Sean O’Toole about the 'vu compra' and how artists re-imagine blackness
They are as much a feature of Venice as the surly table service and confused couples hauling coffin-sized suitcases down dank alleys. I’m talking about the vu compra. “Wanna buy?” their name roughly translates. Possibly from Senegal, but just as often not, they are young, athletic, black and possess the same braggadocio as AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli. You’ll see them near busy vaporetto (waterbus) stops, or at the stone bridges arching over Venice’s ambiguously green canals. When the carabinieri (cops) approach, they tend to hastily gather up their fake branded leather goods and run fast.
In 2003, two years before the Commune of Venice launched its “Bad Bag” campaign – which made it a punishable offence (subject to a €10,000 fine) to buy an imitation French or Italian handbag from these informal traders, who are said to have links with the Neapolitan Camorra mafia – American artist Fred Wilson spotlighted the vu compra in a work staged at the US Pavilion. Interested in Renaissance portrayals of blackness in Venice, Wilson, the US Pavilion’s invited artist, searched for images of blackness in Europe pre-dating the Atlantic slave trade. He found little material evidence, “no written documents, biographies, or autobiographies of blacks living in Venice,” just a vast silence.
So, being an artist, he contrived a response. Wilson’s contribution to the 2003 biennale included faux museum displays, re-assembled sculptures, labelled objects in glass vitrines, display mannequins, re-photographed images and an enacted love letter to the vu compra. On the opening day of his exhibition, Speak of Me as I Am, a trader hawked designer handbags outside the US Pavilion. The local carabinieri duly arrived, which wasn’t exactly planned for. After all, the tout was actually a paid collaborator of Wilson, and the bags genuine one-offs made by the artist.
Wilson isn’t the only artist to have re-imagined blackness in Venice. In 2010, three years after he appeared on Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim’s exhibition Checklist: Luanda Pop at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda produced a striking portrait of a Senegalese musician posing as a bag trader. Photographed inside the Istituto Veneto per le Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, an institute founded in 1802 by Napoleon, Kia Henda’s opulently dressed subject in The Merchant of Venice (2010) recalls the elaborate finery of the black subject appearing in Marco Marziale’s 1506 tableau painting Supper at Emmaus, held in the collection of the Accademia in Venice. Produced while Kia Henda was participating in an artist residency sponsored by the Fondazione Venezia, the work formed part of a wider photographic enquiry into the inescapable place of blackness in the Venice narrative.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.