Angola, exhibiting for the first time at the Venice Biennale, has been awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for the best national pavilion.
Edson Chagas, Pavilion of Angola at Venice Biennale 2013 "Luanda Encyclopedic City"
By Sean O’Toole 4. June 2013
The oil-rich country of Angola, which is participating in the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale for the first time, has been awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for the best pavilion. Curated by Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera, the exhibition Luanda, Encyclopedic City is principally a showcase of the work of photographer Edson Chagas, although the exhibition also includes a retrospective showcase of recent Angolan painting and sculpture.
Being a newcomer to Venice, Angola has had to rent an exhibition venue for the duration of the exhibition, which runs until 24 November. 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 across two floors in Palazzo Cini, a historic building near Accademia Bridge.
It is also conveniently located right next to Palazzo Contarini Polignac, which is generating foot traffic because of its high-visibility occupant: Ukrainian art collector Victor Pinchuk, who is using the venue to showcase artists shortlisted for the second instalment of his Future Generation Art Prize, the first global art prize for artists up to 35. Shortlisted artists include painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose work is also included in Venice Biennale artistic director Massimiliano Gioni’s flagship exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace.
Angola’s contribution to the 55th instalment of the Venice Biennale was commissioned and supported by the Angolan Ministry of Culture. Defying the odds – the buzz during the preview week centred around contributions from France, Germany, Denmark, Lithuania and Romania – Angola ended up succeeding Germany as holder of the top honour for best pavilion.
The decision to award Angola the coveted Golden Lion was made by a five-woman jury that included Bisi Silva, a curator and founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos. The jury paid particular attention to countries that managed “to provide original insight into expanded practice within their region”. Angola’s pavilion was awarded the honour because of the way it reflected on “the irreconcilability and complexity of site”.
Visitors entering Luanda, Encyclopedic City would be forgiven for thinking they had entered the wrong venue. Rather than evacuate the lavishly wallpapered rooms filled with a cordoned-off display of early Renaissance art and domestic objects, Nascimento and Pansera opted to purposefully use this environment and juxtapose it with a series of mass-produced posters showing Chagas’ work.
Displayed on 23 palettes placed at various intervals in the museum, the posters contain uncaptioned photographs of doorways and discarded objects from Luanda. In the manner of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who described his 1991 gallery display of free posters as “non-static sculpture”, visitors are to take one copy of each of the 23 posters.
“Central to Chagas’ 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 presented to visitors during the preview week. The press package included a copy of a small yellow catalogue entitled B/E, originally produced for Angola’s participation in the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, held in Venice in 2012. “The transformative nature of space,” writes Pansera in his introduction, “requires adopting a ‘logic of invention’ that is opposed to the logics of identity and self-containment that are used for fixed and immutable forms.”
The rooms containing Chagas’ poster displays are the undeniable highlight. Upstairs is a different affair, with another small exhibition but which is not part of the Pavilion-show: the display of wood sculptures and paintings offers an insight into Angola’s creative output since 1991. For the most part, it is a stolid selection, the paintings rehearsing ideas familiar from the work of Romare Bearden and Wifredo Lam. One noteworthy work is a polished wood sculpture by João Domingos Mabuaka Mayembe, entitled Vuata N’Kampa ku Makaya Katekela. The work, which abstractedly portrays a seated figure, won the 2006 Ensarte Great Prize of Sculpture in Luanda.
Alongside Angola, five other African states – Egypt, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe – are also hosting national pavilions at this year’s Venice Biennale. Except for the Kenyan presentation, which recapitulates a primitivist vision of African cultural production and is a bald-faced sham, all the other countries staged professional shows that successfully introduced new names to a wider global public. After more than a half-century of presenting shows at Venice, albeit intermittently – it was ejected in 1968 and returned again in 1993, with a break again after 1995 until 2011 – South Africa has finally secured a permanent venue. Speaking at the launch of Imaginary Fact, curator Brenton Maart’s congested group exhibition in the South Africa Pavilion, South Africa’s 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.
Aside from the aforementioned national showcases, African creativity was also richly showcased elsewhere: idiosyncratically in Gioni’s main exhibition, which refashioned the narrative of twentieth-century art history to encompass a broader remit of artists; in the German Pavilion, which showcased new photographs by South African photographer Santu Mofokeng of traditional spaces of worship and gravesites; and in the Belgian Pavilion, which is nominally curated by Adelaide-based South African Nobel Laureate and animal rights champion, JM Coetzee. There is an uncomplicated explanation for Coetzee’s inclusion: Flemish sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere, who makes life-like sculptures of disfigured animals and flesh-like residue, is an admirer of Coetzee’s novels. De Bruyckere’s exhibition Cripplewood, which consists of a solitary and leafless fallen tree that is held together by leaking bandages, includes a text by Coetzee, who according to one source is due to visit in July.
Black subjectivity is also widely engaged this year, sometimes fairly, other times in puzzling and un-rehabilitated ways: in the Greek Pavilion, where a black rag picker inadvertently strikes it rich at the end of a one of Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ three short films; in Danish artist Jesper Just’s conceptually motivated series of films and architectural gestures informing his contribution to his passport country’s national pavilion; and in the Irish Pavilion, where Richard Mosse impressionistically – and not without ethical complication – describes the conflict riven Lake Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Even Venice’s historical Palazzo Ducale, close to the Zimbabwe Pavilion, is showing Édouard Manet’s controversial painting Olympia (1863). It drew an entirely different set of visitors than were seen frantically negotiating this year’s atomised biennale on the encyclopaedic island of Venice.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.