Why Africa is the buzz at this year's Venice Biennale
It's the glittering jewel that tops the contemporary art calendar every two years -- yes, the Venice Biennale is back. Often described as the "Olympics of the art world," this year 53 countries will come together at venues scattered amid the city's sprawling canals to showcase works that exemplify each artist's homeland.
The prestigious exhibition opened Saturday and is a mammoth affair running for seven months until November 22.
This year's biennale has a distinctly African flavor as artists representing nations from the continent continue to become increasingly visible on the global stage. But that's not the only reason the buzz at this year's edition is all about Africa.
A different direction with first African curator
Continuing in a long line of esteemed custodians overseeing the biennale (including Massimiliano Gioni, Robert Storr and Francesco Bonami), Nigerian Okwui Enwezor was announced as the curator for this year's exhibition back in 2013. He is the first African curator in the exhibition's 120-year history and Enwezor will continue to challenge the zeitgeist to bring African artists to the forefront.
The Nigerian curator, writer and poet is a formidable powerhouse in contemporary art. His breakthrough came in 1996 when he curated "In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to Present" -- an exhibit of 30 African photographers at the Guggenheim Museum -- and since then he's overseen several international art events.
In addition to diversifying the list of invited artists, his choice of theme -- "All the world's futures" -- is another indication of a difference in direction for the bi-annual art extravaganza. "There is nothing to compare to what Okwui Enwezor has done in Venice this year. It is, without doubt, the first truly and positively global art show," explained Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Nigerian artist, art historian and curator who has just returned from the biennale.
"After this exhibition, any supposedly international contemporary art exhibition that does not include a reasonable number of African and black artists will look so small, and utterly narrow-minded."
This year's event again sees a rise in the visibility of African artists among the 136 on display. As the art scene from the continent continues to explode, an increasing number of artists are being accepted internationally, reaffirming their growing relevance in the world stage
On display through national pavilions, three African nations will be making their debut (Mozambique, Mauritius and the Seychelles) at the 56th Venice Biennale. They join returning participants Angola (the 2013 winner for the best national pavilion), Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
One particular exhibition must-see is Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah's three-screen film "Vertigo Sea," described by Okeke-Agulu as "searingly beautiful."
Other stand-out works, according to Okeke-Agulu (an associate professor at the Center for African American studies at Princeton), include creations by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh and Congolese creative Sammy Baloji.
A borderless continent
You'll also be able to see offerings from individual artists such as Ghana's Ibrahim Mahama as well as the hotly-anticipated "Trans-African Worldspace" from Lagos-based art collective, Invisible Borders. A presentation of African art not to be missed, over the last five years Invisible Borders coordinated road trips throughout the continent inviting visual artists to explore fresh perspectives of contemporary Africa.
"Artists and writers who traveled as part of Invisible Borders did not show everyday spaces -- like markets, streets, restaurants, roads, and malls -- as places in need of repair or development," Emmanuel Iduma, director of publications at Invisible Borders, wrote in a press statement. "But as places where life occurs without judgment; with mirth, theatricality, and beauty," he continued.
A Ghanaian lion
He's been hailed as "the most significant living African artist" and now Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui has been recognized for his monumental contributions to art. Best known for creating incredible sculptures using recycled waste, he was awarded Saturday the Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement in Venice.
The 70-year-old artist, who was born in the small town of Anyako, eastern Ghana, now splits his time between Nigeria and his homeland. "The Golden Lion Award acknowledges not just his recent successes internationally, but also his artistic influence amongst two generations of artists working in West Africa," said Enwezor of El Anatsui.
Issues of misrepresentation
Yet, this year's African participation was not without controversy. In Kenya, months before the biennale's opening, the awarding of the country's pavilion to Italian Paola Poponi provoked condemnation at home and abroad. The appointment was followed by an announcement that the east Africa's country's delegation would be largely comprised of Chinese artists, evoking memories of the questionable 2013 representation.
Critics went on to launch petitions at the lack of Kenyans showcasing, while commentators described the controversy as embarrassing and "frightening."
In Nairobi, artist Michael Soi was also caustic. "The Kenyan pavilion is basically a circus," he said. "It's come from a myriad of problems -- first of all corruption and issues of misrepresentation."
Traditionally each country must submit their own application to participate in the event. But there is confusion over how much involvement the Kenyan government has had following statements made by Hassan Wario, the country's minister of culture, sports, and the arts. During a press conference on March 20, he said: "The Government of Kenya dissociates itself with this group and strongly condemns their acts of impersonation."
While it remains unclear why six out of eight artists representing the east African nation are from China, due to mounting displeasure surrounding the pavilion, Italian media has reported the pavilion will remain on display as scheduled but it will no longer carry the country's name and flag.