In Africa “biennials are a difficult idea, conceptually as well as financially, to implement and sustain,” Sean O’Toole wrote recently in Frieze. The first Biennale in Lubumbashi in the DRC — being organised by Sammy Baloji, Patrick Mudekereza and Elvira Dyangani Ose — was postponed suddenly only two months before it was due to open. O’Toole notes that Okwui Enwezor’s 1997 biennial in Johannesburg closed early in its second year; a decade later two private attempts to do the same in Cape Town closed after two years. The article seems to agree with Ose’s assessment, that the future is in ‘informal groupings’ of art institutions in urban spaces, which can be ‘more agile, durable and adaptable than the organizations piloting the continent’s handful of single-city biennials.’ So is this year’s Benin Biennale — expanded successor to the first Regard Benin in 2010 and Africa’s latest biennial contemporary art exhibition — an exception to the rule or an imaginative reinvention of the concept?
The problems of the biennial are not solely economic. The politics of accessibility — how much the art featured in biennials is accessible to the populations of the cities where they are staged — is a critical problem, even for Dak’Art and Rencontres de Bamako, both in their third decade. Earlier this year we questioned the politics of representation at the 4th Marrakech Biennale. Carson Chan, one of the curators of the main exhibition there, has just published an interesting essay in the November edition of Savvy Magazine, which takes its title from Robbie Williams’s 1998 near-chart-topping single. The Marrakech Biennale — which included only one artist working in sub-Saharan Africa — seemed to see the biennial as an opportunity to import international art into Morocco for the pleasure of those members of the public who stumbled across it. Chan’s essay concludes with this insight: ‘An exhibition is also called a show, because in the end, it should be a space of entertainment, of amusement.’ The curatorial appeal, ultimately, shares the sentiment of that same former member of the Backstreet Boys: ‘So come on let me entertain you / Let me entertain you’.
This idea, that the curator’s job is to entertain, relates to the idea that art should be enjoyed. Theodor Adorno, in his writing on art and the museum, questions this assumption:
“[I]t is only when the distance necessary for enjoyment to be possible is established between the observer and works of art that the question of their continuing vitality can arise. It would probably never occur to anyone who was at home with art and not a mere visitor.”
If the question of entertainment – or enjoyment – is the product of a distance between art and audience, what realm of experiences would be possible if the curator of art decided to abolish this distance? How can a biennial ensure that the people of a city are not “mere visitors”, and establish for the observer the sense that the city where they live is also a home for art?
One difficulty which the organisers of a biennial face is the event is not simply entertainment, but a massive business venture which demands political sensitivity of its curators but also, crucially, real engagement with the people and infrastructure of the city in which it is staged. Some important questions are raised by Julian Stallabrass in his essay on this year’s Documenta. The festival, which takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years, opened earlier this year, had a wide roster of international artists, including Kader Attia, Zanele Muholi, William Kentridge and Wael Shawky (there’s a useful, if uncritical, write-up in the NY Times here).
Although, as Stallabrass notes, the past efforts of curators Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor ‘did much to push it towards documentary and a greater engagement with politics’, this year’s exhibition achieves little more than ‘quasi-theoretical bluster’. Noting the ‘extravagant self-aggrandizing’ of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator (pictures of her outnumber images of art works in the press release), Stallabrass notes the hypocrisy of the exhibition’s environmental pretensions, belied by the signs of BP’s sponsorship.
Lastly, Documenta’s commitment to radical activism is compared, unfavourably, with this year’s Berlin Biennale; the essay describes ‘Christov-Bakargiev’s retrospective welcoming of a small Occupy group that chose to camp outside’, but notices that, in Berlin, Occupy were invited to inhabit the exhibition’s most prominent space. How can the biennial, Stallabrass asks, become, like Occupy, more ‘environmentally light, inclusive, participatory and anti-elitist’?
Some answers to these questions might be found in the Benin Biennale, “Inventing the World: the Artist as Citizen,” which opened last month. The ambition and pragmatism of the biennial programme seem to engage and resolve some of the problems which have dogged previous biennial, in Africa and elsewhere, and the hypocrisies which undermine their purpose. In Benin, the biennial programme looks to have drawn international artists into conversation and collaboration with local artists and communities, refusing any idea of importing art into Benin, organising the festival to engage and energise the resources which already exist.
Shamira Muhammed tracked down Abdellah Karroum, artistic director of the Benin Biennale, and asked him some key questions about it — we’ll publish the interview tomorrow.
There are more photos from Regard Benin on their Facebook page.