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Check List - Controversial African exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2007
Arts, 24 May 2007 - redactie Africaserver Magazine
Barthelemy Toguo - detail from The World's Greatest (2003)

With the Check List exhibition contemporary African art will be given unprecedented room at the 52nd edition of the Venice Biennale. Yet, some searching on the Internet reveals the participation of the continent has triggered lots of controversy, as much in the selection period as after the outcome of the selection process.
The Venice Biennale is one of the most important international art events, if not the most important. In most editions, African participation has been minimal. Some individual artists have participated in the theme exhibitions organised by the curators. Egypt was the only African country to have an own pavillion in 2005 and will be the only one again this year. Smaller overview exhibitions have been held in 2001 and 2003. Things should be different this year.

From the official statement of the Biennale organisation:

The Check List Luanda Pop exhibition selected to represent African contemporary art
The panel of experts invited by Director Robert Storr has selected the Check List Luanda Pop exhibition to represent African contemporary art in the Artiglierie space of the Arsenale. (…) The winning project will be curated by Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami , and will be drawn from works in the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art (Luanda, Angola).
The 52nd International Art Exhibition (running from June 10 to November 21, 2007) will host in the core of its international section a special area dedicated to AFRICA . The main purpose of the project (…) is to present an informed and distinctive perspective on current art from Africa and the African Diaspora. In making their selection, the jury not only praised the project’s curatorial strengths and those of the Sindika Dokolo Collection overall, but sought to draw attention to the Sindika Dokolo initiative as a signal undertaking within the context of art patronage in Africa generally.
The Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art was created in Luanda (Angola) in 2004 by the Congolese businessman and art collector Sindika Dokolo, together with the Angolan artist Fernando Alvim. The Collection’s aim is to promote the knowledge of the contemporary art scene throughout the African continent. The Sindika Dokolo Collection is comprised of 500 works by 140 artists from 28 different nations. Every year about 100 works are purchased in order to update and improve its holdings.

It looks good. Check List will have more room and more resources and thus more art and artists than the 2001 and 2003 exhibitions. Simon Njami (Cameroon, living in Paris) is one of the leading African experts on African art. He is amongst numerous other things the artistic director of Africa Remix, an extensive travelling overview of contemporary African art which has been to Düsseldorf, London, Paris and Tokyo and will be reopened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery this summer. Some of his ideas on African art can be found in this interview with the South African weekly's Mail & Guardian website. Ici Palabre, a blog at the site of the French newspaper Le Monde, has a more critical view (in French). Fernando Alvim is a known Angolan artist who has also made a name in the art scene in South Africa and Belgium. He is inspirational force and curator of the first Luanda Trienal (2006). In this 2004 interview he talks amongst other things about the influence of the war in Angola on his work and about the involvement of the government in the Trienal. Note the somewhat mysterious and ambiguous foreword. More on the outcome of the selection process later in this article.

Before this decision was reached, there already had been quite some heat about Africa in Venice. An example is the debate on the need for a South African national pavillion at the Biennale. Marilyn Martin, presently Director of Art Collections for the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, has been arguing for years this need has to be addressed, for instance in the 2001 article The African Renaissance (PDF), in this report on her visit to the 2005 Biennale (martinreport) and in Death in Venice on ArtThrob, a South African site on modern art. The opening paragraphs of this column:

Near the main entrance to the Giardini di Castello, the famous space in Venice where 29 countries erected their art pavilions during the 20th century, visitors to the 50th biennial will find a circle of small gravestones with bronze plaques indicating the names of countries that are not represented at the oldest and still the most important art biennial. Here lies South Africa - between Liechtenstein and Tajikistan.
I came upon this installation unexpectedly and I have no words with which to express the pain, anger, embarrassment and frustration that I experienced; only tears, as befits any funeral. I was aware of our absence, but to be confronted with the reality of the situation in this manner was shocking, although I found solace in the confirmation of my belief that a work of art can speak volumes.

(The title of this work by Ingrid Persaud is The Presence of your Absence).

Others disagree. Mario Pissarra of the Cape Town Community Arts Project in Death to Venice on ASAI artists' forum:

Perhaps Martin should tell us why visibility in Venice is so important, apart from it being the “oldest” biennale. Does this exclusive ‘pedigree’ really qualify it for a superior status? According to Williamson having a “real presence at the Venice Biennale” is “to move [African arts] closer to the centre.”. Certainly if we are to measure our success by visibility in the heart of the West then Venice is important. But if the success of our project depends on re-centering the world with a blatant bias towards the exploited Rest then Venice is perhaps not so important.
Our marginalisation as South African visual artists will not be addressed by a guest place at “the centre”, it will be addressed by shifting the centre, decentralising it globally so that the fortunes of most are not subjected to the whims of a few. Our marginalisation will be addressed by linking our struggle for visibility with a struggle for relevance, a struggle to engage the critical issues that affect all of us far more profoundly than being on curator Francesco Bonami’s guest list.

Mario is rebuked by Malcolm Payne, in Viva Venice... Viva... Long live!, again on Artthrob. The seemingly inevitable next step is Veneziano: Ventriloquizing Venice- a response to Malcolm Payne by Gavin Anderson on ASAI.

The way the project has been selected has also been an issue. Artistic director Robert Storr has opted for an open call for proposals for the African pavillion. Apparently, Salah Hassan (curator of the 2001 African exhibition) and Okwui Enwezor on behalf of the New York based Forum for African Arts, the producing body for the 2001 and 2003 African exhibitions, have raised objections. Their letter to Robert Storr is not to be found. Two replies, both on ASAI, defending the decision are: Open the Gate by Olu Oguibe, also curator of the 2001 exhibition, and Open Letter to Salah Hassan , another contribution by Marilyn Martin. On ArtThrob, the December 2006 news and Ed Young's diary give a glimp of the efforts by some South African artists to get their proposals accepted.

Most of the recent debate is about the outcome of the selection process though, almost all of it regarding the origins and the status of the Sindika Dokolo Collection (this site seems to be in development and apparently is connected to the Luanda Trienal site). Sindika Dokolo is a Congolese business man living in Luanda. His family made a fortune from the Bank of Kinshasa, which imploded in 1986. He is married to Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of president José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled neighboring Angola since his disputed 1979 election. Isabel dos Santos is a shrewd business woman with widespread interests, including in diamonds. Artnet News (23 Feb 2007) has much more on the obscure origin of Sindika Dokolo and his fortune, an article reproduced in Venice Biennale: Blood Diamond on the Robert Goldwater Library Online site. The article contains several further links I will not reproduce here. A less extensive criticism can be found at other sites. (Dutch readers will find background information on the Dos Santos family in the spring issue of ZAM)

Not everybody shares in this negative sentiment: Olu Oguibe downright defends the decision in this interview, while African Art at Venice in June on ArtThrob gives it the benefit of the doubt:

However, the jury is made up of highly regarded figures in the field of contemporary art, and given that the announcement has been made so late, it would probably have been extremely difficult for any other contenders to raise the necessary funding at such very short notice. Added to that, both Njami and Alvim are seasoned veterans of the biennale circuits, and one imagines that at the very least the work will be most presentable, get to Venice, be hung and lit well, and have a good catalogue to accompany it.

And it is a foot in the door for Africa, a continent with no pavilion to represent it. With more time next time around, the foundation provided by this exhibition can be built on.

Willem Kerkhoven
The current events section on ASAI reports a first artist, Barthelemy Toguo from Cameroon, has withdrawn: "Under no circumstances whatever should my name be associated with Sindika Dokolo".

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Sites for this article:
Venice Biennale - official website

Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art

(Dutch) Schitterend leed - over de handel in bloeddiamanten

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