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Why Are Mostly Foreign Artists Representing Kenya at the Venice Biennale?

The Shame in Venice. Acrylics mixed media on canvas by Michael Soi. Artwork used with his permission.

The Shame in Venice. Acrylics mixed media on canvas by Michael Soi. Artwork used with his permission.

Did Kenya sell its art scene to China via Italy?

This is the question Kenyans and lovers of Kenyan art are asking themselves following the revelation that this year's Venice Biennale Kenya pavilion will be represented by only one Kenyan artist, with the other representatives being mostly Chinese artists plus a controversial Italian artist, Armando Tanzini, who is representing the country for a second time at the Biennale.

The ‘Kenyan’ participants are listed here and here.

Founded in 1895 as an International Art Exhibition, this is the 56th edition of the festival, which is now one of the most prestigious cultural events in the world. It will run May 9 – November 22.

In 2013, the Kenyan pavilion had only two Kenyan artists. Among the non-Kenyans representing the country were one Italian-Brazilian, the Italian Tanzini plus eight Chinese. In the same year, Joyce Nyairo, a Kenyan cultural analyst, asked Kenyan authorities to explain the country's disastrous display at the ‘Art Olympics’. She wanted to know why Kenya did not use the opportunity to showcase its contemporary art:

They are a broadly shared outrage — locally and internationally — on account of the casual way in which an opportunity to represent Kenya at one of the foremost art events in the world has been hijacked by charlatans.

In an email interview with Njeri Wangari, a Kenyan poet, blogger and performer, about Kenya's contemporary art scene, Global Voices learned that the Kenyan contemporary art scene is vibrant and growing. However, it still looks towards foreign donor-based art organisations, which is primarily due to the continued failure of the Kenyan government to offer any form of support to the Kenyan arts community. She pointed out that private interests have taken over Kenya's participation at this year's event, just as they did two years ago 

Angered at yet another misrepresentation, Kenyans have created an online petition titled, “Renounce Kenya's fraudulent representation at the 56th Venice Biennial 2015 & commit to support the realisation of a national pavilion in 2017″:

For the third time, a group of well-connected persons, who lack neither the intellectual nor creative capacity to represent Kenya's contemporary art to the international arena, are posturing to the world as the Kenyan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial in Italy.

It should be noted that the Venice Biennial carries with it a profound global significance. For Kenya its cultural scene and its contemporary artists, Venice is a big deal and big business. It brings with it the absolute potential to launch the careers of artists, curators, writers, cultural entrepreneurs, cultural managers, collectors, art educators, patrons – both individual and corporate and many other players to monumental heights. It enriches our discourses and articulates our sophistication as a people both to ourselves and to the to the world at large. It also goes a long way to inject much needed commerce and cultural capital into our societies.

Due to multiple failures in our systems, local and international platforms where Kenyan Artists and our socio-creative infrastructure can gain capital have been poorly managed, misrepresented and outrightly appropriated.

This petition therefore, is another urge to amalgamate the resonance of Kenya's contemporary voices and consolidate the outrage that our supporters both locally and internationally feel. It is to seek the comradeship of those who are witness to both the vibrancy and frustration of Kenya's contemporary artists, and those who bear them support.

Explaining the reasons for supporting the petition, Boniface Maina wrote on the petition's website:

I am signing because it is a shame for our slot to be misrepresented in the Venice biennale again as if it wasn't enough already and the government through the ministry stands aside as if nothing is happening. This should stop from happening again and let the real Kenyan Artists represent but not the Chun Chings who pose to be “Kenyan.” Kenya already has excellent Artist who ought to be in that biennale and clearly whoever is in charge of this deal is sleeping heavily in the job… STOP THIS MADNESS..!!!!

Another petitioner, Judith Kibinge asked:

Have we no shame? No cultural pride? Isnt anyone at the Ministry of Culture not sick of misrepresenting kenya and kenyans to the world as a nation of jokers? The people behind this need to be called to account – and jailed / sacked or fined if found guilty of compromising our national pride.

A non-Kenyan supporter of the petition, Kristina Wright, wrote:

Although I am not Kenyan, I have spent a lot of time in Kenya over the last 15 years and consider it to be my second home. I am a long-time admirer of Kenyan art, and am dismayed at the way Kenya is being misrepresented at the Venice Biennale.

Arnola Lakita noted the importance of the arts:

The arts are the last bastion of expression and we can't have that also taken away by corruption and neocolonialism.

On Facebook, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina had the following questions:

So. Is Armando Tanzini [who is based in Kenya] a Kenyan citizen? A legal resident? Does he have a work permit? Does he have letters of authority from our government to represent us internationally? Why does the Venice Biennale accept his credentials again after the previous scandal? Is somebody qualified to do so writing to Okwi Enwezor the Nigerian curator of the Venice Bienale about this? What action(s) are our arts institutions formally taking about all this? I am speaking about Kuona, Godown and more. What is the position of our Minister of Culture. When will this position be made public. What is the position of our Foreign Ministry. Our Rome Embassy? What action has our Roe embassy taken since 2013?

Reacting to Binyavanga's post, Kenya-born artist Phoebe Boswell identified the main problem with Kenya's pavilion:

The problem with Kenya's Pavilions is the heinous lack of curatorial intention, from choice of artists to the weird, nonsensical titles. Tanzini is obviously a driving force so it's necessary to focus on his role in it.
But the issue with Tanzini is merit-based. Whilst being a longterm resident in Kenya and a longterm maker of ‘stuff’ (I wouldn't call it all ‘art’ but I will credit that), his work is irrelevant to Kenya's contemporary conversation. It is disconnected. And frankly just not very good. More importantly, there are so many Kenyan artists who are better and relevant. More importantly still, and the crux of the whole thing, what is being presented is a curatorial mess. There is no thought process behind it, no criticality, and it makes a mockery of the concept of the Venice Biennale – for countries to present new, progressive, idiosyncratic, vital, current ways of seeing. Tanzini is an opportunist, using it as a vanity project, getting China's (substandard) artists onboard to pay for it, because who doesn't want to show at Venice! And after living in a Kenya 45 years, why wouldn't he want to/be allowed to show for Kenya? It's important to focus on the fact that the work is shit (in a nutshell), the curation of the work is nonexistent, and the whole affair is exploited, weak, and entirely lacking in credibility.

On Twitter, SkepticAfro wondered why the Italian artist Armando Tanzini still represents Kenya at the Venice Biennale when the exhibition itself will be led by Nigerian-born curator, Okwi Enwezor.

(The Swahili greeting used in the tweet above, jambo bwana, was a common phrase the colonised people in East Africa used to greet their colonial masters).

On Twitter, Boswell demanded:

You can follow tweets related to this debate on a storify curated by Phoebe Boswell's journalist sister, Frederica. 

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