The Venice Architecture Biennale gives voice to Africa, which has been silenced for a long time
VENICE, Italy — Scottish-Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko is giving voice to long-silenced voices at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens on Saturday. The Biennale is the first to be organized by Africans and to feature predominantly works by Africans and the African diaspora.
Entitled “Laboratory of the Future,” the 18th Architecture Biennale examines decolonization and decarbonization, which Africans have a lot to say about, Lokko said, referring to the long-term exploitation of the continent’s human and environmental resources.
“The black body was Europe’s first unit of energy,” Lokko told The Associated Press this week. “We have had a relationship with resources since time immemorial. We operate in a place where resources are not stable. They are also often fragile. It is often exploited. Our relationship with them is exploitative.”
Among the 89 participants in the main event, Lokko featured global stars such as David Adjaye and Theaster Gates – more than half of whom came 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 drawings, 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, very long time,” Lokko said. “Just because you didn’t find the right place, just the same.”
It is a fair question why an Africa-focused exhibition took so long to reach such a high-profile, international platform as Venice.
Okwui Enwezor, the late Nigerian art critic and museum director, was the first African to headline the 2015 Venice Biennale contemporary art fair, which alternated years with the architecture show. Lokko was the curator of the first Biennale, selected by President Roberto Cicutto. He was appointed in 2020 in a global push for inclusion that was triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.
“It’s more for us than for them,” Cicutto said, “to see the production, to hear the voices we’ve heard too little, or heard the way we wanted to.
Western barriers to inclusive events focused on the Global South were evident when the Italian embassy in Ghana refused to approve visas for three of Lokko’s staff, which Lokko described this week as an “old and familiar tale”.
A refocusing of the north-south relationship is recommended on the facade of the main pavilion: a corrugated metal roof cut into deconstructed images of the Venetian winged lion. The material is ubiquitous in Africa and other developing regions, offering free shade here. The lion, native to Africa and a symbol of Venice for centuries, is a reminder of how deep cultural appropriation runs.
“I don’t see any lions around here,” Lokko said wryly.
Inside, Adjaye’s studio exhibits architectural models created “outside the prevailing canon,” such as South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library, which draws inspiration from pre-colonial buildings. Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama explores colonial exploitation in the installation ‘Parliament of Ghosts’.
And Olalekan Jeyifous, a Nigerian national based in Brooklyn, creates an expansive retro-futuristic narrative around the fictitious formation of a united African conservation effort that he suggests could have been built in an alternate 1972, a decade after African decolonization.
His is no utopia. The new global Africa he imagined is flattening, at the expense of local traditions.
“It is never a utopia/dystopia. Binary Western terms that I’m really interested in operating outside of,” he said. “Not only that: we solved all the problems. Everything is fantastic. It’s never that simple.”
The 64 national participants responded more than previous editions to Lokko’s themes with pavilions that resonated naturally with the main event, focusing on climate change issues and an expanded, more inclusive dialogue.
Denmark offered practical solutions for coastal areas to work with nature to find solutions to rising seas, proposing islands in Copenhagen that create channels into the sea, not unlike Venice. The strategy contrasts with Venice’s own underwater barriers, which – underscoring the urgency of the problem – had to be erected in the week leading up to the Biennale, outside the normal flood season and for the first time in May.
Decolonization was a natural theme in the Brazilian pavilion, where curators Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares present the architectural heritage of indigenous and African Brazilians and challenge the “hegemonic” narrative that the capital, Brazil, was built in the “middle of nowhere.” ”
“Decolonization is really a practice,” Tavares said. “It is an open word, like freedom, like democracy.”
The American pavilion, titled “Everlasting Plastic,” examined the ubiquitous plastic invented and distributed in the United States and how to deal with its durability. In one of the five exhibitions, Norman Teague, an African-American artist, designer and furniture maker from Chicago, used recycled plastics from everyday items such as Tide detergent bottles to create unique baskets referencing Senegalese and Ghanaian weavings.
Teague said that Lokko’s themes inspired him to think about “how I could really think about the lineage between the continent and Chicago.”
Ukraine returns to the Biennale with two installations that remind, in the gentlest way possible, that war is still raging in Europe. The Arsenale pavilion was decked out in blackout materials to ad-hoc mark ordinary Ukrainians taking futile defensive measures against the threat of Russian bombing.
In the center of the Giardini, curators Iryna Miroshnykova, Oleksii Petrov and Borys Filonenko created mounds of earth that served as a barrier against 10th century invaders. Although long abandoned, overtaken by modern farming and expansion, last spring they proved effective against Russian tanks.
Despite their serious message, curators said they hope visitors will relax and let the kids roll down the grassy hills.
“These squares, the fortifications, are places where you can be quiet and relax. But it’s also a kind of reminder that someone somewhere fears for their safety,” said Filonenko.