African countries are inching up their level of participation in the Venice Biennale. This year, nine countries from the continent – representing a sixth of the 54 countries in Africa – have national pavilions at the 59th International Art Exhibition. First-time exhibitors Cameroon, Namibia and Uganda join Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe at the world’s most prestigious art event.
Understanding the international impact of African arts
Artists from the diaspora and Africa have scooped many of this year’s awards. Britain won the Golden Lion for best national participation for the exhibition of Sonia Boyce, the first Black female artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. Special mentions went to France in recognition Zineb Sedira, the first artist with Algerian origins to represent France, and to Uganda in praise of Acaye Kerunen’s sustainable use of materials like bark-clothed raffia in her sculptural practice.
Furthermore, the Golden Lion for the best participant in the main exhibition, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, was awarded to the African-American artist Simone Leigh for ‘Brick House’ (2019), a monumental bronze bust of a Black woman with braided hair whose chest resembles a rounded clay house. Leigh has a double-whammy at this year’s Venice Biennale, as she also represents the US pavilion.
Curated by Cecilia Alemani, ‘The Milk of Dreams’ features 12 artists from the African continent, out of an overall total of 213. Among them is Zimbabwean artist Portia Zvavahera’s expressive, dreamlike paintings that draw on the spiritualism of indigenous Zimbabwean and Apostolic Pentecostal beliefs, and South African artist Igshaan Adams’ vibrant, large-scale tapestries.
The mechanisms of the new cultural diplomacy
Yet the participation of African artists has, over the decades, been impacted heavily due to political and financial issues. Indeed, Egypt is the only African country to have a permanent pavilion, which was erected in 1952, in the Giardini.
South Africa began participating in the Venice Biennale in 1950, but between 1968 and 1991 it was excluded from participating due to opposition to the apartheid regime. It was only in 1993, the year after White South Africans voted in a referendum to end apartheid, that the country was invited to return to the biennale.
The African Pavilion in 2007 also sparked criticism. The exhibition, titled ‘Check-List Luanda Pop’, presented works from the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art in Luanda, Angola. Curated by Simon Njami, it featured around 140 artists from 28 countries. Yet it was lambasted for assembling African artists as if they represented the entire continent and for being an advert for Dokolo’s collection.
When Zimbabwe participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2011, its curator Raphael Chikukwa, director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, took a swipe at the 2007 African Pavilion. He said: “Previously the whole of Africa has been boxed together in a single pavilion. But why isn’t there a European pavilion? Individual European countries are represented. So we have the chance to finally showcase Zimbabwe as a sovereign nation.”
Zimbabwe was the first sub-Saharan country to have a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale – an unprecedented and historical feat. What’s also incredible is that, since 2011, it has consistently had a national pavilion, despite political upheavals in the country.
But let’s go briefly back to the biennale’s 2007 edition. A highpoint was Malian photographer Malick Sidibé being awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. A statement from Robert Storr, director of that year’s biennale, read “no African artist has done more to enhance photography’s stature in the region, contribute to its history, enrich its image archive or increase our awareness of the textures and transformations of African culture in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first than Malick Sidibé.”
Then in 2013, photographer Edson Chagas’ work so impressed the Venice Biennale’s judges that Angola was awarded the Golden Lion for best national participation. In a palazzo adorned with Renaissance masterpieces, posters of Chagas’ abstracted photographs of dilapidated buildings in Luanda were piled up on a carpet. The exhibition, titled ‘Luanda, Encyclopedic City’, marked Angola’s debut at the biennale before returning in 2015 and 2017.
Two years later, Okwui Enwezor became the first African to curate the biennale’s main exhibition. The Nigerian curator, who was then artistic director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, staged a politically-charged show, ‘All the World’s Futures’, that explored colonial pasts, a disorganized present and anxiety about uncertain futures. In recognition of his groundbreaking career, Enwezor (1963-2019) was posthumously awarded a Golden Lion in a symbolic ceremony in 2020.
Among the artists in ‘All the World’s Futures’ was El Anatsui, the Ghanaian-born, Nigeria-based artist, whose huge tapestry-like installation created from thousands of discarded bottle tops shimmered in the Arsenale. It led to him being the recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2015.
El Anatsui also participated in Ghana’s debut pavilion in 2019. Titled ‘Ghana Freedom’, referring to the trajectories and legacies of the nation’s freedom after the end of British colonialism, the exhibition presented six artists, including the filmmaker John Akomfrah, photographer Felicia Abban and painter Lynette Yiadom Boakye in a curving space designed by the architect David Adjaye.
Madagascar was another first-time participant in the Venice Biennale in 2019. The artist Joël Andrianomearisoa, who was born in Antananarivo and is based in France, seduced visitors with his cavernous installation. Titled ‘I Have Forgotten the Night’, it was composed from thin, over-layered sheets of black fabric and evocative of a nocturnal, shifting cityscape.
While some countries such as Madagascar have been unable to return to this year’s biennale, Ivory Coast is taking part for the third time. Having already participated in the 2013 and 2017 editions, Ivory Coast is presenting works by several artists, including small-scale drawings on cardboard by Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, who currently has a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and large-scale paintings by Aboudia.
The breadth of Africa’s presence in Venice during this edition extends beyond the biennale itself. Indeed, among the dozens of collateral events is South African artist Marlene Dumas’ solo show, ‘Open End’, at Palazzo Grassi (belonging to François Pinault – founder of luxury goods group Kering and owner of Christie’s). Another highlight is ‘The Soul Expanding Ocean #3’ featuring a video and sculptural installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape, another South African artist, inside San Lorenzo Church.
The Venice Biennale 2022 runs until 27th November 2022.
‘Marlene Dumas. Open-End’ is at Palazzo Grassi until 8 January 2023.
‘The Soul Expanding Ocean #3 : Dineo Seshee Bopape’ is San Lorenzo Church until 2 October 2022.