akomfrah precisely identified the thinking behind the Pavilion. It was, he said, a prime example of ‘the hubris of overcompensation’. The understandable desire for an institutional presence at Venice becomes exaggerated into a claim to represent a continent. The need to compensate for historical exclusion from the Biennale leads to overinflated and unconvincing rhetorics of essentializing inclusion.

Another curator might have been able to exploit the fictionality at the heart of the African Pavilion and work with aspects of impossibility and fabulation. But that would have been a very different exhibition; as it was, ‘Checklist: Luanda Pop’ was a curatorial blend of conceptual laziness and inchoate ambition familiar from Njami’s deeply flawed 2005 touring show ‘Africa Remix’.

There were indelible moments: Kendell Geers’ Seven Deadly Sins (2006) itemized the biblical vices in ultraviolet neon signage; its inverted Gothic font and black-out rooms were involving enough to shatter the didacticism of its Old Testament source material. Mounir Fatmi’s Save Manhattan 03 (2006–7) – a silhouetted skyline constructed from rumbling loudspeakers – had an immediacy that would have benefited from a room of its own.

Many people complained about the congestion of the show, much like the grotesquely overcrowded ‘Africa Remix’. I was distracted less by this than by the redundancy of the exhibition’s wretched title. If the term ‘checklist’, which sounded like a working title someone forgot to delete until it was too late, had been dropped, then the notion of Luanda Pop might have come into focus and provided some much-needed conceptual clarity.

There was a modest proposition trapped inside the grand narrative of the Africa Pavilion. The notion of Luanda Pop hinted at a small-scale show on the associations, potentials and legacies of the Lusophone urban imaginary, which would have been an intriguing prospect. Atelier (2007), Paulo Kapela’s assemblage of Angolan election posters, street signage and campaign mementoes, was rich in connections; Yonamine’s The Best of the Best (2007) was a corner of arthouse film posters, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Samuel Fuller, translated into Portuguese and printed on tin, exceeding the graphic density evoked by the curatorial vision of Angolan neo-Pop.

Not all of the ten sequences of Alfredo Jaar’s 36-minute digital video Muxima (2005) conveyed the pathos perhaps intended; the multiple renditions of the titular folk-song failed to cast the requisite spell needed for a video-essay of this kind. Meditations on Luandan streets named Avenida Lenin and Rua Commandante Che Guevara did, however, succeed in evoking a bygone era of Soviet and Cuban solidarity. Most powerful was a sequence of a pair of feet walking slowly through a field; the camera then moving up to a face studying the ground in deep concentration. Giant crops surround the figure. Nothing happens until a detonation triggers landmines and a realization that remnants of old wars persist into the present.

Moments such as this, gleaned from the excess, asked large questions within an intimate frame. Momentarily you could imagine other exhibitions, secreted within the unconvincing grandiosity of the Pavilion, and begin to fantasize about the singularity of the solitary work hidden within the hubris of overcompensation.