Almost two months after the 55th Venice biennial opened, the magnitude of Kenya’s catastrophic showing and gross misrepresentation in the most prestigious meeting place in the art world is still an emotional subject.
Every two years, this historic fixture is set up, like a dining table to the world. As an artist, showing your work in Venice, especially for the first time is a dream. It means your work has advanced past the rigorous tests of local and regional margins, and you have something more to offer to the world. It brings with it a new energy, propelling the artists to newer heights of their careers. This is a big break which indicates that you get to progress to a whole new level.
The presence of a national pavilion, especially for countries participating for the first time, signifies a confidence; a newfound progressiveness and cultural involvement by governments, which demonstrates to the world the brilliance of contemporary artists available within the nation’s borders. It also goes to demonstrate a society with a heightened creative capacity, one that continuously speaks to itself and possesses a cultural consciousness that the government continuously supports.
For countries that have participated in the biennial before, and which boast a much more advance infrastructure in their localities, National pavilions will normally be realized in many different ways, but mainly through the patronage their Cultural offices, National galleries, wide selection of accomplished curators, and a responsive private sector.
National governments, working through their cultural ministries, relevant departments and diplomatic missions work tirelessly with the most critical and progressive individuals to ensure the realization of a platform of curatorial precision, intellectual and aesthetic vision.
The biennial’s opening is a spectacle in itself. Artists, Museum directors, Gallery owners, Auction houses, Foundations, representatives of funding Corporations, Curators, Critics, art lovers et al, colonize the city, as they attempt to consume everything that is on offer. People set up all manner of rendezvous, publications are exchanged, new collaborations as sealed, deals are made and the sight of the golden wheels of the cultural economy, spinning with refreshed vigor, is one to behold.
In the evenings the participating countries throw glamorous cocktail after parties, flaunting and sharing the sophistication of their cultures. Here, you will meet the most celebrated contemporary thinkers, philosophers, writers, artists, curators, theorists, publishers and other key players who determine global culture, from all corners of the world.
The 55th Venice Biennale, which opened on 1st june 2013 had the theme ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’. The curator of the Biennale – Massimiliano Gioni, chose this theme based on an imaginary museum that was meant to house and celebrate all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race.
Kenya has never before had the opportunity to show in Venice. When word went round of Kenya’s presence in this year’s event, the reaction was both shock and surprise.
The pavilion Is curated by Paola Poponi and Sandro Orlandi, two names that are unknown in the Kenyan art scene. The curatorial proposition is “Reflective nature: a new enchanting sensitivity”, represented by the artists Kivuthi Mbuno (Kenya), Chrispus Wangombe Wachira (Kenya), Fan Bo, Luo Ling, Liu Ke, Lu Peng, Li Wei, He Weiming, Chen Wenling, Feng Zhengjie (China) César Meneghetti (Italy/Brazil) and Armando Tanzini (Italy).
This translates to 2 Kenyans, 1 Italian, 1 Brazilio-Italian, and 8 Chinese.
Back in Nairobi, the artists were fuming, and they had every reason to.
A curatorial engagement is a procedural process. Everything has to be thought out. When working as a curator, it is important to be prepared to defend the project from any questions that may arise, whether in terms of what the motivation of the show is, why, who the artists are, what the work is, what it says and the manner in which it is placed, its relationship to the context, what strategies are created to engage with the audience, the exhibition catalogue – is it a publication, is it a DVD-ROM, CD – If it is a publication, is it a magazine type one, or a bible type one, whats the typeface and why, and how the show is to be recorded and remembered, what kind of layout, (including details such as typeface, font colour), the web solution, and so on. These issues can only be managed by a team, and can rarely be done by an individual.
In this context, it is worth mentioning that one of the of the most important values that inform a curator’s practice is morality.
The Latin root word for Curator is Curare, which is also the root of the English word “care”. A curator simply “takes care of”. As Angela Vattesse, a teacher of contemporary art at the Universita Bocconi in Milan, says, “…the curator, is in fact, not concerned with a body of work, but with the activity of living artists with whom one may, and indeed, must, collaborate. In general, the exhibition is the moment in which a series of decisions and cultural approaches congeal so as to produce a result that demonstrates an ability to “take care” of artists, works and places. In fact, the cultural aims an exhibition seeks to express, that the curator even “takes care” of the world”. A curator working with contemporary art is therefore, not just a practitioner, as it was with the traditional institutional model – someone who can operate from some theory-based bureau, by remote control, dealing with objects and cultures in a passive or theoretical fashion. It is imperative that a curator develops a relationship with the artist, the art, the context, the site and the audience. It is also fundamental that a curator understands the curatorial debates that have emerged over the last 50 years or so, or rather, to be able to place themselves in an curatorial or art-historic context. This is then made practical by continuously engaging with artists’ production, holding conversations and briefs, reading, writing and practice – a further sharpening of their acquired curatorial skills.
These key relationships & information are totally lost on the curators of the Kenyan pavilion.
Secondly, the theme of the show poses another problem. What does “Reflective nature: a new enchanting sensitivity”, actually mean? As curator Simon Njami always told me, “Words have meaning”. Writing is not a ceremonial gesture to impress the masses. Words are not just hollow symbols to be thrown around. If we were to deconstruct the theme of the show, who would be reflecting what? Are we (maybe as citizens of the world) reflecting nature? What is the new enchanting sensitivity? Why is it new? What is this enchantment? What makes its sensitivity worth reflecting? And then, how does this resonate with the artist’s and the work selected for the pavilion? Fundamentally, how does this then generate knowledge, to fit into the overriding theme of the biennial? At the moment, the curators seem to expect their audience to guess what it means.
On the other hand, did the Curators publish a catalogue – a document that would safeguard the memory of the show? Were there some writers, theorists, critics who were commissioned to theoretically and critically shed light to the vision proposed? Who opened the show – was the Kenyan Ambassador to Italy present? Beyond utility of the country’s name, what other ceremonies paid tribute to the host-state? Did they have a team, with graphic & designers, who churned out the ‘propaganda’ for the show? Did they build a website, to provide an interaction with their audience, virtual or otherwise, including the many citizens in the mother country, who cannot travel to Venice? Where a press package that can be downloaded? Has there been any information passed to the local press? Where is a single review that talks positively about the curatorial vision of the pavilion? And my favourite: Where was the Kenyan after-party?
Thirdly, the participation of the two Kenyan artists is a dangerous and unfortunate gimmick.
Kivuthi Mbuno (born in Kenya, 1947), is an artist who is well known, well respected, some kind of Modernist in Kenyan standards. He is also uninformed, and not very savvy to the contemporary art world, and currently ailing. In the 80’s and 90’s, at the peak of his career, ‘technique’ was the essential factor in the work of artists of his generation. Most of the artists of his time were engaged to simply ‘paint’ or ‘sculpt’ in a particular way. During this period, Kivuthi was one of the crème de la crème of artists who were represented by Gallery Watatu, and just like other artists of that generation, such as Jak Katarikawe, Sane Wadu, Eunice Wadu, Meek Gichugu, Theresa Musoke, and Wanyu Brush, their world view was not as ambitious. But they were happy. They sold work at premium prices. Their shows were organized for them. They were respected. They were superstars. It felt good to be managed.
When Ruth Schaffner passed on in 1994, they were left desolate, confused, ‘motherless’ – and since then, have been systematically taken advantage of by gallerists, collectors, dealers and roving adventurers, remaining vulnerable to an explicitly exploitative system. In the absence of any competition, Ruth Schaffner – with a sophisticated international network and an impressive capital base, wielded a huge stick, creating a comfortable monopoly, determining what Kenyan art was, how it was perceived (both locally and internationally) and who bore the privilege of representing & owning it. Ruth was simply a shrewd businesswoman in a dysfunctional society with an extremely capitalistic system and an incompetent, apolitical art community. The absence of (art) educational systems that could not churn out intellectuals & a critical thinking mass ensured that Schaffner reigned supreme, totally unchallenged. It is part of our dark, voluminous unwritten history that she could storm into an exhibition and command that artworks by ‘her artists’ be removed from a show. Wendy Karmali, who ran the National Museum gallery in the early 90’s, was a regular victim of her excesses.
This dissipation, the swift & brutal decline of the older artists who had been previously patronized by Gallery Watatu is a profound phenomenon. How fast the status and glamour of the Gallery declined is also a stupefaction to reflect upon.
Fast forward to 2012, to the miserable death of Adama Diawara, Ruth’s Ivorian husband who shared the vision but lacked the intuition. After a long and lonely struggle, the gallery was closed down and its collection smuggled, ending a traumatic chapter to a confusing period.
The Kenyan art scene post 1995 provided a new breed of younger, restless and previously subdued artists with an opportunity to occupy the vacant spaces left by the old order. There were no rules. There was no authority and for a while, it was pandemonium. Here, a process began of developing new vocabularies of expression, to connect to audiences afresh and for the artists to develop strategies that could propel their careers into international visibility. The internet and the mobile phone, the two tools that define this generation, were becoming more and more accessible. With these new instuments, they were unstoppable.
In reference to this bit of disturbing history, it is evident that the participation of these two Kenyans was a calculated move. Kivuthi’s work is juxtaposed in the show for the Name. Just like Kenyan coffee, he was auctioned cheap; his work was to blend and brand. A token black. He probably does not own the works on show. I doubt that he even knows that his work is in the biennial, let alone that it is shown in quite a grotesque manner.
On the other hand, Chrispus Wangombe Wachira is a name not a single artist is familiar with. As an artist involved in curatorial practice, it is my business to keep informed with whatever is happening in the art world locally, in Africa & internationally. I have never heard of this artist, and neither do I know his work. I could also not find any information on his practice, not even his biography or any of the works he has ever made, or the ones he showed in Venice.
But, to give him some benefit of doubt, he could be one of the many ‘makers of things’, just like you will find in any human habitation. He could be a young artist, a new entrant, ambitious but naïve, yet to understand the savoir-faire of the art world. It is common to see young artists who, morally corrupt and brutalized to confusion by the ferocious capitalism of our time and our society, prefer to take convenient shortcuts rather than build their careers reputably. He should understand that in this case, he plays a mere statistic, set up not for the expressiveness of his work, but to hoodwink the art world into buying into a scam. And then, he is disposable. It is no doubt that the presence of the two Kenyans was a ploy to fictionalize some kind of indigenous representation.
It is also disturbing that neither of the two Kenyans was present at the biennial opening. It is a perversion and a mockery to open an exhibition whose artist is absent while s/he is alive, particularly in a biennial, particularly in Venice, and especially, when they claim to be the hosts.
On the other hand Armando Tanzini, who describes himself as “a Kenyan resident for decades”, is well known in the Kenyan Art scene, especially among the older generations of artists. Among the younger artists, he is better known as one of the many Italian residents settled in Malindi. His presence in Venice, especially while showing such poor work, provides the opportunity to question how cronyism & ethnic networks are exploited and given preference over merit. It also provides for the opportunity to interrogate the distribution of capital and how old-fashioned networks maintain the status quo and how much influence these networks have on Kenya’s cultural practice.
Collaborations between artists and curatorial strategies that place artists of different countries in national pavilions and in the biennial itself is common; An Albanian artist represents France, while Germany has four artists of Chinese, Indian, South African and French nationalities on show in their respective pavilions. This is not by accident. It is positively well calculated, and normally falls within a clearly spelt out curatorial design.
Kenya, being a country whose contemporary art is totally misrepresented, does not as yet have this collaborative privilege. As such, only a sinister motive could explain the Chinese artists presence, and elicits disturbing questions concerning the viability, the resourcefulness and commitment of the political, economic & social institutions towards contemporary art in Kenya.
To try and get into a discussion concerning the work of the artists who show in the Kenyan pavilion would be futile and irrelevant, since the work on show does NOT reference in any way the context in whose pavilion they proudly show. Knowing the Kenyan scene, and all these salary men and government people, someone not very sophisticated might argue that Armando Tanzini had a “context specific” picture of an Elephant and a map of Africa made of bottle-tops, or some other similar object that they could imagine as aesthetically sound. That much is true – concerning the Elephant and the map, but also, it should be made clear that his work falls way below what contemporary art stands for, and what can represent Kenya in such a showing. To borrow the words of the independent Moscow based curator, Victor Missiano, Art is not decoration; It is a crucial agent in contemporary culture and society, with the potential of formulating essential insights into how social structures and mechanisms function.
A conversation about the work would also be similar to getting into a altercation, arguing whether the act of a thief who stole a house, can be validated through their ability to furnish it well.
Not to be ignored in the whole fiasco, are the reactions from Nairobi, and in particular, artists, the art organizations, galleries, and local authorities.
Kenyan artists seem to have been the first ones to raise questions concerning the Kenyan pavilion. Subsequently, on 19th June 2013, Dr. Joyce Nyairo, a former university lecturer and cultural analyst, wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Nation. The article, titled “We need a good explanation for Kenya’s disastrous display at the ‘Art Olympics‘”, in a fiery and vehement manner, went ahead to demand for an explanation from government institutions responsible for culture and to confirm if the curators of the pavilion received any kind of support – moral, financial or otherwise – from the government.
As the mainstream media expand their cultural coverage and alternative publications and websites proliferate, there has never been more need for engaging knowledgeable cultural reporting and analysis. In as much as the expose by Nyairo was valid and opportune, such editorials will eventually disappear in the tones of newsprint discarded everyday. This is not to say they her gesture is unappreciated. Not at all. It just goes to question its style & effectiveness. I feel that the role of the critic in the age of the Internet becomes quite a performative one. Nevertheless, my criticism is particularly concerned with style. It could have been more constructive, as a literature academic, to employ a mood and narrative style that could act as an investigative and interpretive text, in a form that could exemplify the weight of the matter and that can impact on the construction and negotiation of values, especially in art-journalism rather than perpetuating that function of political-style reportage for information that can easily be googled. The text by Nyairo, unfortunately, failed to illustrate the complicated reality that frames not only our deficient art-scene, but also the complicated reality that frames the seriousness of such events. In as much as local newspapers are characterized by a conforming tendency of rushed edits, copy-pasting, uncritical editorials & mass consumption, Nyairo, even if simply by virtue of the prefix before her name, is endowed with the power to change such things.
In the same week, Goethe institute pussy-footed into the fray, created a facebook event, and together with a band of Nairobi based artists, huddled in a small emergent space called ‘the nest’ getting served with coca-colas & fantas, in a session set to deliberate what the existence of the pavilion meant. This was June 20th, 2013.
Apart from artists, staff of the Nest & the Goethe Institute director, (and an entourage of young enthusiastic German interns in tow), none of the art organizations working in Nairobi was present. This came without surprise.
Still, the conversation itself was a frustrating one, by the sheer lack of insight.
On one of the many sittings with artists after that session, as we had lunch in the Manna restaurant, at the Go-Down, Michael Soi asked a senior employee of one of these organizations if they knew what a biennial was, and if they knew the date of any biennial, exhibition, talk, or event – taking place in the world. But even as he asked, we knew what the answer would be.
The art organizations in Nairobi are simply clueless. They lack the basic capacity to take part in any meaningful discourse. Unfortunately, the situation may not change, as long as the current configuration remains the same, since it is the child borne out of an incestuous relationship between ignorance and colonialism. It also works as the comfortable bedfellow of a political order afraid of its people; a body afraid of its shadow. It is designed to remain hostage to an insecure & conservative institutional model, kept in check by minds churned out from a dysfunctional educational system. It is corrupt and destructive, as it attempts to maintain its illusions of uninterrupted consumptive splendor, while continually infecting society with an acute form of amnesia and rage in corresponding doses. Eventually, it can only implode.
Dr. Wenny Teo, Iwan and Manuela Wirth lecturer of modern and contemporary Asian Art at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, stresses in a relevant article for The Art Newspaper that ‘…the exhibition is a stunning example of present day Orientalism, and its cursory inclusion of the two Kenyan artists is Primitivism at its very worst…’. Naming her article ‘Orientalism As Multiculturalism at the Kenya Pavilion’ she talks of the ‘…blatant marginalization of Kenyan artists, in a national pavilion show that was, in addition, put together by two Italian curators‘. Yet the silence remains dominant.
In comparison to other National pavilions, the Kenya pavilion is a travesty. Issues concerning its entire lacking & dysfunctionality, were also raised by curators & artists from other countries, especially those who had the opportunity to visit it. Raphael Chikukwa, deputy director of the Zimbabwe National gallery, a frequent visitor to Nairobi and curator of the Zimbabwe National pavilion, was one of the first to raise the matter of a Kenyan Pavilion inhabited by unknown persons. Andile Magengele, South African Curator and Cultural consultant, commenting on the string through facebook, said “I am shocked! This is what happens when you have a Government and a cultural sector which are discordant and can’t talk constructively.” Nicholas Logsdail, owner of the Lisson Gallery in London summed it up simply as “…a joke it is indeed… and worse, quite shameful…”, while Cameroonian Curator, writer & critic, Simon Njami, reviewed it as “ …a sad comedy… it was the (negative) talk of this biennial”. Wenny Teo, who authored a long review about the Kenyan pavilion, concluded her criticism by proposing to visitors that the pavilion be “…avoided like the plague”.
The Kenyan pavilion is but a show of moral and professional decadence. A catastrophe. The lingering question, which many people involved in the arts shall struggle to answer are: Who are these people? What are they doing in the Kenyan pavilion? How did they get there? Inquiries to both the Italian Embassy and Italian Cultural Centre bore no information concerning their identities. They do not know & understand the context.
From the manner in which pavilion came into existence and is set up, it is evident that the curators have no connection, information and do not understand the contextual composition and nuances of contemporary art from Kenya. They also project a crude immorality, an unsophisticated wheeler-dealer attitude, as it is glaring that they are taking care of themselves, instead of the artists, the work and the world. On the other hand, they have shamelessly exploited a situation that should instead, elicit compassion and goodwill. Their dishonesty is also clear, as they have created a false impression by misrepresenting and manipulating information to advance their their own cause.
A thorough search online reveals a Paola Poponi listed as Art Director presso G&P Communication, and Sandro Orlandi, listed as Artistic Director of ARTantide.com. Some of his listed tasks include curating the Syrian pavilion at the 54th Venice biennial and as Curator of the Biennal Italy-China, a project said to be “bringing 60 chinese artists in dialogue with 60 Italian artists”. One of the noticeable coincidences is that the Chinese artists who are in the Kenya pavilion, such as Lu Peng, Li Wei and Feng Zhengjie, were also in the Italy-China biennial. It is mentioned that these three artists are “among the emerging talent and (?) more of the vibrant art scene in Beijing”. Strangely, this information is only found in the Artantide.com website.
The information given by the ARTantide website concerning the Kenyan pavilion is titled as “Kenyans hosts the Chinese Artists in the 55th Venice Biennial”. The question is: Which Kenyans? If this was indeed a Kenya Pavilion, is this the best that that Kenyan artists could muster, in reaction to Massimiliano Gioni’s call; these shameful presentations are what we can bring to the table – some kitsch Elephant and map of Africa – as our contribution, as our greatest discoveries for the human race?
The world we live in is smaller that it once was. It has become, and will continue to become more and more difficult for those with power – any kind of power – to lord it over some unsuspecting citizens of good will.
The violation of Mohammed Bouazizi’s dignity in Sidi bouazid, Tunisia, opened a new chapter where with a “rock in one hand, and a cell phone in the other”, the helpless and disinherited vowed to take back what belongs to them.
The Kenyan artists have their rock and cellphone. The rock is ther knowledge and desire to shape their own lives, while their cell phone is their connectedness, among themselves and with the rest of the world, with access to a massive network of people with a similar conviction, linking them all together to form a formidable matrix.
One of the less sophisticated, yet profound quotes I have come across is, ‘When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen’. I would want to imagine that this generation has learnt its lesson well.
The dust has not settled in Nairobi. Kenyan artists have conspired to take back their pavilion.