The Venice Architectural Biennale gives a timely voice to a long-silenced Africa

Scottish-Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko is giving a platform to long-silenced voices at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens Saturday, curated by the first African, featuring an abundance of work by Africans and the African diaspora. The 18th Architecture Biennale, titled “Laboratory of the Future,” explores decolonization and decarbonization, topics that Africans have a lot to say about, Loko said, citing the continent’s long exploitation for both human and environmental resources.

A man dressed in traditional Maasai clothing walks under an installation at the Biennale International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy.  (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
A man dressed in traditional Maasai clothing walks under an installation at the Biennale International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

“The black body was Europe’s first unit of energy,” Lokko told The Associated Press this week. “Our relationship with resources has been going on since time immemorial. We operate in a space where resources are not constant. They are also often vulnerable. They are often exploited. Our relationship with them is exploitative.

Lokko tapped global stars such as David Adjaye and Theaster Gates among the 89 participants in the main show – more than half of them from Africa or the African diaspora. To reduce the Biennale’s carbon footprint, Lokko encouraged participating architects, artists and designers to be as “paper-thin” as possible with their exhibitions, resulting in more paintings, films and projections as well as the reuse of materials from last year’s contemporary art. Biennale.

“This exhibition is a way to show that this work, this imagination, this creativity, has been around for a very long time,” Loco said. “It’s just that it hasn’t found quite the right place, either.”

A fair question is why it has taken so long for an African-centric exhibition to come to a high-profile, international platform like Venice.

Nigerian art critic and museum director Okuwi Enweger, was the first African to lead the Venice Biennale contemporary art fair for a year with an architecture show in 2015. Lok was the first Biennale curator selected by President Roberto Cicutto. The appointment was made in 2020 amid a global push for inclusion ignited by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

“It’s more for us than it is for them,” Cicuto said, “to see the production, to hear the voices that we rarely hear, or the way we want to hear.”

Obstacles in the West to inclusive events focused on the Global South were evident when the Italian embassy in Ghana refused to grant visas to three of Lokko’s associates, which Lokko this week denounced as an “old and familiar story”.

A refocusing of the north-south relationship is suggested on the facade of the main pavilion: a corrugated metal roof cut into deconstructed images of Venetian winged lions. The material is ubiquitous in Africa and other developing regions, and provides free shade here. The lion, native to Africa and a symbol of Venice for centuries, serves as a reminder of how deeply cultural appropriation runs.

“I don’t see any lions around here,” Loco said angrily.

Inside, Adjaye’s studio displays architectural models created “outside the dominant canon” like the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in South Africa, which draws inspiration from pre-colonial buildings. Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama explores colonial exploitation in the installation, “Parliament of Ghosts.”

And Olalekan Jeifus, a Brooklyn-based Nigerian national, creates a sprawling retro-futuristic narrative around the fictional formation of a joint African conservation effort, which he imagines was constructed in an alternate 1972, a decade after African colonization.

His is no utopia. This new global Africa he envisions is flattened at the expense of local traditions.

“It’s never utopia/dystopia. Such binary Western terms, which I’m really interested in working outside of,” said Zeifus, who won the Silver Lion for a promising young participant. “Not only that: we’ve solved all the problems now. Everything is fantastic. It’s never been so simple.”

The Golden Lion for Best Participant in Main Show went to Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal for their exhibition DAAR, an exploration of the heritage and reuse of fascist colonial architecture.

More than in previous editions, 64 national participants responded to Lokko’s themes with pavilions that focused on natural resonance and climate change issues with the main show and found an expanded, more inclusive dialogue.

Denmark proposed practical solutions for coastal areas to work with nature to address rising seas, unlike Venice, proposing the Copenhagen Islands, which invite the sea to create canals. The strategy contrasts with Venice’s own underwater obstacles, underscoring the urgency of the issue, outside the normal flood season and for the first time in May, which was due to be raised during the Biennale’s preview week.

Decolonization was a natural theme in the Brazilian pavilion, where curators Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares show the architectural heritage of indigenous and African Brazilians, and challenge the “hegemonic” narrative that the capital, Brasilia, was built “in the middle of nowhere.” Their exhibition titled “Terra” was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participant.

“Colonization is really a practice,” Tavares said. “It’s an open word, like freedom, like democracy.”

The US Pavilion looked at the ubiquitous plastic invented and promoted in the United States, and how to deal with its sustainability under the title “Plastic Forever”. In one of the five exhibits, Norman Teague, a Chicago-based African American artist, designer and furniture-maker, used recycled plastic from everyday objects such as Tide laundry detergent bottles, referencing the weaves of Senegal and Ghana.

Teague said he was inspired by Lokko’s themes “how I could think of a lineage between the continent and Chicago.”

Ukraine returns to the Biennale with two installations that, in the gentlest possible way, serve as reminders that war continues in Europe. While ordinary Ukrainians are taking futile protective measures against the threat of Russian bombing, the pavilion at the Arsenal is decorated with blacked-out material to represent the ad hoc.

In the center of the Giardini, curators Iryna Miroshnykova, Oleksii Petrov and Borys Filonenko have recreated the earthen mound that served as a barrier against 10th-century invaders. Although long abandoned, overtaken by modern cultivation and dispersal, they proved effective against Russian tanks last spring.

Despite their serious message, the curators said they hope visitors will come to the lounge, and children will be left to roam the grassy hills.

“These places, fortresses, are a place to calm down, to chill. But it’s also a kind of reminder that somewhere, someone is afraid for their safety,” Filonenko said.

This story is published from the Wire Agency feed without modification to the text.

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