BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Opinion | 19 APR 24
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The Venice Issue

What Is Africa’s Role at the Venice Biennale?

To address the continent’s lack of representation on the world stage, the Biennale should look to festivals like Nigeria’s FESTAC ’77

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Opinion | 19 APR 24

There is no hardship – social, political or otherwise – that a good photograph of Africans in the 1970s cannot gloss over. Many of these images – whether black and white or full colour, posted online or nestled in a leather-bound family album – seem to advance the same overarching narrative: life in 1970s Africa was incredibly self-assured, and the influence of art and culture palpable. Consider Marilyn Nance’s images of the 1977 Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC). Held in Lagos during Nigeria’s military dictatorship, the event included 80 film screenings, 50 plays and 40 art exhibitions, not to mention concerts by the likes of Sun Ra Arkestra, Miriam Makeba and Stevie Wonder. Nance’s photographs show some of the 16,000 participants taking breaks backstage or catching up between performances. In her latest photobook, Last Day in Lagos (2023), Nance noted: ‘FESTAC was the Olympics, plus a biennial, plus Woodstock. But Africa style [...] It’s hard to describe, and people have positioned it as science fiction, but it really did happen.’

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Adebiyi, 1989
Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Adebiyi, c.1989, chromogenic print, 61 × 60 cm. Courtesy: © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Autograph ABP

Events like FESTAC, which seek to capture the essence of the current moment, are inherently messy and often trigger debate about what truly constitutes contemporaneity and who gets to define or represent it. In their essay ‘Replicate this! Into the FESTAC Loop’ (2020), Dominique Malaquais and Cédric Vincent explore the controversy around the festival’s emblem: a replica of the royal ivory mask of Benin, created by Erhabor Emokpae after the British – who stole it during the Benin Expedition of 1897– refused to ‘loan’ the 16th century original to Nigeria for the duration of the event. Malaquais and Vincent explore ‘the possibilities of reprise – the fact of repeating and the act of retrieving a political project’, symbolized by a replica that became the emblem of a global festival of Black arts and culture. They show the extraordinarily high stakes involved – from the row between Nigeria and the UK, to diplomatic standoffs between African countries. The authors reveal each of these acts as political mediation of a cultural mega-event premised on national participation and representation. Their analysis, while drawing on the specifics of FESTAC, offers a perspective that can also be applied to the question of the underrepresentation of artists from African countries at the Venice Biennale. Like the Venice Biennale, FESTAC set out to determine the global state-of-the-arts and, by hosting the festival, Lagos affirmed its position as a locus of contemporary art in the same way that Venice does with its Biennale. In his essay ‘To Be in the World: Notes against Forgetting’ (2023), Joshua Segun-Lean argues that ‘refrains such as “telling our own stories” and “Africa to the world” [...] aspire to a kind of agentic internationalism but are ultimately devoid of liberatory potential, limiting our ability to situate ourselves within Black radical traditions’. If African representation at the Venice Biennale is located, like FESTAC, in the realm of cultural ‘worldmaking after empire’, might the intellectual and political heavy-lifting that framed FESTAC as an articulation of ‘Africa in the world’ (rather than ‘Africa to the world’) provide answers to the perennial lament about the place of the continent’s artists at Venice?

Africa is emphatically not in Venice – but the lack of representation is by no means absolute.

While the extent of contestation around FESTAC was astonishing, debates about Africa’s presence at Venice have little of the political and intellectual dimensions that make the critique of FESTAC so generative. Thanks to the Pan-African magazine Chimurenga, which compiled an essential archival reader on the event, many aspects of FESTAC have been dissected with an investment to which critics of African absence at Venice can only aspire. This kind of complex contestation in the legacy of a Black radical tradition might well be worth revisiting if a constructive way forward is to be found in the debate on Africa’s place at Venice. As Ayi Kwei Armah wrote in ‘The Festival Syndrome’ (1985): ‘Culture is a process, not an event [...] The development of culture depends on a steady, sustained series of supportive activities whose primary quality is not a spectacular extravagance but a calm continuity.’

Marilyn Nance, Nigeria FESTAC ’77, 1977
Marilyn Nance, Nigeria FESTAC ’77, 1977. Courtesy: © Marilyn Nance and Artists Rights Society, New York

As a means of asserting any kind of meaningful African presence at the world’s oldest contemporary art biennial, the concept of ‘Africa in Venice’ is mostly a delusion. Africa is emphatically not in Venice – not as the fictional ‘country’ it is still often misunderstood to be, and certainly not as a sum of its 55 constituent nations – but the lack of representation is by no means absolute. Every few years, curators will (re)discover that African countries are direly underrepresented and launch a well-meaning effort to salvage the situation, usually by scouring their networks to find a few fine contributions to the main exhibition. At the 2022 edition, in addition to the permanent pavilions of Egypt and South Africa, there were presentations from Cameroon, Coté d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, with the Ghanaian and Ugandan entries receiving significant critical acclaim.

In 1990, the Venice Biennale awarded special mention to an exhibition of five African artists organized by Grace Stanislaus of the Studio Museum, Harlem, including Nigeria’s Bruce Onobrakpeya and Zimbabwe’s Tapfuma Gutsa. Only Egypt, since 1952, and South Africa, with interruptions since 1950, maintain permanent pavilions, while the number of African countries presenting off-site pavilions since the 1990s has stagnated at an average of a dozen per edition. The continent’s fleeting presences at Venice have been embedded in strategic mediations of the aesthetic value of ‘African art’, but more so in the concrete implications for the market, and the careers of individual African or Afrodiasporic artists. More than perhaps any other group of artists, they have grappled with their identities being reified in the service of an international ‘African art’ agenda that is designed to exist – thrive, even – without any meaningful engagement with the histories, artists, curators, writers and art workers living across the continent’s 55 nations.

Aïda Muluneh, The 99 Series Part Seven, 2012
Aïda Muluneh, The 99 Series Part Seven, 2012. Courtesy: © Aïda Muluneh

There have been concerted attempts to mark a presence for Africa in Venice outside of the national pavilion structure. In 2001, at the 49th Venice Biennale, Salah M. Hassan and Olu Oguibe curated ‘Authentic / Ex-Centric: Africa In and Out of Africa’. Works included Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s multimedia installation Spoken Softly with Mama (1998), which grapples with how memory is passed on within everyday objects in the context of expatriation, and Rachid Koraïchi’s Le Chemin de Roses (The Way of the Roses, 2001), an installation exploring the safar (journey) as an allegory of the relationship between art, aesthetics and metaphysics. Two years later, Gilane Tawadros curated ‘Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes’, which juxtaposed the work of 13 artists – including Laylah Ali, Samta Benyahia, Zarina Bhimji and Rotimi Fani-Kayode – against the socio-political shifts that occurred since the promises of decolonization began to fade in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that Venice Biennale curator Robert Storr broached the idea of an ‘Africa Pavilion’ to permanently solve the perennial underrepresentation of artists from the continent. Although this concept was widely contested for its essentialism and logistical impossibility, it was not new: in 1990, presentations by Nigeria and Zimbabwe appear to have been grouped together as ‘The African Countries Pavilion’.

The cultural agency of African nations dwindled dramatically in the course of the 1980s. Storr’s plans did not trigger any efforts to reclaim the narrative on the part of African governments. Instead, the debacle created an opportunity for controversial Luanda-based businessman and collector Sindika Dokolo to engage curator Simon Njami and artist Fernando Alvim to present ‘Check-List Luanda Pop’. The show is notable for being a clear instance of Africans using the Venice Biennale platform – and the art-market dynamics in which it is embedded – to their own advantage, rather than the other way round. Dokolo and his curatorial team decided to showcase his private collection, which at that time included 500 works by 140 artists from 28 African nations, including Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Mounir Fatmi and Tracey Rose. In the exhibition’s press release, the curators asserted: ‘It was not a question of going [to Venice] as a poor yet tolerated relative, but as a complete entity who would be shown due respect.’ With the biennial now officially open to the continent of Africa, they were ‘no longer seeking now-obsolete inclusion’ but ‘looking to restore balance to the flow of relationships between North and South’. Aware that their ‘at once humble and arrogant’ project had successfully hijacked Storr’s ‘Africa Pavilion’, the curators maintained that it was ‘intended as a manifesto for expression far from established trends and conventions’.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Spoken Softly with Mama, 1998, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

While the latter is a claim that many exhibitions have made before, here it was the backstory of how the exhibition came to be, rather than the exhibition itself, that spoke to established conventions at the biennial. The implications of their coup were clear: networks, access to private funds and presence in private collections were the factors that shaped the possibilities for artists in general, and for African artists in particular, to be shown, contextualized and celebrated in Venice. Writing for this magazine in 2007, Kodwo Eshun stated that the controversy revealed ‘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’.

What’s needed is a discourse which takes seriously the presence and significance of Africans in both art history and contemporary art.

I conducted a poll of art-adjacent friends and acquaintances, asking what prompted them to start writing about art. All of them credited an artwork or an exhibition: for most, it was a group show; for some, a solo presentation; not one named a biennial. Of those polled, the majority hadn’t attended any of the art world’s most prestigious biennials, such as Dak’Art, though two had been to at least one. Like most of my peers, I remember the exhibition and the artwork that compelled me to start writing about art. In 2014, a striking billboard featuring an image from Aida Muluneh’s ‘The 99 Series’ (2013) alerted me to an exhibition curated by Njami at Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt. The premise: Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (c.1308–21) – one of the foremost examples of Western literature – serving as the point of departure for an artistic exploration of heaven, purgatory and hell. Njami’s curatorial strategy blasphemously located hell on the top floor of the museum, obliging me to work my way down to heaven on the ground floor, riddled with Catholic-school guilt. Wangechi Mutu’s dimly-lit installation Metha (Table, 2010) was the first work that met my gaze in hell. I could make out brightly coloured enamel plates dispersed across a white, stage-like platform in an otherwise muted scenography. Above what turned out to be slatted white tables, a dozen or so bottles of red wine hung upside down at different heights, their contents slowly dripping onto the enamel plates below and splattering onto the white table. In their midst, a few bottles of milk were rigged up to do the same. The mixture of souring milk and wine filled the room with a potent stench.

During the show’s run, I attended Mutu’s artist talk with the late curator and CCA Lagos founder Bisi Silva. On one of her recent return visits to Kenya, Mutu recalled, she’d been surprised to find her mother making a meal that deviated from the freshwater fish dish she usually prepared. The artist’s mother explained that she had decided to eat only sea fish since learning that the reason fish had been thriving in Nam Lolwe (Lake Victoria) was due to all the corpses that had washed into it along the Kagera River following the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In Metha, Mutu sought to evoke food and death simultaneously via what she described to Silva as ‘living liquids’ – milk and wine – that symbolized the beginning and the end of life respectively. Mutu explained that similar slatted tables to the ones in her installation had been used temporarily to hold corpses during the genocide.

Wangechi Mutu, Metha, 2010
Wangechi Mutu, Metha, 2010, timber, bottles, leather, plates, twine, wine, milk, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Victoria Miro

‘The Divine Comedy’ featured 42 artists – including Ghada Amer, Kiluanji Kia Henda and Yinka Shonibare – all of whom had been part of ‘Check-List Luanda Pop’ seven years earlier. Many are now household names on the international scene and several have shown at the Venice Biennale, including Zineb Sedira, who represented France in 2022. There is no denying that only a small percentage of these artists would have had international careers if they’d lived and worked on the continent.

As a narrative, ‘Africa in Venice’ is about continental representation on the international stage. In reality, most African nations – Zimbabwe is a glaring exception – have little desire to showcase their leading contemporary artists in Venice. At heart, the genteel nationalism of the Venice Biennale is the realm of cultural worldmaking after empire; a fact which is rarely acknowledged or discussed in critiques of the underrepresentation of African countries. A global exhibition that fails to include most of an entire continent isn’t global. The Eurocentric expectation that a continent of 55 countries will essentialize itself for the (art) world every two years implicitly locates ‘the world’ outside of the continent. The assumption remains that to exist in the (art) world, one must leave Africa. Not to mention the stark reality that visa restrictions mean African artists remain significantly less mobile than their work. What’s needed is an ontology of Africa in the world, with all its implications; a discourse which takes seriously the presence and significance of Africans in both art history and contemporary art. There must be earnest consideration of how art has been crucial to our sense of being and belonging, and of art’s role in cultural world-making after empire in the immediate post-independence period. There are ways out of the ‘Africa Pavilion’ loop. Let us find them.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘Africa Out of Venice’

Main image: Marilyn Nance, The National Theatre, Lagos, FESTAC ‘77, 1977. Courtesy: © Marilyn Nance and Artists Rights Society, New York

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.