57th Venice Biennale - Venice, Italy

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Ciao Venezia. My trip to Venice was a case of marvelous serendipity. I was ending a trip elsewhere in Europe and arrived at the airport to discover my return flight home was canceled. I had planned to visit Venice, to attend the Venice Biennale, later in the summer, but I had other plans for now. Initially frustrated, my spirit soon felt the tickle of adventure; I obliged. The loss of control of outcome and in my case, travel itinerary, can be an exhilarating and scary experience. My flight to Venice was immediately booked.

Every two years in Venice the early days of May inaugurate the Venice Biennale. This year, the 57th edition of the international art exhibition aligned particularly well to my interests in contemporary African art. The international speakers of the African Art in Venice Forum discussed the momentum in the global popularity of contemporary art from the continent - and the lack of representation of said momentum at the Biennale (only 7 out of 54 African countries were represented in national pavilions). 

Of Africa's 7, Nigeria debuted its first ever national pavilion at the Biennale with the aptly titled group exhibition, How About Now?. Works by Victor EhikhamenorPeju Alatise, and Qudus Onikeku brought Nigeria's history to the international contemporary art context through a multiplicity of art expression. At the pavilion's entry hung Ehikhamenor's painted canvas adorned with miniature bronze ceremonial figures from Benin City - the site from where the British looted artifacts through a series of punitive expeditions in the 19th century. Upstairs, Alatise's life size sculpture of eight girls, cast in black paint, recalled the plight of the (black) girl child in Nigeria and beyond. Onikeku, a choreographer, performed spoken word and chants that recollected Nigeria's history, and concluded in entreating the audience to "be present".

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Still life at Diaspora Pavilion.

Still life at Diaspora Pavilion.

South Africa, a repeat participant at the Biennale, presented a two-person exhibition featuring multi-channel videos by Mohau Modisakeng and Candice Breitz on the themes of displacement and migration. In Breitz's Love Story actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore recounted true stories of migration - violent details not spared. Their lines were excerpts from interviews with real migrants from around the world (those interviews played on screens in an adjoining room). The American actors' narratives on exclusion and displacement, recounted in first person, lacked the emotional gravitas of the ordeal of migration: As they spoke Western platitudes of acceptance of assimilation replayed in my mind, a repetition of Western news reels. Perhaps Breitz sought this very conclusion - to subvert that Western narrative by employing Western agents to expose the subjectivity  of migrant stories and challenge how fabricated empathy sedates the refugee and migrant experience.

Modisakeng's elegant monochromatic films have created a unique visual language that grapples with his own identity (black male) and the body, as well as address the "legacy of exploitation" of South Africa's own history. His work for the pavilion offered pungent imagery on self-hood, marginalization, and displacement within the context migration. In his video an anonymous figure lays in a paddle boat that is initially afloat but is ultimately consumed by the surrounding water. Sound familiar?

(It's worth noting that Tunisia also levied the timeliness of the topic of migration into exhibition, by setting up kiosks throughout Venice where visitors were issued global passports to in effect cross borders and become citizens of the world).

A different type of pavilion emerged this year to challenge the organizational structure of the grand exhibition, which segregates artist representation by country. The Diaspora Pavilion was conceived as a "challenge to the prevalence of national pavilions within the structure of an international biennale and takes its form from the coming-together of nineteen artists whose practices in many ways expand, complicate and even destabilise diaspora as term, whilst highlighting the continued relevance that diaspora as a lived reality holds today." The myriad cross-cultural identities of the selected artists provided a refreshing hiccup to the structured Biennale, expressed through photography, video, drawing, sculpture and assemblage.

Elsewhere in diaspora representation, international gallery Victoria Miro opened a new outpost in Venice with Poolside Magic, a solo show of British Nigerian painter Chris Ofili. Pastel and watercolor drawings, completed between 2012 and 2017 and now shown together for the first time, depicted a man dressed in bow-tie and tailcoat serving a nude woman who lounges beside a swimming pool. The genie-like, sensual rendering of the woman recall the mysticism and lushness of the artist's current home, Trinidad. The drawings echoed too the serpentine canals that make up the veins of the city.

My journey to Venice was one of my most random but rewarding experiences to date. Listening to conversations on the Western insatiable (for now, at least) appetite for art of Africa and the diaspora juxtaposed with a sordid reluctance to accept and assimilate people from the regions that creators the work. It delivered to me a poignancy: Thanks to my privilege of wifi, a credit card and most vital, a navy blue passport I easily traversed from one end of Europe to the other. That art can cause this reflection is a fact not to be discarded. 

Photography by Nadia Sesay.