56th Venice Biennale | An Uneven African Presence

Beyond Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All the World’s Futures’ exhibition, the visibility of African artists in both National Pavilions and collateral events is limited and only offers a glimpse of the continent’s rich visual practices.

© Chikonzero Chazunguza, Presence of the Past, 2015. All images courtesy of Another Africa / Clelia Coussonnet.


Leading up to 56th Venice Biennale, I was anticipating the curatorial proposals from the African National Pavilions given that the main exhibition would come under the purview of its first African curator. My tour during opening preview week, and along with it my hopes to face irreverent narratives emulating the pulse of the continent’s art producers quickly leaves me feeling lukewarm.

A tense backdrop has set the tone; the planned seven national participants had dropped to five. Nigeria had withdrawn, and Kenya’s scandalous pavilion which bore no intent to represent its art scene was disavowed then withdrawn – further rubbing into its wounds in 2013 where a similar presentation was shown. As of the preview week, the Mozambique Pavilion (participating for the first time) was empty. Ghostly black-painted walls bore only text pointing to what appears more like a craft display than a survey of Mozambican creation, naturally it generates scepticism.


© Angus Gibson, ‘Telling the Truth?’, 2015.


South Africa (which secured its permanent space in 2011) appears to have hectically organised What Remains is Tomorrow in a month. Despite this confused start and an impetus reframing the main exhibition’s locus and addressing the lurking spectre of racial violence, it succeeded to gather some interesting artists. Poignantly ‘Inzilo’ – a video piece by emerging artist Mohau Modisakeng makes a point about healing by depicting a poetic mourning ritual, whilst Angus Gibson’s ‘Telling the Truth’ reflects on the borders between victims / perpetrators and their relation to truth.


(Left) © Nandipha Mntambo, Conversation: the Beginning of Forever, 2015. (Right) © Haroon Gunn-Salie. Soft Vengeance, 2015.



“In the current violent context in South Africa, I realised I had to respond in a non-violent way. Vandalism was out of the question. I did not want to engage with symbolic violence at all.”
Haroon Gunn-Salie


© Gerald Machona’s ‘Ndiri Afronaut (I am an Afronaut)’, 2012 (sculpture).


A group of emerging South African artists also decided to set up their own collateral and independent event called the ‘Johannesburg Pavilion’. It was largely devoted to time-based practices, with relevant performance and screening programs. Artists Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Athi Patra-Ruga or Alberta Whittle & Farieda Nazier were amongst the participants. The initiative was noteworthy and embedded in ‘liveness’ to quote Okwui Enwezor. Alternative voices are always good to hear especially when fresh and outspoken. Audiences visiting Venice throughout the biennale’s duration will however miss out on this preview-week only showing. Once again highlighting the financial investment required to make a six month long presentation, whereas all the other exhibitions can be viewed until November 22.

At the Zimbabwean Pavilion, their three artist proposal examines the impact of technology, communication tools or consumption on the ‘human factor’ and identity both in urban and rural landscapes. Masimba Hwati explores those links and the myopia induced by social networks, the Internet and multinationals in his series ‘Urban Totems’. The ‘temporary nature of the marketplace’ is made visible in Gareth Nyandoro’s mixed media pieces and paintings delving into Harare’s street markets.


Gareth Nyandoro, Mushika Shika Wevanhu (Market Objects), 2015.


Gathered under the theme ‘Pixels of Ubuntu/Unhu’ we are lead through a reflection on the ‘self’ and ‘other’, showing us how important it is to maintain traditional knowledge, solidarity, community and interconnection of beings as key values for citizens not only in the Zimbabwean context but also in the global one. “This humble value serves as useful brakes to unbridled self-absorption that is increasingly coming to characterise contemporary life” notes Doreen Sibanda, commissioner of the Pavilion. Chikonzero Chazunguza pays homage to the opponents of colonialism and their engagement as a unit and collective body in a restorative gesture that once again places traditional cultures at the centre.


© Chikonzero Chazunguza, Presence of the Past III, 2015.


After its acclaimed ‘Luanda, Encyclopedic City’ – 2013 Golden Lion for the Best National Pavilion – Angola presents its second participation ‘On Ways of Travelling’. I regularly heard assertions such as “Angola is the next South Africa”, remarks on the growing vitality of its art scene.


© Délio Jasse, Ausência Permanente (Endless Absence), 2014.



“I investigate memory, and how we start to lose our heritage. I present historical material, richly layered, to prevent our memory from disappearing.”
– Délio Jasse


Délio Jasse’s delicate and poetic evocations of memory, its sedimentation, history, identity and bureaucracy found in his ‘Ausência Permanente’ series are beautiful. Whilst Binelde Hyrcan presents a playful video, ‘Cambeck Voitures’ where four children pretend to cruise in their imaginary car made out of sand. Through their naïve and ingenious game, we hear them voice their dreams and vision of the world which points to harsh inequalities, poverty and migration.


© Binelde, Hyrcan, Cambeck Voitures (video still image), 2014.


“It is thanks to art that we realise life is more important, without it we stagnate.”
– Binelde Hyrcan


Along with this official presentation, multimedia performance artist Nástio Mosquito carved out a place for himself. Mosquito gave a live performance of ‘Se Eu Fosse Angolano’ (If I Was Angolan) during the Göteborg International Biennale for Contemporary Art launch event along with his three video solo exhibition at the Oratorio San Ludovico. His unapologetic tone matched by his theatrical, humorous, interventions make for an exciting experiment. In particular the videos ‘Demo da Cracía’, which deals with Angolan identity, and ‘Fuck Africa Remix’ that hints at the pervasive corruption and violence imposed on the continent.

Personne et Les Autres is a generous idea stemming from the close collaboration of Belgian artist Vincent Meessen and curator Katerina Gregos. They invited ten other artists to share the pavilion in an attempt to investigate Belgium’s colonialist era, and to explore the layers of colonial legacies found in Africa today. Sammy Baloji (Congo) sheds light on the colonial practice of segregating black from white neighbourhoods with 500 meters long sections of no man’s land (the distance that equates the “maximum flight range of malarial mosquitoes”). ‘Essay on Urban Planning’ features six aerial views of those “no-contact” zones paired with six images of mosquitoes and flies. James Beckett (Zimbabwe) presents an automated storage machine relentlessly ordering African Modernist buildings.


© Sammy Baloji, Sammy Baloji’s ‘Essay on Urban Planning, 2013.


© James Beckett, Negative Space: A Scenario Generator for Clandestine Building in Africa, 2015 (detail view).


What appears as an interesting statement has created great discomfort amongst certain viewers that felt this proposal was another neo-colonialist assumption. While malaise could be inevitable, the artworks gathered however still provide an interesting ground for discussion in the context of unveiling counter narratives.

Yet all these exhibitions however painfully evidence the continued invisibility of female artists despite their being incredible practitioners across the continent, and vibrant works. The Johannesburg Pavilion included several female creators, but with its limited showing only Nandipha Mtambo’s ‘Conversation: the Beginning of Forever’ or Diane Victor’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ at the official South African Pavilion remain.


© William Kentridge, ‘Triumphs & Laments’, 2014-2015, (installation view)


Also to be noted was the low number of African curators and artists invited in other venues, and the appropriation of African voices by other actors. On this account, only the Italian and Holy See Pavilions invited respectively, South African artist William Kentridge and Mozambican photographer Mário Macilau. An initiative such as the ‘African Cities in Motion’ exhibition by Ca’Asi is to be congratulated as it investigates urban-related issues in the continent. Though with only one artist from the Moroccan diaspora, it lacked the nuances afforded from the insiders’ view.

Across the board, while some interesting artworks were presented, I am left with mixed feelings. A stronger effort would have been necessary to gain momentum and go beyond the beaten track. The challenges faced by National Pavilions continue to elucidate the infrastructural weaknesses facing African nations in terms of cultural strategies. Strong, long-term programming and investment are essential to build the appropriate cultural mechanisms. And art is a way to position a country on the global scale, but it requires a synergy of both governmental actions and financial support with the art community.

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Written by Clelia Coussonnet.

Images courtesy of Another Africa / Clelia Coussonnet.

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