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African Art at Venice Biennale - Why Is There So Little of It?

  • curator selected pieces including the south african republic in 2015
  • audience saw works from south in 2015
  • african exhibition
April 13, 2017
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

For over a century, Venice Biennale has been one of the most prestigious cultural phenomena in the world and probably the most anticipated events in the international cultural calendar, transforming the floating city into a city of art. Yet, as part of it, African art has consistently been under-represented. This year, only seven out of fifty-four African countries will have national pavilions at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Born from the necessity to compensate for this lack of representation, the initiative called African Art in Venice Forum (AAVF) aims to tackle this issue with a two-day event held during the Biennale’s opening week at the Hotel de Monaco on the grand Central. Taking place on May 9th and May 10th, 2017, it will offer a variety of talks with many international speakers, illustrating and discussing new experimental models of museums, art spaces, foundations, residencies, as well as the multiplicity of new narratives generated across the continent by established and young creatives. Led by Neri Torcello, an art advisor, Azu Nwagbogu, the founder of the Lagos-based non-profit African Artists’ Foundation, and Azza Satti, the head of artists at African Speakers + Artists in Nairobi, this inclusive forum will serve as a platform for discussing salient global and diaspora-specific topics with an aim to stimulate a greater participation of African countries at the Venice Biennale.

To learn more about this event and the initiative in general, we’ve had a chat with its founder Neri Torcello. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, he talks about issues resulting from this under-representation, the program of the event, future plans and projects, and much more.

the curator prepared a time based artist exhibition in 2015
African Art in Venice Forum

The African Art in Venice Forum

Widewalls: The African continent has been consistently under-represented at the Venice Biennale; this year, only 7 out of 54 African countries will have national pavilions. What do you think is the reason for this lack of representation?

Neri Torcello: Trying to identify only one reason would give us a very limited perspective. Indeed, each African country has its own dynamics when dealing with the promotion of the arts. However, we believe that this under-representation is also linked to the format of the Biennale, which promotes artist through the lenses of nationality. It is undeniable that when a country has to define its current art scene to the global public, and does so through a limited group of artists that should represent the culture and artistic reality of a country, controversies may arise. This is especially relevant when making considerations on African countries where ethnicity, rather than national identity, prevails. Indeed, African countries are heterogeneous realities exuding ethnical diversity, for which the idea of a single national identity prevailing on ethnical identities has long been a rather complex issue. Nonetheless, creativity still thrives and very interesting local and cross-border narratives continuously arise and circulate across the continent.

Widewalls: The African Art in Venice Forum, a two-day event held during the opening of this prestigious biennale, was born from the necessity to compensate for the limited representation of many African countries. What are the most problematic issues you plan to address?

NT: The African Art Forum will thoroughly explore private and public initiatives that successfully led to the improvement of the infrastructure for the promotion of the arts. Particularly, the focus will be on those cross-border narratives which are being well received by the stakeholders and public of the art world, moving away from a problematic and dividing understanding of ethnicity or a reduction of it through national identity.

curator presented artist exhibition and work from africa including the south in 2015
Azza Satti, board member; Photo by Alice Oldenburg

The Program of the Forum

Widewalls: The Forum will be held in two auditoriums, one for institutional talks and one for artist talks. Could you tell us more about the program and its participants?

NR: The program will feature almost 20 panels, gathering more than 50 speakers from five continents. Discussions will revolve around how the African art scene relates to the world, to itself, and to the cross-border reality of the web. Renowned keynote speakers from major international museums will be discussing new narratives for African art in Western institutions. Arthub, a renowned foundation from China, will curate a panel about the relationship between African and Chinese culture. Furthermore, the first major exhibition of African art to be held in Australia will be presented. In more than one panel, the focus will be on cross border narratives and innovative models for the promotion of the arts in Africa – from museums and art centres to social networks and online platforms. Through a number of different artists, such as Abdoulaye Konate, Joël Andrianomearisoa, Ayana Jackson, Raquel Van Haver and Michael Armitage, the public will learn about the life of artists outside the studio and in their, his or her social engagement and research in the with the communities they belong to. Amongst others, Lohla Amira, Peju Alatise, Jay Pather, Victor Ehikhamenor, Longinos Nagila, Palesa Motsumi, Renee Mboya, Nontsikelelo Veleko and Hugues Ntoto will be discussing themes such as performance art in Africa, 21st century feminism, activism and young creatives, as well as the nomadic nature of some artists.

Widewalls: What impact can a national pavilion at Venice Biennale have on a local art scene, but also its visibility on a global scale?

NT: Jonas Staal once suggested that the Biennale’s “pavilions function as embassies, where each country showcases the art it believes best represents current developments in its art sector.” The current situation is somehow reflecting on the gap of representation that still exists between Africa and the rest of the world. If we accept the point of view of Staal, a national pavillion could thus be seen as a place where to start a conversation. Allowing African artists to promote their poetics and their views through the Biennale’s context could be greatly beneficial to broaden the horizons of the art industry, create positive exchanges of idea and trigger social and political changes to overcome historical patterns of exclusions and exploitation.

curator selected african work and news including the south in 2015
Azu Nwagbogu, board member; Photo by Maria Pia Bernardoni

African Art in the Contemporary Art Landscape

Widewalls: How do you think this forum can contribute to the participation of more African national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, but also add value to the art scene in Africa?

NT: First and foremost, the Forum wishes to understand what it means – or would mean – for an African country to have a national pavillion at the Venice Biennale. Is it really a sign of a strong public support for the arts, is it a sign of a thriving art scene or even liberal developments in that country? Moreover, the Forum will explore how artists, curators and researchers can activate new narratives to involve their communities, and how these could be shared with the rest of the world. The overarching objective of the initiative is to create a platform where the existing infrastructures for the promotion of the arts in Africa are assessed and for new possible models and initiatives to be discussed and initiated. Indeed, we will be broadcasting the whole event online, and we are now trying to allow those students, artists, researchers and others interested in the Forum, who will not be present in Venice, to interact with our panelists. Therefore we would like to encourage people to follow the discussions by gathering and sending questions for our speakers via social networks. Our team will formulate the online questions to the panelists during the Q&A section of each panel. This function is part of our commitment to make the Forum inclusive and accessible, even for people who do not have the resources to travel to Venice from the African continent.

Widewalls: How would you describe the position of contemporary African art in the global contemporary art landscape?

NT: Central. In the last few years, the rise in the appreciation of African contemporary art has been driven by many different social, political and economic factors. Africa, a hub of human creativity and alternative narratives, far from the show-business, is the lab where everything is questioned and new shapes are moulded – it is the nucleus.

Widewalls: How do you see the future of this initiative after the Venice Biennale?

NT: Amongst others, we will work at a “Survey Programme”, which features the projects which we will proactively support in the future. This will be done by analysing the necessities and project ideas of those participants that will fill in the survey to find matching opportunities and generate networks with our sponsors and partners. During the preparation of the 2019 edition of the African Art in Venice Forum, we will plan gatherings and collaborations during major art events and also start negotiations in order to source the necessary funds to start a research project, which will be announced by the end of this year.

Featured images: African Art in Venice Forum; Neri Torcello, Founder. Photo Alex Subrizi. All images courtesy of Neri Torcello.