This year Ghana will have its first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I cannot remember the last time I felt very optimistic about a new pavilion by an African nation. The curator (Nana Oforiatta-Ayim) and her team have put together a powerhouse group of artists (Ibrahim Mahama, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, John Akomfra, El Anatsui, Selasi Awusi Sosu and Felicia Abban), who will be presented in a pavilion designed by Sir David Adjaye, one of the most exciting architects practicing anywhere in the world today. There is no question then that Ghana's will be a go-to pavilion and an emphatic statement by that country that it too has contemporary artists that take on the world stage as constituted by the venerable biennale.
But I am also riven by anxiety.
There is ample reason for this. First, is my continuing worry about the lack of curatorial rigor and scatter-shot quality of work presented in African pavilions in Venice. Second, is the seeming lack of long-term vision by the authorities responsible for these initiatives. It is as if what's important to them is to go first to Venice and then think about--if at all--a sustainable infrastructure for their pavilion. You would think that the proper thing to do is to make sure that there is a plan in place to not just go to Venice but to stay in Venice year after year, like most countries with national pavilions.
Cameo appearances make no sense; I hate teasers! At the last Venice, there were 8 or so African countries, a few of them attending for the first time (Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tunisia). This year none of the debutantes of 2017 are there, and even Egypt that has had its own physical pavilion for decades is apparently absent. Of the three in this year's list (Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Madagascar) only Zimbabwe is a returning country--in fact, Zimbabwe is the one country that has made a consistent appearance since its inaugural participation several years ago.
Is this spotty, half-hearted participation because Africa is a poor continent? Or it poverty of the imagination on the part of the people and institutions of art and culture in Africa? The answer might lie in this reality: Zimbabwe with its decades-long economic troubles has managed to maintain a respectable presence in Venice, while the boisterous, giant Nigeria, only managed to kind of show up at the last Biennale for the first time.
So, this is a public memo to Ghana (and Madagascar): I very sincerely hope that this is not meant to a one-time act, another African cameo show in Venice!