Colonial vice at the Venice Biennale

At the world’s most prestigious art exhibition, all is not well when it comes to relative newcomers from the African continent.

Photo by Peinge Nakale on Unsplash

The 59th edition of La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale), which opened in April and runs to November, added five new national pavilions to its exhibition roster—Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, the Sultanate of Oman and Uganda. At least two of them have already generated controversy in the media. The Biennale appears intent on deferring to the models that increasingly bind the art world to the world of business, and controversy surrounding two African pavilions make this very clear. They invite us to interrogate how the increasing interest in African art may be linked to the power dynamics that define the global international market.

A group of Namibian artists petitioned the Namibian government (through a campaign aptly titled “Not Our Namibian Pavilion”) to withdraw its support for the national pavilion, an effort that met with some success.The pavilion opened, but not without scandal that led the show’s main sponsor, luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent, to pull out, along with patron Monica Cembrola, an Italian art collector with a special interest in African art. The artists’ request that the pavilion be presented as a personal project of Marco Furio Ferrario, the curator, rather than a Namibian national exhibition was ignored. The Namibian artists denounced a “poor and inadequate debut, with an old-fashioned and problematic view of Namibia and Namibian art” linked to the impromptu curatorship, and to sponsors whose interests were clearly linked to the interest of tourism, rather than the country’s cultural and art sector. Despite the country’s flag being prominently displayed at the entrance to the pavilion, the Namibian government’s position remains unclear.

The Namibian pavilion features the “land art project” titled “The Lone Stone Men of the Desert.” It is credited to an anonymous artist known only as RENN. It consists of a series of stone and iron sculptures representing human forms that appeared a few years ago in the Kunene desert in Namibia. There are many debates in the art world about anonymity and authorship. Collective authorship, for example, is what defines most of the works of Brazilian contemporary Indigenous artists, whose names often refer to a collective people. But as the Namibian petition states, “RENN, the artist, is publicly known in Namibia as a member of the tourism industry. His identity is now semi-public: a 64-year-old white Namibian man, born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and largely disconnected from contemporary art and the country’s cultural scene. He has never exhibited in personal or collective exhibitions, national or international.” Nor does his name or work appear on the internet, apart from at the Venice Biennale. It is therefore surprising that RENN was chosen to debut work at a national pavilion at one of the most prestigious art events on the global calendar.

The same can be said for the curator. According to his website Marco Furio Ferrario is a “Strategic Consultant” with a specific focus on business growth. An author and curator, born in Milan in 1984, he completed his Master’s degree in 2011with a thesis on logical-mathematical and rational decision-making processes in stressful situations. Not to discredit his multidisciplinary profile, but at least minimal experience in the art and culture sector would seem appropriate to curate such a prestigious exhibit. Instead, Ferrario’s experience in Namibia concerns management and business innovation in the tourism sector, particularly in the nature reserves, Elephant Lodge and River Camp, which his website defines as “two of the most exclusive lodges in Namibia,” and part of Okahirongo Lodge, one of the pavilion’s sponsors. Coincidentally, the activities offered at the lodge—ranging from desert adventures to “immersion in the heart of Kaokoland and the extraordinary Himba culture,”—are similar to those offered by the art project curated by Ferrario.

If nothing can be found on the internet about Ferrario’s artistic credentials, the connection with the land which the project is interested in is very clear. As defined in the curatorial text: “The chosen setting is such that only two types of observers can find the works of art: the Himba tribes (which are one of the few tribes that still live in a pre-technological state  and the few lucky and courageous travellers who venture to discover the desert (who mostly belong to social groups opposed to the Himba, with highly technological and urbanized lifestyles” (read: tourists who frequent the Namibian resorts that Ferrario intends to promote).

According to the petition, this project “is highly problematic as it is imbued with the historically racist premise that Indigenous peoples are perceived as closer to nature than to humans. This was used to justify the oppression of Indigenous peoples, labeling them as naive and subhuman.”

If the curatorial text presents “the relationship between human cultures and nature” as central, the same text explains the absence of any consideration of contemporary debates about the regimes of power that affect the production of knowledge and art. Moreover, the ways in which the West continues to look at the world and “the other,” the maintenance of the prejudiced and colonial dichotomy of the uncivilized versus civilized, as well as clear use of culture and art for economic strategies. The “brave travelers”are given to exploit the wild inhabitants of the desert, just as the curators and sponsors are given to manipulate the culture of the others to propagate their own businesses, and those of local elites. As the petition states: “this is the same ideological basis that supported colonial expansion and the occupation of territories such as Namibia and the exploitation of its people and natural resources.”

Meanwhile both the curator and the patron issued statements in defense. Ferrario, the curator, explained he “…saw RENN’s artworks in the Namibian desert and fell in love with them” adding that he had begun to think about how to show them internationally during the pandemic, and knew the Biennale would afford the biggest global stage. Pressed about the fact that RENN’s has no background in the arts sector, Ferrario argued, “I did not choose an artist, I chose artworks. The point of this exhibition is that art comes before the artist.” In personal communication, Cembrola noted that she wasn’t told about the identity of the artist. The petition clearly indicated that the artist was not representing Namibia and because her aim is to “help emerging artists from Africa,” she decided to withdraw.

Despite having no background or record in the art field, Ferrario has the means to put RENN’s work on the global stage in Venice. The patron, affected by a rather common Western spirit of salvation, wants to “help emerging artists from Africa” (and according to her website loves African art), yet has no clue about the artist she is going to invest not only her money but also her credibility as an emerging African art collector and patron. People involved in the art scene in Namibia that I interviewed confirmed that the pavilion cost about USD100,000—a significant amount of money for a pavilion that features 30 colored pictures in ordinary wooden frames, four pairs of binoculars (the artistic contribution of a duo of white, female Milanese designers, and added to the original plan after the complaint about a solo artist) and five statues. Cembrola brought Abercrombie and Kent on board as the main sponsor. In a press release, Ferrario states that most of the people involved in the production of the pavilion worked for free, while Cebriola, in a personal communication affirmed the pavilion looks like it used 10% of the resources available for the installation.

Although Abercrombie and Kent pulled its support, it is worth noting that it is a multinational luxury travel company, founded by a white man who claims to be “born on safari and raised on his family farm in Kenya,” recalling the worst aspects of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. The smaller sponsors, Onguma Safari Camps, Chiwani Cam, the aforementioned Okahirongo Lodge, the Windhoek Country Club Resort, the Gondwana Collection, are all luxury hotels and continue to support the project. Namibia Media Holdings (NMH), responsible for the pavilion’s communication, is also a platform that supports the tourism sector. In this context, the Biennale looks more like a luxury safari tourism fair than “a meeting point between people in art and culture.”

No less concerning is the pavilion of Cameroon, making its debut and, at the same time, conceiving its market with Non-Fungible Token (NFT) Art. An NFT can be any type of digital file: a work of art, an article, a song. You can own it, but you cannot touch it. In order to sell their works and maintain “certified ownership” of them, NFT artists must mint them in a cryptocurrency, such as Blockchain, through a digital transaction that refers to who generated it, thus creating an immutable trace of origin. If one of the three thematic areas of this edition of the Biennale concerns the relationship between individuals and technologies, there are conflicting opinions about digital art in the context of the NFT, and its presence in Venice will definitely reinforce its legitimacy.

Titled “The Times of Chimera,” the Cameroon pavilion, curated by Paul Emmanuel Loga Mahop and Sandro Orlandi Stagl, will occupy two locations: the Michelangelo Guggenheim State School of Art and Palazzo Ca’ Bernardo. The first will receive four Cameroonian artists (Francis Nathan Abiamba, Angéle Etoundi Essamba, Justine Gaga and Salifou Lindou) and four international artists (Shay Frisch, Umberto Mariani, Matteo Mezzadri, Jorge R. Pombo). The second NFT exhibition will have 20 artists from various countries—mainly Argentina, China, Spain, Italy, and Germany, only one from Cameroon. Stagl is known for curating the controversial Kenya pavilions in the 2013 and 2015 editions of the Venice Biennale. As reported by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, Kenya debuted at the 2013 Biennale with a group show of 12 participating artists, only two from Kenya: Kivuthi Mbuno and Chrispus Wangombe Wachira. Even worse, in 2015, the pavilion, curated by the same team, featured only one Kenyan artist, Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo.

The Cameroon pavilion seems to repeat the same vice: preferencing artists from other countries to those from the host country. Among 28 invited artists, only four are from Cameroon: Francis Nathan Abiamba, also known simply as Afran, who was born in Cameroon, studied contemporary art at the Academia de Carrara, Bergamo and currently lives in Italy; Angèle Etoundi Essamba a Cameroonian photographer who studied in France and is a graduate of the Photo Academy of Amsterdam, where she currently lives; Justine Gaga, a sculptor and video artist based in Bonendale, Cameroon, who collaborated for many years with Goddy Leye at ArtBakery, an initiative that promotes the development of contemporary art and practice, with a special focus on multimedia art in Cameroon and Central Africa; and Salifou Lindou, a self-taught artist who lives in Douala and works in painting, sculpture and video. In 1988 Lindou participated at the Dak’Art Biennale and in the same year he co-founded the design collective Kapsiki Circle with fellow Cameroonian artists Blaise Bang, Hervé Yamguen, Hervé Youmbi and Jules Wokam.

Commissioned by Armand Abanda Maye, the director of arts promotion and development at the Cameroon Ministry of Arts and Culture, the pavilion has no government funding. The project is instead supported by private sponsors and investors from the Global Crypto Art-Decentralized Autonomous Organization (GCA-DAO), a collective initiative that is on the rise on the so-called “Web3”— an internet-based infrastructure that uses blockchains. The GCA-DAO was formed in December 2021 by five founders from the NFT community, 15 contemporary art and crypto-art professionals, and 22 traditional artists. It is responsible for the selection of the artists in the NFT exhibition in Cà Bernardo. Artists do not pay to participate, but a donation of one or two works is “suggested.”

Shortly before the start of the Biennale, GCA-DAO sold tradeable passes on its website at 2.8ETH (about USD8700). Passholders are afforded the status of “councilors” of the organization, VIP previews to the exhibition, and other exclusive perks. During the course of the Biennale works are not sold outside the exhibition, but potential investors and collectors are encouraged to buy and collect them before and after. Artists are also free to market their work. Global Crypto Art-DAO plans to continue its “curatorial” work in the future.

The provenance of the works and the intention of this NFT exhibition becomes more questionable when it is noted, for instance, that the artworks of the selected Brazilian artist, João Angelini, were minted by the gallery that represents him and not by the artist himself. Web 3 is made up of “user-generated content, with user-generated authority,” in this case the artist’s. The best practice in this field would require that an artwork by a living artist, such as Angelini, has to be created by the artist and not through a reproduction, even if agreed, by the gallery.

Global Crypto Art-DAO is explicitly monetizing the exhibit even before it happens— selling tradeable subscriptions in Ether, the second-largest cryptocurrency, almost passing it off as a performance—with the endorsement of the institution. Announcing something that is part of the Biennale with a price list is a bit obscene and contrary to the overall goal of such an event, which is not an art trade fair. The Namibian pavilion example is instructive: RENN’s artworks are on sale for around USD16,000, and unique sculptures at just over USD50,000, as part of the pavilion’s “fundraising goals and packages.” It is highly unlikely that the Biennale’s organizers and their legal team are unaware of these economic practices that go beyond cultural extractivism, and raise serious ethical and professional questions.

In the Namibian case the association between the economic interests linked to the curator’s previous activities and the tourism economic sector are clear and need to be considered in relation to Indigenous land ownership. Amartyuan Sen, mentioned in Ánde Somby’s presentation “When a Predator Culture meets a Prey Culture,” states that one of the characteristics of humanity is that the stronger have an obligation towards the weaker. Somby makes a simple but effective example. He shows that as in the animal kingdom big fish can eat small fish. In humanity there must be something to protect the smaller fish, and “sometimes this is morality, sometimes the rule of law.” It is evident that in spheres where the rule of law is of little concern, even morality is missed.

As the Namibian artists responsible for the petition well describe: “A group of Italians with no relevant curatorial experience—not to mention significant involvement with Namibian art—took on the task of “representing” Namibia in Venice […] [people] alien to sensibilities related to decolonial and intersectional issues, especially in a particularly complex post-apartheid era in which efforts to correct past injustices are essential to addressing a project of this nature”. The lack of sensibilities related to decolonial and intersectional issues clearly emerges also in the case of the Cameroon pavilion and its curator, whose fame is linked mainly to the shameful events of the Kenyan pavilion in 2013 and 2015. After seven years we move to another country but the actors and the scenario are the same.

The myth of the prestige and validity of the work of art, implicitly linked to participation in the historic Venice Biennale, seems to be in decline. Or, at the very least, increasingly reduced to a logo that can be used in post-Venice portfolios.

Further Reading

Angola’s Biennale

It is hard to find critics asking what Angolan artist Edson Chagas’s work does, the context through which it was produced, or the social conditions it draws attention to.