From global identities to the multiplicity of nationhood, Nataal surveys African voices at the Venice Biennale 2017

“...In an earth world with very many worlds within its world…” (Peju Alatise) how should we overview ‘African art’ at the Venice Biennale 2017: Viva Arte Viva? This confusing categorisation, that attempts to frame all art from such a vast continent, remains the focus of many Venice round-ups. The concept of nationhood is neither sexy nor seemingly so relevant in today’s globalised climate, yet here it continues to be the unifying curatorial approach at this bastion event for the contemporary art world.

“It's good to challenge the gatekeepers,” explains Sokari Douglass Camp CBE, questioning the enduring relevance of national pavilions. Her sculptural works form part of the striking Diaspora Pavilion - excluded from the official exhibition - which eschews a singular representation of nationhood to instead brilliantly survey the cacophonous nature of modern border-blurring identity. The pavilion unites new and existing works from 19 artists including Yinka Shonibare MBE, Joy Gregory, Larry Achiampong and susan pui san lok, taking the viewer on a journey from the British Library reimagined in Dutch wax textiles to the Rio Carnival by the way of gold shimmering curtains and avocado bathrooms.

This multiplicity came across as both current and empowering. “The interaction with other artists’ works made me feel at home globally,” Douglas Camp enthuses. “It was a place to talk even if I was not instantly understood, the act of being able to display an idea has given me a voice. This is like hearing words being spoken in every language and realising that it is a conversation.” These conversations extended to the exhibition’s backdrop, igniting those whispers latent in Venice’s landscape; Douglas Camp playfully, yet pertinently, links the smells of the surrounding lagoon to “the swamps in the Delta, or the banks of the River Thames.”

Venice’s watery landscape also provides an evocative panorama for the South African artist Mohau Modisakeng, who presented in his country’s pavilion alongside Candice Brietz, in the former shipyards of the Arsenale. Together the artists unite polarities of experience - black, white, male, female - for a country that has battled such extreme divisions in living history. Modisakeng’s video-work Passage, exhibited within this slowly sinking city, displays individuals drowning within flooded boats. The exhibition presents “the ebb and flow of water, as both life-giving and deadly,” symbolising the many who have “arrived or departed from South Africa in trade, as cargo or as transient bodies belonging to no particular state.”

“This is like hearing words being spoken in every language and realising that it is a conversation”

The brilliantly conceived Nigerian Pavilion – the first time the country has hosted its own at Venice - also explores nationality as a manifold concept, bringing together three artists’ narratives in an immersive exhibition space. On arriving, I was lucky enough to experience a performance from the dancer and choreographer Qudus Onikeku, performed in amongst Victor Ehikhamenor’s work. The conflation of the two artists was a “happy accident” according to Ehikhamenor: “Qudus tells a powerful story of consciousness, of being plugged into the right here, the right now,” he explains. “With my installation, I seek to call attention to memory, to the past and - in a sense - how it informs the now. So for me, it was transcendent to see the past and present collide - bronze, mirrors, canvas, motion and all.”

The pavilion, which also houses Peju Alatise’s sculpture Flying Girls, is a snapshot into the multifaceted visage of Nigerian nationhood. It is as much about showcasing art from Nigeria, as it is about asserting the country’s place at the table, explains Ehikhamenor. “The Biennale helps add cultural credit to the way Nigeria is perceived globally. The world should know our country is much more than political conflict headlines and red ink economic projections.”

In discussing a singular notion of African art, Ehikhamenor is clear: “There is no such thing as African art. Similarly, there’s no such thing as South American art, or European art or Asian art. If you say art out of Africa, or art by artists of African origin, then that is closer to the truth.” He places the blame for this myopic categorisation on unremitting failures from the past. “I can sympathise with auction houses, newspapers, critics, and reviewers who have been politically and culturally indoctrinated to believe Africa is a country for so long,” he concedes.

Titled A Biography Of The Forgotten, Ehikhamenor’s work references lost Nigerian artists - be they “anonymous classicists” relinquished to the voids of history, or modern artists whose legacies have been appropriated by colonising cultures. These themes were powerfully called into relief following controversy raised by the artist in reaction to Damien Hirst’s comeback show at Venice. Entitled Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable, the exhibition sees Hirst showcasing “precious cargo” from a mythical shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. A sole Instagram post from Ehikhamenor, which chastised Hirst’s appropriation of the artistic legacy of the Ife people of Nigeria, lit a fuse for on-going discussions worldwide. I feel unwilling to comment here too much further (Hirst is an artist who feeds off controversy) but willingly or not, Hirst’s “post truth” show raised questions about art’s role in society, and the pitfalls of collections based on one person’s (Westernised) narrative.

Another blockbuster of the art world, the inaugural showing of Victoria Miro’s new space, was a whimsical solo exhibition from the Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili. His delicate ethereal figures - reclining nude women attended by dapper cocktail waiters - felt like a much-needed breath of fresh air. Spending time alone with these small-scale, romantic watercolours - so humble in contrast to Hirst’s hubristic scale - made me praise Ofili for remembering that, despite the many difficult nuances and narratives imbued within contemporary works, art can remain a place for beauty and ascendance. If I had to present these exhibitions together, to overview these numerous mercurial works by myriad artists from countries rich with divergent cultures, it would be to acknowledge their ability to use art as a place of metamorphosis and transcendence; to confront the restrictions of nationhood, of selfhood - and to overcome.

The 57th Venice Biennale runs until 26 November 2017

Published on 31/05/2017