By Andrew Mulenga
Founded in the late 1800s, the Venice Biennale is one of the world’s largest contemporary art exhibitions, taking place every two years in Venice, Italy. The Biennale is considered by many the Olympics or World Cup of contemporary art and being able to participate as an artist, gallery or country is an outstanding achievement in itself.
The latest installment of the Venice Biennale brings together more than 150 artists from 37 countries spanning from the 19th century to the present day and as always an outstanding national pavilion is selected by an expert panel of judges, and the curators of the winning exhibition space are honoured with the coveted Golden Lion Award.
This year, exhibiting for the very first time, Angola has been awarded this prestigious accolade making it the first sub-Saharan country to do so and defying the odds against some very stiff competition from the more experienced and seemingly organised German, French and Danish pavilions with whom the African country shared the Cini Palace, a lavish building full of history near a bustling tourist spot. In fact Angola plays ‘David’ to the German ‘Goliath’, toppling the so-called developed country as holder of the top honour of best pavilion.
But it turns out that the leading German art magazine ART did not react too well to the fact that Angola has won the Golden Lion award and appears to have written a shaggy-dog story in an article entitled "ANGOLA! WO IST ANGOLA?" (translated ANGOLA! WHERE IS ANGOLA?") outwardly making fun of the African recipient of the accolade.
The article by the magazine’s senior editor Ute Thun suggests the Angolan pavilion is not one of the visitors’ favourites and expresses surprise at its emerging as the winner. The article also insinuates that the Angolan team may have gone out of its way to lobby for the accolade using co-curator Stefano Rabolli Pansera as someone who is a “well-networked” architecture and urban planning specialist. Thun’s article has attracted sharp criticism from outspoken Dar-es-Salaam born and German based art market practitioner Safia Dickersbach, however, who has condemned the article describing it as “somewhat disappointing, narrow-minded and an almost stereotypic viewpoint on this year's winner of the Golden Lion contrasting with the magazine's aspiration to cover the art scene from a global perspective”.
In a short commentary sent to Andrew Mulenga’s Hole in the Wall, entitled Angola wins, but Germany's "ART - Das Kunstmagazin" wonders: Where is Angola? Dickersbach protests that ART magazine, “claimed that hardly any visitor actually saw the work of the (Angolan) photo artist Edson Chagas in Palazzo Cini and speculated about ‘successful lobbying and networking’ by curator Stefano Rabolli Pansera. The only reason which was given for these vague conjectures was the fact that Pansera had already curated Angola's contribution to the architecture biennial a year ago.”
“I ask myself what kind of "networking and lobbying" had preceded the Golden Lion prizes previously awarded to the national pavilions of the U.S. with Bruce Nauman in 2009 and of Germany with Christoph Schlingensief curated by Susanne Gaensheimer in 2011? Was there also speculation happening back then about the reasons for these successes?” queries Dickersbach who is also a very compelling critic of TURN, the new cultural support program initiated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation (‘Africa is not a country’, German funders told’, Saturday Post, Hole in the Wall, 12 January 2013).
“Were those winning countries, artists and curators maybe too established and influential so that there was no reason to worry about illegitimate manoeuvring? Are only the Africans again considered prone to cronyism and patronage which ART more stately translated with ‘networking and lobbying’ to make it fit the aristocratic environment of Venice's palazzos? ART dutifully speaks about detractors spreading such rumours, but the question remains why an influential German art magazine provides ample space for vague suppositions by obviously resentful competitors.”
She discloses that ART is published by the largest German publishing house Gruner & Jahr which she states belongs to the media conglomerate Bertelsmann. She further states the magazine is primarily financed by advertisements of major galleries, museums, art fairs and auction houses and it would be very interesting to find out “which hidden agendas ART is pursuing with its lopsided coverage of Angola's success in Venice” and that maybe some disappointment about the showing of its own major business clients during the event in Venice played a role as well.
In her commentary, Dickersbach further suggests that the German magazine “mocked the choice of Angola's national pavilion to mirror the motto of the main exhibition Encyclopaedic Palace by calling the Angolan presentation Luanda - An Encyclopaedic City, instead of ignoring the main exhibition's theme as allegedly all the other national pavilions did. The question is: What is wrong with picking up and variegating the main exhibition's motto? Does it mean that the artistic quality of Angola's contribution is inferior just due to its decision to artistically interpret the Venice biennial's central theme? Or the other national pavilions’ decision to deliberately ignore the main exhibition's theme proves their independence and intellectualism?”
The choice of Angola was made by a five-woman jury chaired by Jessica Morgan (Great Britain) and comprised of Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy (Mexico), Francesco Manacorda (Italy), Ali Subotnick (United States), and Bisi Silva, an independent Nigerian curator and founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos who is probably the most hard-working woman in contemporary African art having curated the West African space that was the centrepiece at Art Dubai 2013, the UAE’s premier art fair just a few months ago.
The judges at Venice are said to have paid particular attention to countries that have managed to provide original insight into expanding art practice within their region but Angola’s pavilion was selected for the way it reflected on “the irreconcilability and complexity of site”.
As much as the Angola pavilion was co-curated by a non-African, the exhibition was commissioned and supported by the Angolan Ministry of Culture, and in any case, the Angolan government must be commended for supporting its artists at a cost even though every government owes the arts its allegiance. The Angolans must be delighted too at the outcome as it was not a bad investment after all, seeing that as newcomers to Venice, they took an expensive gamble and rented a plush exhibition venue for the entire duration of the Biennale, which runs until November 24.
And in which ever context one may want to ask the question “Angola! Where is Angola?!”, if the contemporary art world did not know where Angola is at the Venice Biennale or on the African continent, now they do.
Other than Angola, South Africa, Kenya and the purportedly cash-strapped Zimbabwe are also present at Venice. South Africa has a stand-alone pavilion whereas Kenya and Zimbabwe have chosen more economical and temporary venues. It is through an official invitation to the Zimbabwean Ministry of Education, Sport, Art and Culture that Zambia’s neighbour and co-host of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation General Assembly are attending Venice for the second time.
Nevertheless, Africa must join Angolan in celebration for putting it on the map especially at a time when creative Africans on the continent continue making us proud, even though our continent’s share of the global creative economy is less than 1 per cent according to research revealed by Mike van Graan the Executive Director of the Cape town-based African Arts Institute during the Creative Economy Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2011.