Art and Design

Angola marks Venice Biennale debut with a victory

Sean O'Toole

Angola, exhibiting for the first time at the Venice Biennale, has been awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for the best national pavilion.

Curated by Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera, the exhibition, which was commissioned and supported by the Angolan Ministry of Culture, features a selection of photography, painting and sculpture in a novel setting. (Sean O' Toole)

Curated by Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera, the exhibition, which was commissioned and supported by the Angolan Ministry of Culture, features a selection of photography, painting and sculpture in a novel setting.

Being a newcomer to Venice, Angola has had to rent an exhibition venue for the duration of the exhibition, which runs until November 24. Rather than follow the lead of Zimbabwe and Kenya, which inhabit temporary venues on the busy tourist promenade between the gardens and St Mark’s Square, Angola is showing its artists in Cini Palace, a plush historic building near Accademia Bridge, a busy tourist destination.

Defying the odds – and some stiff competition from the French, German, Danish and Romanian pavilions, all of which generated art world buzz, and long queues – Angola succeeded Germany as holder of the top honour of best pavilion.

The decision was made by a five-women jury that included Bisi Silva, a curator and founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos. They paid particular attention to countries that managed “to provide original insight into expanded practice within their region”.

Experiencing the city
Angola’s pavilion was selected for the way it reflected on “the irreconcilability and complexity of site”.

Split across two levels, the show begins with a purposefully awkward juxtaposition of mass-produced posters, displayed on 23 palettes, inserted into a lavishly wallpapered series of rooms filled with cordoned-off collection of early Renaissance art and domestic objects.

The posters, by Edson Chagas, depict uncaptioned photographs of doorways and discarded objects from Luanda. Visitors are free to remove a poster and take it home.

“Central to Chagas’s work is a reflection on the ways in which images are used to give form to the way the city is experienced,” offered the curators in a press statement.

 

 

The exhibition continues upstairs where there is a display of orthodox wood sculptures and paintings describing aspects of Angola’s creative output since 1991. One noteworthy piece is a polished wood sculpture by João Domingos Mabuaka Mayembe, which abstractedly portrays a seated figure. Entitled Vuata N’Kampa ku Makaya Katekela, the work won the 2006 Ensarte Great Prize of Sculpture in Luanda.

Although a first time exhibitor at the Venice Biennale, Angola was a participant on the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, held in Venice in 2012. According to Raphael Chikukwa, the curator at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe who in 2011 oversaw Zimbabwe’s successful re-emergence at Venice, the Angolan organisers also conferred with him.

Alongside Angola and Zimbabwe, four other African states – Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya and South Africa – are also hosting national pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Bringing African art to Venice
After more than a half-century at Venice, albeit in an on-off manner, South Africa has finally secured a permanent venue. Speaking at the launch of Imaginary Fact, curator Brenton Maart’s group exhibition in the South Africa Pavilion, Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashitile announced that the elevated first-floor venue in a mall near the old military arsenal had been secured for future exhibitions.

The visibility of African art at Venice – as elsewhere in Europe – is the outcome of longstanding social activism and intellectual agitation. In 2001, Olu Oguibe and Salah Hassan, influential African born curators, presented their watershed exhibition Authentic/Eccentric – Conceptualism in African Art at an offsite venue.

In 2007 Angola was tacitly at the centre of a roiling debate when the controversial and shortlived African Pavilion showcased the work of Luanda-based Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo, whose collection largely comprised work acquired from German shoemaker and collector Hans Bogatzke.

Africa’s diverse presence at this year’s Venice Biennale, which includes South African photographer Santu Mofokeng’s participation in the German Pavilion and Nobel laureate JM Coetzee being advertised as the curator the Belgian Pavilion, happens at a time of self-actualisation for the continent.

Economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently predicted that sub-Saharan economies should grow by 6.1% next year. The World Bank is less bullish, estimating that figure at around 5%. Either way, both values are ahead of the global average of 4%. Robust economic growth, especially in oil-rich states like Angola, has seen formerly locked doors opened to African artists.

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