In early February, the 52nd Venice Biennale announced the much anticipated selection of the project and curators to feature in its special African exhibition at the Arsenale, the main space of the Biennale’s international section organized by Robert Storr, formerly senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art and currently Dean of Yale School of Art.[i] According to the Biennale website, Check List will be curated by the former publisher of Revue Noire Simon Njami and the Angolan artist and curator Fernando Alvim, and works for the exhibition will be drawn from the Luanda-based Sindika Dokolo Collection. On the face it, Robert Storr’s decision to allocate a space in the Arsenale’s Artigliere space to Check List, in addition to the inclusion of other African artists in the “open” international section of the Biennale, ought to be praiseworthy. However, the process that led to the selection of this exhibition, the choice of jury, and more crucially the nature of the proposed exhibition itself raise important questions about the meaning of Africa as imagined by Storr and the Dokolo Collection, the politics of Africa's representation in international contemporary art, and the ethical dimensions of curating a continent scarred by seemingly intractable wars, dictatorships, and predatory civilian regimes.
My own work as a curator, critic and artist, it should be obvious then, makes it inevitable that my commentary here is inflected by a longstanding personal interest in the matter of exhibitions about contemporary African art. And, for full disclosure, I was asked by the Forum for African Art last year to organize its third African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but for reasons of ill health earlier this year, my project, PostAfricanism, was shelved. In any case, sometime in August last year Robert Storr’s call for proposals for an African Pavilion in Venice met with opposition from Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor as directors of the Forum, which apart from organizing two very successful African pavilions in 2001 and 2003 set for itself, with initial support from the Ford Foundation, the goal of establishing a permanent pavilion for Africa in Venice under its Africa-In-Venice initiative. However, Hassan and Enwezor’s opposition to the Storr initiative became public when Olu Oguibe, also a founding director of the Forum, in a public letter to Hassan published in the website of Africa South Art Initiative, lent his support to Storr’s open call for proposals.[ii] In the flurry of exchanges that followed, it became clear that many commentators agreed with Oguibe’s assertion that Storr’s Africa program would transparently open the gates of
To be sure the very idea of announcing a call for proposals for the African “regional pavilion,” but not for the other special pavilion featuring Turkey for which, as is normally the case, a commissioner, Vasif Kortun, was appointed; the selection of a jury dominated by individuals (Meskerem Assegued, Ekow Eshun, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kellie Jones and Bisi Silva) with scant record of significant Africa art-related curatorial projects or scholarship; and the announcement of the winning show, Check List, about which the press release said nothing other than that it was based on the collection of Sindika Dokolo Collection, ought to raise questions about whose or what interests the special African show is meant to serve. It seems to me that the proper thing, as far as biennials go, would have been for Storr to appoint a commissioner as he rightly did with
There are two ways of looking at the whole exercise of announcing the search for a curatorial project to represent
A report in February, “Art and Corruption in Venice,” about the selection of Check List by Robert Storr and his Jury, published in Artnet Magazine by associate editor Ben Davis, garnered considerable attention to the African pavilion, but not in the ways that Venice may have hoped.[iii] Davis’ comment on what many now believe might turn out to be a messy embarrassment to Venice, expectedly, led to further reactions and exchanges in the blogosphere and e-zines.[iv] Focusing on the Sindika Dokolo Collection’s owner,
There are two ways to see the selection of the Sindika Dokolo Collection both as model of art patronage in
To be sure, given the incessant depredations of citizens of the African postcolony by a corrupt elite in collusion with national governments, international business and political interests, it is about time that what might seem like a new awareness of the redemptive role art can play, that is the possibility of polishing shady biographies and dirty money through art patronage, must not be encouraged. Indeed, it is clear to me that artists, curators, critics and local as well as international institutions must see this as an ethical imperative. We cannot afford to accept any suggestion, even of the subtlest kind, that the survival of contemporary African art depends on the patronage of robber barons. And that is why the decision to highlight, in other words celebrate and authorize the Dokolo Collection at the 52nd Biennale is most unfortunate.
The Sindika Dokolo Collection according to the Venice Biennale website comprises of “500 works by 140 artists from 28 different nations,” and has a substantially active annual acquisition program.[viii] The Collection is based on the private collection of the late German collector Hans Bogatzke, and from the list of artists -- which includes Marlene Dumas, Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, Ouattara, Cheri Samba, William Kentridge, Twins Seven-Seven, among others -- there is no doubt that speaking of private and public collections of contemporary African art, the Dokolo Collection could possibly be the most formidable, with the possible exception of the Jean Pigozzi Collection. Although I am not in a position to criticize Bogatzke or Dokolo – and I do not intend to do so – for the scope of the collection, the fact that it appears to be limited to Sub-Saharan artists, makes it at best a most awkward choice for the special African show at the 52nd Venice Biennale.[ix] By not including artists from northern Africa the Dokolo Collection inevitably returns to the vexatious, colonial tendency of imagining Sub-Saharan Africa as the real
Moreover, the choice of a private or institutional collection to represent Africa, or any country/continent for that matter, in Venice is not only unprecedented in the history of biennials, but smacks of the kind of exceptionalism motivated by a perception of Africa as a terrain of difference, a continent where normative critical and curatorial practices do not make sense. There is a reason, it seems to me, why the recent tendency whereby public museums use their hallowed spaces to authorize private collections of questionable quality and provenance has been spurned by the major biennials. For one, museum curators are sometimes beholden to and often powerless against the interests of their board members and major (potential) donors, even when it comes to deciding on what exhibition proposals get approved. In the case of biennials, whose funding come from hosting cities/nations and from impermanent congeries of local and international corporate patrons, artistic directors are usually allowed the “luxury” of making curatorial decisions without intervention of museums, collectors and galleries however powerful. This is what makes major contemporary biennials the space for ambitious, sometimes controversial critical practice of the kind private collections and normal museums are unable to support. In a roundabout way, this might have ultimately pre-determined the choice of the Dokolo Collection for
The call for proposals for the special African show at the 52nd Venice Biennale included a requirement that submissions must include, “budget of the proposed exhibition, and statement by the organizers regarding their plan for the total coverage of these costs including a list of the financing institutions and/or sponsors of the exhibition.” There are extremely few institutions within Africa that have the financial resources or will power to produce an exhibition in Venice― which I believe is an important reason why besides
[iii] See Ben Davis, “Art and Corruption in
[iv] See February 28, 2007 entry at
[v] See Christian Dietrich, “Power Struggles in the Diamond Fields,” in
[vi] See, Declan Walsh, “Billions of Dollars Simply Vanish; Angolan Government Accused of 'State Robbery,'” <> (accessed March 9, 2007)
[vii] Storr in response to a question about the Artnet News article after his lecture at
[viii] The size and scope of the collection is uncertain. Apart from the figures published by the Venice Biennale, the official website of the Sindika Dokolo Collection lists 114 artists from 19 African countries, while on the website of the 1st Trienal de Luanda (December 1, 2006 – March 31, 2007), states that the Collection consists of work by 160 artists from 26.
[ix] In the Collection’s official website