First African curated Venice Biennale opens a wide space for questioning the world we live in. Expressing the complexity of our times, it offers us opportunities to become engaged.
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© Kay Hassan, Empire Medley, 2015. . Courtesy of Another Africa / Clelia Coussonnet.
120 years after its debut, the first Venice Biennale curated by an African – Nigerian Okwui Enwezor  – kicked off on May 9th and will go through November 22. With 400, 000 visitors anticipated and a favourite of the art crowd circuit, it spreads across the Arsenale, Giardini, and 89 national pavilions along with 44 collateral events.
Our review shares thoughts on the exhibition All the World’s Futures in conjunction with examining its African presence .
Enwezor’s appointment generated high expectations, including that this 56th Biennale would be celebratory of African Art, in a context where few African curators are as recognised as they should be internationally. The excitement to see his proposal revealed was palpable, as was the announcement of the Golden Lions received by El Anatsui (Ghana, Lifetime Achievement) and Adrian Piper (USA, Best Artist).
© Adrian Piper, Everything #21′, 2010-2013 (installation detail view).
Relying on the incidences and relationships between capital and exploitation in the political, economic, social, and environmental fields, All the World’s Futures’gauges “The Now”. Enlisting 136 artists to be the barometers of our time – representing “both the current state of things and the appearance of things” – it unleashes politically challenging and provocative content even if the tone remains conventional.
Where the objective was to offer a fresh vision on ‘futures’ through an appraisal of present’s frictions – in light of the past – the show‘s atmosphere is dense and loaded. Echoing this sentiment is Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s Out of Bounds monumental installation. This long, and shrouded corridor made from jute sacks used to transport coal, greets visitors upon entrance into the Arsenale. Multilayered, it brings to the fore the mechanisms of trade and the movements of products which inevitably point to the geopolitics lurking behind. We are left to ponder the reverberating impact of both the distant-past and the near-past through the Ghanaian economy. Mahama’s ‘found material’ alludes to the colonial project, when sacks such as these were used to transport cocoa to build the Imperial economy. Highly symbolic, this piece describes markets as spaces of inequality and exploitation – as the scale of the artwork insinuates.
© Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Out of Bounds’, 2014-2015. Site specific installation detail.
Is art able to help us understand the “disquiet of our time”? “Can it be a catalyst for change”? Interestingly Enwezor’s questions bring to mind the 12th Sharjah Biennale’s theme The past, the present, the possible. The exhibition is an ambitious work in progress, bearing its seasoned curator’s mark.
The Arsenale is calibrated into a path whereas the Giardini unfurls like a labyrinth whose atom is the ARENA, a space for happenings designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. Despite the constraints of the spaces, the exhibition is professionally presented, tightly curated and designed.
Laudable successes have been the inclusion of mainly commissioned works, and the debut of 89 artists to the Venice context. By not indulging in dialectics on cultural identities and centre / peripheries, the curatorial vision is a welcomed step forward compared to past editions. In Karo Akpokiere’s (Nigeria) Zwischen Lagos und Berlin (Between Lagos and Berlin) graphic illustrations bridge the artist’s experiences in the two cities by placing them on an equal footing. Social disparities and economic pressures appear to affect both.
© Karo Akpokiere, Zwischen Lagos und Berlin, 2015. Installation of 50 drawings.
“It is great to provoke discussions, even if change does not happen immediately; it shows there is something we are uncomfortable with. We have to keep talking and lead to the expansion of the conversation in the future.” – Karo Akpokiere
© Karo Akpokiere, Zwischen Lagos und Berlin, 2015 (detail view).
Gradually as we go along, the lack of dead zones and breathing space between rooms turns the experience into a test of endurance. The overall legibility and impact of the show undoubtedly comes at the price of seeing so much work, particularly as some artists present installations with multiple pieces. Yet this disruptive accumulation, even excess, could also be a commentary per se, part of Okwui Enwezor’s intention to articulate and observe our contemporary feelings of anxiety.
Little intimacy can be found in a project orchestrated as a communal experience. It reminds us that we should act in solidarity as suggested in Urban Requiem the giant rubber stamps installation by Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon) who uses protest slogans.
© Barthélémy Toguo, Urban Requiem, 2015 (installation view).
All the World’s Futures is not an easy proposal. If you seek lightness and poetry then this is the wrong place with few exceptions like the delicate drawings of Massinissa Selmani (Algeria, Special Mention of the Jury). The intent is rather that Enwezor encourages us to partake: it is the point he leverages. Though somehow, a bit more playfulness, or humour would have been appreciated to counter the ominous prospect offered. Contrasting tones would generate multiple paths to thought-provoking tensions.
© Samson Kambalu, The Last Judgement, 2015 (installation view).
The edition’s multidisciplinary approach however is a nice dynamic twist. Dance, Architecture and Film merge with the Visual Arts, a reminder that these fields have always influenced each other. Giving this wide berth to performativity proves wit as the subsequent liveness forces us to become participants and not mere passers-by.
Vertigo Sea – the new three-screen film installation – by John Akomfrah (Ghana) is one of the strongest works, meditating on our relationship with environment, depicting tragic historical moments (slavery, transatlantic trade) and giving keys to “understand the trauma and sense of alienation of displaced subjects”.
© John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, (video still image).
The weight assumed by voices is another interesting point. Don’t expect a silent, muffled show; this is a sound proposal that solicits our listening abilities. Enwezor connects visual / vocal, image / enunciation and devotes his project to orality, be it imagined or heard. There is no place to be quiet amongst stimulations arousing from plural narratives particularly as videos dominate the exhibition. Inevitably, some works suffer due to the occasional sound contamination.
In The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), Emeka Ogboh (Nigeria) asks us to “sense” the voices of African refugees singing the German national anthem in their native tongues. Lyrically, Ogboh addresses the xenophobic and anti-immigrant reactions on the rise in Europe. It is a daunting poignant work that permeates your body; art becomes a contact zone and there is grace in it.
© Emeka Ogboh, The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015 (detail view).
The artworks selected embody the frictions of our current geopolitical environment. Most of them delve into the past, and more precisely an unpleasant one: colonisation, relentless exploitation, acculturation, resource plundering, violence, wars, social upheavals, gender issues… Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique) presents thrones made from decommissioned welded weapons, whereas Abu Bakarr Mansaray (Sierra Leone / The Netherlands) invents crazy prototypes for new armament and technological tools designed to kill and destroy.
© Gonçalo Mabunda , The Knowledge Throne, 2014 (One of three sculptures).
© Abu Bakarr Mansaray. Lethal Purpose.
It is disappointing to note that within the African representation only four of 21 artists are female: Marlene Dumas (South Africa), Inji Efflatoun (Egypt), Wangechi Mutu (Kenya/USA) and Fatou Kandé Senghor (Senegal).
The tendency to use case-studies, documentary investigations, archival footages is seen in the vast array of medium and themes presented. Though neither new nor original, these avenues clearly illustrate how the present is linked to the past. Sammy Baloji in his installation ‘The Other Memorial’ alludes to the ongoing plunder of resources, both human and mineral in the Congo. By decorating the copper globe-like dome with scarification marks – an homage to disappearing traditional practices – he signals the cost of such exploitations and the subsequent harm to local identity. The inclusion of such historical material and the evocation of our collective memory, is a reminder that looking into the past to shape the future, is a necessary endeavour though all too often dismissed.
© Sammy Baloji, The Other Memorial, 2015.
“We are still wedged by frontiers. When I address cartography this is what I challenge. Why should we fit to molds that are colonial products?” – Sammy Baloji
Voices tackling controversial, thorny issues such as decoloniality, slavery, persecution, and ultimately collective amnesia or omission are much needed in Europe. It is bright and invaluable to bring counter narratives and art precisely into these types of context, to reassert that institutions still have work to do towards admitting this historicity. Yet as reviews of this 56th edition begin to go to press, the art world’s grumblings indicate that this crucial point continues to elude many. Or is it because they do not want to hear and remove their blinkers?
Despite the show’s title, there are few artworks dealing directly with the future. The exhibition reads like a mirror depicting a tumultuous panorama of the now. No wonder it emits auras of havoc, cacophony, and dissonance.
© Invisible Borders, Trans-African Project, 2015 . (installation view). Courtesy of Another Africa / Clelia Coussonnet.
One stand out is the vibrant and uplifting installation by the Invisible Borders photography collective (Nigeria). This work gives a sense of the challenges ahead yet does so in a positive and creative way. Their trans-African journeys across physical and metaphorical borders share a judgement-free insider’s vision of the countries they travel through. They use art as an everyday life tool producing work connected to real people. Thus illustrating how creative we can be to cope with our conditions and develop a resilience to act.
All the World’s Futures is worth engaging with for anyone socially conscious. By raising questions and awareness on crucial themes, it invites us to take responsibility to choose what we want to be part of; much like the exhibition that pushes us to side between passive observer or active participant. For a project that is so comprehensive, it lacks works suggesting the healing and curative potentials of art and its power to soothe and soften burdens and scars. Nevertheless, it will make history given its relevancy to current entanglements.
See more coverage on the 56th Venice Biennale on Instagram @anotherafrica.
 Currently director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, he was responsible for the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, 2002 documenta 11, 2007 Bienal de Sevilla, 2008 Gwangju Biennale and 2012 Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris..
 Adel Abdessemed (Algeria), John Akomfrah (Ghana), Karo Akpokiere (Nigeria), Sammy Baloji (DRC), Nidhal Chamekh (Tunisia), Marlene Dumas (South Africa), Inji Efflatoun (Egypt), Samson Kambalu (Malawi), Kay Hassan (South Africa), Invisible Borders (Kenya), Gonçalo Mabunda (Mozambique), Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana), Abu Bakarr Mansaray (Sierra Leone), Wangechi Mutu (Kenya/USA), Cheikh Ndiaye (Senegal), Emeka Ogboh (Nigeria), Joachim Schönfeldt (South Africa), Massinissa Selmani (Algeria), Fatou Kandé Senghor (Senegal), Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa), and Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon).
Written by Clelia Coussonnet.
Images courtesy of Another Africa / Clelia Coussonnet.