Iolanda Pensa, Check List in “Mousse”, 06/2007, cc by-sa.
“Finally, an African pavilion at the Venice Biennial!” – must have said prof. Carlo Anti and Aldobrandino Mochi while putting their compasses, goniometers and pendulums in their pockets. It was 1922 when the thirteenth Venice Biennial invited the public to enter the African pavilions.
Eighty-five years later, here we are again with the same desire to celebrate the “first” “African” pavilion in Venice.
Enough! Let’s admit it once for all without any remorse: it is not the first time that Africa has participated to the Biennial. But that doesn’t mean the question is over.
The debate on Africa at Venice has been going on for almost a century. It involves art, cinema, dance, music, theatre and architecture. However today there is a novelty – the director of the 2007 edition, Robert Storr, has launched the first edition of his competition. The winner is Check List, “an exhibition that represents contemporary African art” – as the press release states – through the works of the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, curated by Fernando Alvim (artist, founder of the Camouflage Centre of Bruxelles and Luanda Triennial) and Simon Njami (writer and curator of the African Photography Meetings of Bamako and Africa Remix).
What a strange idea to organize a competition – Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan must have said to themselves – There’s already the Forum for African Arts. During the 2000 Dakar Biennial, a group of intellectuals led by Okwui Enwezor (director of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial and Documenta 2002), Salah Hassan (curator and professor at Cornell University), and Olu Oguibe (artist, critic, and professor at the University of Connecticut) organized a meeting with Harald Szeemann (at that time artistic director of the Venice Biennial), inaugurating the Forum for African Arts. This initiative aimed of encouraging and reinforcing the African presence in international art exhibitions by selecting artists and curators. The meeting in Dakar did not produce a permanent African pavilion in Venice – as many hoped – yet, it announced Authentic/Ex-Centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art, an off-event curated by Olu Oguibe, Salah Hassan and Forum&Co within the programme Africa in Venice during the 2001 Venice Biennale. Although it was not the first time that Africa participated to the Biennial (here we go again), it was the first time that a project aspiring at having institutional legitimacy was presented. The Forum for African Arts wished to achieve the position and authority to negotiate with the most influential art centres. Indeed, in 2004, it succeeded in being included within the official programme of Venice with the exhibition Fault Lines curated by Gilane Tawadros. Yet, it in the mess of the 2003 Venice Biennial, curated by Francesco Bonami, almost everybody managed to get in – paradoxically many more than at Documenta 2002, directed by Okwui Enwezor. The Forum grew more and more, but its ambitions and legitimacy clashed with its own context. Creating a “national” pavilion when you do not have a “nation” behind it, is a rather difficult task. Attempting to be the “continental” representative when you do not have a “continent” behind you, is possibly even more difficult.
At 2004 Dakar Biennial, the legitimacy of the Forum was strongly attacked: during an international conference on international biennales, the Forum’s nature, mission and list of members were questioned. A common dynamic that emerges in debates in Africa refers back to the question “Where do you live?” The fact that the Forum for African Arts was based in the US, mostly supported by the Ford Foundation and the people of the “African diaspora” – who, as the litany repeats, do not know and live the daily African reality and its challenges – started to annoy a lot of people. Interestingly enough, this was happening when the institution was becoming more and more influential and possibly too invasive. While the 2005 Venice Biennial revealed the weakness of the Forum (present as a sponsor, but without an ad hoc project), the 2007 Biennial seems to declare its downfall, bypassing its members through a new process of selection for African artists and curators.
If the legitimacy of the Forum had been questioned for quite a long time (if not from its inception), similarly the launch of the competition raised few perplexities. In his open call, Robert Storr asked for a project for an African pavilion, as well as financial resources to support and produce it. All this had to be presented within few months. Tight deadlines and financial capacity do not usually go together, especially when the candidates could be (or could have been) institutions based in Africa. If there was anyone who could rapidly guarantee those economic resources, that was the Forum for African Arts, which was supported by a consolidated network of partners and facilitated by its American headquarters. A letter by Olu Oguibe, published with his authorization on the forum of the Africa South Art Initiative (http://www.asai.co.za), indirectly criticises the heated reaction of Salah Hassan and Owkui Enwezor regarding the competition: “I do not accept or share your view or Enwezor’s that under no circumstance should the process be opened to wider participation or that the Forum for African Arts should exercise a perpetual monopoly over African participation in the Venice Biennale outside the main exhibition.” In her reply, Marilyn Martin (director of the National Gallery of Johannesburg and member of the Forum) depicted the Forum as a sort of ghost institution. It maxy be, but it is difficult to believe that the idea of launching a competition for Africa’s participation at the Venice Biennial was not aimed at sabotaging the Forum for African Arts. Besides awarding the photographer Malick Sidibé with the Leone D’oro alla carriera, the fifty-second Venice Biennial aspires at providing “an informed and specific perspective on the contemporary reality of the African continent and its diaspora.”
30 artists, a concert, a newspaper, radio programmes and a catalogue available in November: Check List displays part of the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art and a series of works that are about to be purchased. Finally, an AFRICAN project at the Venice Biennial! African works, African artists, African collectors, African curators, Africanbased, African funding, African staff . . . Finally something that is really African; finally something really based in Africa; finally something that doesn’t pass through New York; finally something that correctly answers the question “where do you live?”
Curator, Fernando Alvim speaks of Africanism like Uncle Sam. While he talks of the concept behind the exhibition, I can’t help imagining his face on a billboard with a wig, a top hat and the pointing finger – Finally, an AFRICAN project!
Sure, but at this point we need to look closely to the concept of Africanism. Dark room, spot-light on Uncle Sam, let’s go . . . Where were you 10 years ago? Where was the Sindika Dokolo Collection 10 years ago? How does Simon Njami fit in all of this? How did Sindika Dokolo get his money? Why did you choose artists who in some cases have already exhibited at the Venice Biennial? Why was the appeal for candidacy made twice?
Uf! The whole business is getting complicated. Surely, it is not too difficult to identify the flaws of Africanism. Flexible, limp, international, africanism can perfectly adapt itself or not to anything. A bit like authenticity. Yet, in Check List, “African” is simply a password: a battle cry, a slogan, a brand. Besides its specific meaning, it identifies a stance, a political choice, a manner of designing exhibitions, works and projects which are typical of Fernando Alvim, and less of Simon Njami, who is more remix. Whatever the case, “African” refers to the Afrocentric and Panafrican ideologies of the fifties and sixties, and the Festival Mondial des Art Nègres (Dakar, 1966), rather than being a certificate of residency or nationality. This is the same spirit of the exhibiting space Camouflage in Bruxelles: it wishes to sabotage the world through new cultural spaces (with a series of acronyms such as CCASA, TACCA, CCAEA, CACAO) and a Triennial in a city abused by war. Therefore they are ideas and ideologies, rather than concrete, structured and structuring projects. Possibly the same applies to Check List, an exhibition that represents the concept of contemporary African art, although not in its selection of the artists. The fact that most of the works are part of a collection nips the problem in the bud; the exhibition does not look for works/artists to represent contemporary African art, but it displays an African selection of contemporary art that had already made its choices. The collection together with its “creator” Fernando Alvim (initially curator of the Collection Hans Bogatzke, then sold to Sindika Dokolo and now growing) direct the show.
Basically, Check List is a new performance by Fernando Alvim just like the acronyms (that have mostly remained acronyms without becoming actual exhibiting spaces) and the Luanda Triennial (that more than a Triennial is a tri-yearly cultural program using the marketing strategy of a Triennial). Needless to say, we are left with few questions. Why organizing a competition and then selecting Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami? Simon Njami and the remix franchising are not un-known, and Fernando Alvim, together with his production house LAX|SOSO and the Sindika Dokolo Foundation, is one of the very few who has the financial capacity to organise an exhibition in Venice. They might as well have nominated them without the virtual competition. Maybe it will be for the next time: for the new first African participation at the Venice Biennial. And here we go again.