African perspectives shaping the 58th international art exhibition in Venice

In a section of the famed Arsenale - an old arms house floating within the watery city of Venice - there’s currently a small land dump of Ghanaian soil; the reddened earth lines the exhibition space of Ghana’s first national pavilion at this year’s Biennale. A striking reference to traditional west African houses, it is a symbol not only that the city has arrived at this leading international arts exposition, but that it plans to stay.

The space takes its title, Ghana Freedom, from E.T. Mensah’s independence song and has been designed by Sir David Adjaye. Curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, the pavilion unites installations by El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama, portraiture by photographer Felicia Abban and painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a three-channel film projection by John Akomfrah and a video sculpture by Selasi Awusi Sosu. “It means a lot for us to have our first national pavilion at such a narrative-building event as the Venice Biennale, especially at this moment,” explains Oforiatta Ayim, nodding towards current discussions around Ghana’s dedicated ‘Year of Return’ (marking 400 years since the Middle Passage), and continuing contemporary discussions around migration. She also points towards international conversations towards repatriating cultural possessions as an important source of inspiration.

Reflecting on the Biennale’s 2019 theme, May You Live In Interesting Times (chosen by this editon’s curator Ralph Rugoff), Oforiatta Ayim says: “(We) cannot hide or escape the horror of every day realities, child abuse and trafficking, the brutality of reactions to refugees and displaced peoples, senseless wars and acts of extreme violence and terror, the rise of right-wing ultra-nationalistic parties, the growing climate crisis, and so much more; it is all present, and it all seems to be escalating at a rapid rate, along with the feeling of relative helplessness. I think in those moments of impotence and helplessness the arts can always play a role in pointing a way out, a way forward, whether in moments of individual or collective crises.”

Going on, she adds: “Ghana Freedom is not so much a response to this, but it does present pluralities of viewpoint and expression, crafted from a specific point of origin at the very highest levels that together create a layered expression of our present moment, of the past, of the future; of how we might create ourselves, of how we have done so; of loss and resilience; of structures and archives and how we weave memories; of how we represent ourselves in the world. This moment of pause, of recollection, of resonance, individually and then through the collective whole of a particular prism can allow us to see again, to take stock of ourselves and the world around us.”

“The arts can always play a role in pointing a way out, a way forward, whether in moments of individual or collective crises”

Ghana’s pavilion is one of many which showcased leading artists and thinkers from across the continent that pioneer new ways of seeing and creating in today’s ever-shifting post-colonial, globalised landscape. Other country pavilions include Egypt, Côte d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Seychelles, Zimbabwe and Madagascar.

At South Africa’s pavilion, a politically infused song provides a departure point for the curatorial concept by Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu. Labi Siffre’s anti-apartheid ‘The Stronger We Become’ brings together a dynamic “trialogue of resilience” from Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile. Rose’s work Hard Black on Cotton (2019), is a particular highlight of the exhibition; described to me by Rose as an exploration of the “loss of knowledge, information and the eradication of the African female body form the historical record and narrative”. The work packs an even more powerful punch when seen in the context of her previous decisions to decline participation here, due in part to the pavilion’s lack of female representation. The piece unites a video-based performative work - showing the South African actor Denzel Edgar grappling with his role as ‘The Profiteering Prophet’ alongside the Cameroonian curator and writer Simon Njami as the omnipotent ‘Prophessor’ - with an illustrated accompanying liberetto. Existing at the nexus of “insanity and genius”, the work provides a much needed injection of engaging critique that is both comedic and necessary.

Performance, music and dance are central to much of this year’s Biennale - one that for the first time had its own platform for performance art. Within the revered Giardini, Nastio Mosquito’s two-hour processional piece, No.One.Gives.A.Mosquito's.Ass.About.Our.Performance, saw him infiltrate the hallowed walkways alongside a musical-chain gang. The mournful yet electrifying dirge-like performance existed somewhere between a call to arms and a call to give up, and as typical for the artist, could not be ignored.

Beyond the official Biennale spaces, performance provided for pockets of experience across the city. Reclaiming the Palazzo Dona as their very own ‘Palace of Ritual’, Arts Territory curated a programme of performances, screenings and workshops showcasing disparate practices including I-Ching, dance, shamanic healing, song, calligraphy and performance, all through the lens of ritual. A stirring highlight was Enam Gbewonyo’s intimate and soulful performance: Nude Me/ Under the Skin: The Awakening of Black Women’s Visibility one Pantyhose at a Time. Described by the artist as “a live vessel for this process of healing”, the performance united elements of the traditional Ghanaian Ewe dance, alongside the seemingly banal domesticity of nylon tights. Within this delicate realm, Gbewonyo’s work tackled issues of discrimination while celebrating the sensuality of the female form, and elasticity and malleability of the human body.

A final highlight over at the Palazzo Ca’Tron is the exhibition of 21 international artists shortlisted for the Future Generation Art Prize. The biannual award spearheaded by Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist Victor Pinchuk, showcases two of the most exciting artists working today from across Africa, Nigerian Toyin Ojih Odutola and South African Gabrielle Goliath. Goliath’s arresting piece This song is for… considers the bravery of rape survivors in her home country, through choir-like performances projected across a cacophony of video screens. Next door, Toyin’s work existed as a more silent sense of defiance; her powerful portraits of regal men and women resonating in their silence, humming with a sense of status and beauty, befitting of its palazzo setting. Gazing at the works while overlooking the Grand Canale, the exhibition reaffirmed why this city, this Biennale, continues to offer a truly transcendent way to experience art.

Published on 10/06/2019