Sunday, September 2, 2007

Venice 2007 and Contemporary African Art

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 Venice to many more African curators in ways that the Forum had not. Hopefully, details of the exchange between Storr and Enwezor/Hassan will emerge someday, but my concern here is to explore some of the crucial questions raised by Mr. Storr’s African project at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

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 Turkey, and then give her/him the freedom to decide what to show at the Biennale. Why the Africa pavilion required a much-trumpeted open call and a jury deserves explanation. Anyone involved in contemporary African art during the past twenty years should be surprised by the jury membership, for apart from Assegued and Silva, the other three members, are quite accomplished but not for work relating to contemporary African art. Furthermore, the press release on the selection of Check List, without indicating what the show is about ―the overarching idea behind the theme of the exhibition—praises the Sindika Dokolo Collection as a model for art patronage in Africa. As such, one is left to conclude that the selection is based not so much on the idea presented by the curators as on the need to take a position on art collecting in Africa.

There are two ways of looking at the whole exercise of announcing the search for a curatorial project to represent Africa on the front page of the Venice Biennale website, when not one word was heard of the process that yielded the Turkish Commissioner. First it must be Storr’s own “transparent” way of publicly acknowledging his limited knowledge about contemporary African art. Second, given that Africa has become a perennial recipient of western kindness, usually attended with much fanfare, it was important to once again make a public news-grabbing announcement of another instance of this generosity. But what might have been occasion for gratitude to Mr. Storr, as implied by responses to the call for proposals, must now turn to an examination of its ramifications for contemporary African art in continental and international contexts.

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, Davis revealed among other things the story of Mr. Dokolo’s family’s alleged implication in massive corruption related to the disastrous Bank of Kinshasa collapse in 1986. We learn that his wife is Isabelle dos Santos the daughter of the Angolan long-term President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos ―who according to Christian Dietrich, a former researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, might have a major stake in Angola’s blood diamonds.[v] Of course the story of corruption in many African countries is, unfortunately, an old one, but the wealth behind the Sindika Dokolo Collection instantiates an unprecedented connection between art patronage and state depredation; it thus becomes imperative to comment on the Venice Jury’s decision to use the occasion of the 52nd Biennale to “draw attention to the Sindika Dokolo initiative as a signal undertaking within the context of art patronage in Africa.”

There are two ways to see the selection of the Sindika Dokolo Collection both as model of art patronage in Africa and as the basis of the special African show in the 52nd Biennale: either the Artistic Director and Jury were not aware of the background of the name behind the collection, or they decided to look the other way. To be sure, despite Storr’s impressive record during his years at the MOMA he had little if any experience with contemporary African art, before his visit to the Dakar Biennale in 2006. Thus it is conceivable that Storr and his Jury were ignorant of the controversy around the money behind the Dokolo Collection. Or, and this is more worrisome, they might have concluded that the connection between dirty money or blood diamonds and art is a fact of life and history, and that although Africa could not yet boast of its own assortment of robber-baron uber-art patrons, the late Brett Kebble had set a trend worthy of emulation. Mr. Kebble, we recall, was the thieving, flamboyant, South African mining magnate who successfully laundered his image through widespread support of the arts, especially with the Brett Kebble Art Awards. Established in 2003 The Kebble (as the award was called) was arguably Africa’s biggest art prize and, until its cancellation following the yet unresolved murder of Mr. Kebble in 2006, accommodated a diverse range of artists, thereby assuring that a significant section of South Africa’s art community inadvertently benefited from and was compromised by Kebble’s stolen billions. Still, if the South African art world, as some might argue, did not quite appreciate the scope of Kebble’s monumental defalcation, there are more than enough alarms about the Dokolo and de Santos families for only the most insensitive to ignore. Put differently, sordid as Kebble’s story and his involvement in art patronage were, the allegations against the Dokolo and dos Santos families, because they involve blood diamonds and the shady organization Futungo described by Global Policy Forum in 2002 as a secret, “close-knit cabal of powerful military, business and political figures,” responsible for the disappearance of billions of dollars in a country that in 2002 had three million starving citizens[vi]―makes any claims to ignorance about the source of Dokolo’s money prior to selection of the collection for Venice suspect and questionable.[vii]

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 Africa, since the northern regions had been contaminated by Islamic and Arab civilizations. We may never know, but the temptation to wonder if this flawed and unfortunate vision of Africa determined the scope of the Bogatzke Collection also compels us to take issues with its apparent continuation in the Dokolo. Of course it not impossible that some work from northern African artists might have entered the collection since the last time I visited the website in early March 2007. Yet I could not but notice that the display of the list of artists in the Collection’s web page, by placing the artists’ names in the locations of their native countries, has the effect of a conceptually decapitated and dismembered continent. Will Check List, because it is limited by the scope of the Dokolo Collection, repeat the colonial savagery generations of Africans and Africanists have worked so hard to correct?

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 Venice.

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 Egypt, there are no African pavilions there in the first instance. In other words, regardless of the merits of any submitted proposal, it stood no chance without financial backing from some (African) institution. Which leaves the door open to the likes of Dokolo and, where he still alive, Kebble; individuals with a lot of (dirty) money, and an eye to the redemptive potentialities of art patronage. In the given circumstance, the financial support requirement made the marriage of curatorial practice and dirty money more or less unavoidable. As such this submission of African artists and curators to what I might call predatory patronage, especially in an event that never allowed such, vitiates the apparent kindly gesture, on the part of the organizers of the 52nd Venice Biennale, toward underrepresented Africa.

Chika Okeke-Agulu



[i] See (accessed February 15, 2007).

[ii] See

[iii] See Ben Davis, “Art and Corruption in Venice,” http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/news/artnetnews/artnetnews2-23-07.asp (accessed February 28, 2007)

[iv] See February 28, 2007 entry at , and Africa South Art Initiative front page (accessed March 2, 2007)

[v] See Christian Dietrich, “Power Struggles in the Diamond Fields,” in Angola’s War Economy: The Role of Oil and Diamonds, eds. Jakkie Cilliers and Christian Dietrich. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2000, pp. 173-194.

[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 London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery that neither him nor his Jury knew about the source of Dokolo’s money. See James Westcott’s report of the lecture, “Rob Storr: biennale life, and the life of biennials,” in published on March 2, 2007.

[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 , the artists in the collection are listed only under four sections: West, Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.

2 comments:

Obododimma Oha said...

Chika,
Nke a bu iji mee ka i mata na a biara m hu edemede gi ebe a. Jisie ike. I na-eme nke oma.
Obododimma Oha.

victor said...

Chika,
good work. this blog space is much welcome endeavor. We need voices like yours in African art discuss.
cheers!

One thing though, the instructions in this blog page is showing up in dutch in my computer. I wonder how I can change it to what I can read.