This year's edition of the Venice Biennale was a momentous one for the African art scene with an impressive range of artists presented. Ten countries exhibited over 27 artists with works of sculpture, installations, paintings, film and performance. Sharon Obuobi, Junior Cataloguer of African Modern and Contemporary Art at Sotheby's, shares her highlights of the best African art on display at the Biennale.
SHARON OBUOBI WITH PEJU ALATISE’S FLYING GIRLS INSTALLATION. PHOTO © SHARON OBUOBI
How About Now?
Commissioner: Godwin Obaseki
Curator: Adenrele Sonariwo
Venue: Scoletta dei Tiraoro e Battiori, Campo San Stae, Santa Croce 2059
This much anticipated pavilion presents Nigerian artists Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise, and Qudus Onikeku. Upon entering the building, you’ll first encounter Ehikhamenor's installation of seven large canvases hung around the room, with small mirrors and bronze statuettes interwoven onto them. In another room, a film installation by Qudus Onikeku explores dance in its ephemeral state and illustrates one’s search of spirituality. Yet, the most fascinating of them all, is an installation by Peju Alatise called Flying Girls, a dynamic work addressing issues of girl child abuse in Nigeria. Here, eight girls with wings stand in a circle together, with 250 birds flying above them, and 1200 butterflies fluttering around them. Listen carefully, and you'll hear a looping audio of girls playing and singing.
JEMS ROBERT KOKO BI, DIASPORA, 2013. PHOTO © SHARON OBUOBI
The Juices of Time
Commissioner: Yacouba Konate
Curator: Massimo Scaringella
Venue: Palazzo Dolfin Gabrielli, Dorsoduro 3593
Presented in a beautiful old Venetian building, The Juices of Time is a group exhibition featuring works by Joana Choumali, Jems Robert Koko Bi, Joachim K Silue, Ouattara Watts and Raimondo Galeano. In the first room, some large-scale sculptures by Joachim K. Silue made from recycled pigment, cardboard, wire, nails and glass are hung from the wall. Complementing the black tones of this work, are two sculptural installations by Jems Robert Koko Bi on opposite sides of the room. One of these is a set of six tall black oak wood sculptures commemorating the March 2016 terrorist attack in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast.
Next door, is a set of warm-toned colourful mixed media paintings on paper by Ouattara Watts. On the far end, Joanna Choumali exhibits some photos on canvas embroidered with cotton thread, which explore the questions of beauty for the contemporary black African woman. Between these two rooms, is Raimondo Galeano's installation of fluorescent paint in a dark space, illustrating the tension between dreams and truths.
STILL FROM MOHAU MODISAKENG'S FILM INSTALLATION IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN PAVILION. PHOTO © SHARON OBUOBI
Commissioner: Titi Nxumalo, Console Generale
Curators: Lucy MacGarry and Musha Neluheni
Venue: Arsenale, Sale d'Armi
The South African pavilion offers an immersive cinematic experience, with a two-person exhibition of Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng. This exhibition 'explores the disruptive power of storytelling in relation to historical and contemporary waves of forced migration.' Set on three screens, Modisakeng’s film is a captivating visually stimulating story of three characters, who float and drown in a boat. Candice Breitz takes a humourous approach to exploring the global refugee crisis with the help of Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore.
INSTALLATION VIEW OF MOATAZ NASR'S THE MOUNTAIN IN THE EGYPTIAN PAVILION. PHOTO © SHARON OBUOBI
Commissioner/Exhibitor: Moataz Mohamed Nasr Eldin
Curator: Ministry of Culture
One of the best exhibitions, the Egyptian pavilion presents a captivating film created by Moataz Nasr. Walking into the pavilion, you will find yourself in a dark room, with thick layer of sand covering the floors and three benches aligned in front of four large screens. The film is presented with different clips simultaneously playing next to each other, which creates an immersive multi-sensory viewing. Beautifully narrated, The Mountain tells the story of a brave young woman set in a small Egyptian village. She defies cultural tradition to confront a demon which has been paralysing her community with fear. What's striking about this well narrated story is that her fate is ultimately up to you.
PASSPORT FROM THE ABSENCE OF PATHS IN THE TUNISIAN PAVILION.
The Absence of Paths
Commissioner: The Presidency of the Republic and the Tunisian Ministry of Culture
Curator: Lina Lazaar
Participating at the Venice Biennale for the first time in almost 50 years, the Tunisia Pavilion didn't exhibit an artist but rather made a bold statement on the refugee crisis. The Absence of Paths is curated by Lina Lazaar, and presented through three kiosks installed throughout the Arsenale. Passersby line up to fill out short applications for a 'universal travel document' which requires a short form. After placing a thumbprint on the FREESA page, you will be handed a passport with a stamp stating 'ONLY HUMAN'. A strong contrast to the convoluted, expensive processes normally associated with acquiring most passports, the ease with which these passports are issued is an illustrative exercise in the complex bureaucracy of being a refugee.
ANTONIO OLE, MAGNETIC MEMORY / HISTORICAL RESONANCE. © ANTONIO OLE
Magnetic Memory / Historical Resonance
Commissioner: Minister of Culture of Angola, Dr. Carolina Cerqueira
Curators: José António Oliveira, Maria da Silva de Oliveira e Silva, Paulo Kussy Correia Fernandes
Venue: Venice Art Space, Fondamenta degli Incurabili, Dorsoduro 557
Antonio Ole is the artist presented by the Angolan pavilion in a two storey room painted white from the roof to the ground. This installation is a collection of five short video documentaries screening on different walls, which offer a look into some of Angola's early defining post-colonial moments.
On one wall, is Carnaval Da Vitoria (Victory Carnival) with a scene from 1978 of women singing and dancing in a carnival. On another is N'Gola Ritmos's Rhythms, providing an ‘accurate and insightful description of the process of resistance to colonialism upheld’ at the time. No Caminho Das Estrelas is a film dedicated to Antonio Agostinho Neto, who was the first president of Angola. Set in Nambuangongo (Bengo Province), within a small rural workers'community, Conceicao Tchiambula_Um Dia, Uma Dia (One Day, One Life) is another film which tells the story of the Nambuangongo people who were forced to migrate by the Angolan province administration.
Other must-see African Pavilions at the Venice Biennale:
Deconstructing Boundaries: Exploring Ideas of Belonging
Commissioner: Doreen Sibanda
Curator: Raphael Chikukwa
Exhibiting artists: Sylvester Mubayi, Charles Bhebe, Dana Whabira and Admire Kamudzengerere
Venue: Santa Maria della Pietà
Speeded Up Nature
Commissioner: Thivynaidoo Perumal Naiken, National Art Gallery, Ministry of Arts and Culture, The Republic of Mauritius
Curator: Olga Jurgenson
Executor: Krishna Luchoomun
Exhibiting artists: Michael Lalljee, Robert Rauschenberg, SEO, Jacques Desrire Wong So
Venue: Instituto Santa Maria della Pieta, Castello 3701, Venice
Commissioner: Dr. Kiprop lagat, Director of Culture, Government of Kenya
Curator: Jimmy Ogonga
Project Advisor: Simon Njami
Exhibiting artists: Arlene Wandera, Mwangi Hutter, Paul Onditi, Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi
Venue: Scuola Palladio, Giudecca, 30100, Venice
Between Two Waters, Searching for Expression in the Seychelles
Commissioner: Benjamin Rose, Principal Secretary for Culture
Curator: Martin Kennedy
Exhibiting artists: Group Sez
Venue: Giardino Della Marinaressa, Venice
In memory of 24-year-old British-Gambian photographer Khadija Saye, who died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Her work is currently on display as part of the Diaspora Pavilion at the Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina: "It's been a real journey, but mama, I'm an artist exhibiting in Venice and the blessings are abundant!". A fund will be set up in Khadija's name. For more information or if you would like to make a donation please go to: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/khadija-saye-memorial-fund
Read the round-up of Sotheby's at the Venice Biennale