When word reached Kenya in March that a group of mostly Chinese artists would be representing the East African nation at this year’s Venice Biennale, the country’s art world was up in arms. Local artists and critics took to social media to decry what one commentator called an exhibition “fronted by a band of cynics.” The Kenyan ministry of culture accused the planners behind the country’s proposed national pavilion of “wrongfully presenting themselves,” strongly condemning what it called “acts of impersonation.”
But after pressure from local stakeholders and the Kenyan government, the organizers of the Biennale — arguably the world’s most prestigious showcase of contemporary art, which kicks off May 9 — have announced that the Kenyan name and flag will be removed from the pavilion.
While the news was welcomed in Kenya, the mystery remains over who signed off on the pavilion, which according to the Biennale could only have been approved “through a government or diplomatic authority.”
The controversy was sparked by the announcement on the Biennale’s website in March that Kenya would be hosting a national pavilion for just the third time in the country’s history. But of the seven artists chosen to represent the East African nation, five were Chinese; one was a Kenyan-born artist living in Switzerland; and the last was an Italian sculptor and hotelier who’s spent 47 years living in Kenya, mostly in the coastal resort town of Malindi.
That sculptor, Armando Tanzini, is the only artist to have taken part in both previous Kenyan appearances at the Biennale, and is widely believed in Kenyan art circles to have played a role in organizing this year’s pavilion.
Speaking recently by phone from his White Elephant Sea & Art Lodge in Malindi, Tanzini said he was saddened and surprised by the controversy, suggesting there was “a little bit of racism” behind the accusations of wrong-doing. In an email, Italian curator Sandro Orlandi Stagl defended his choices for the Kenyan pavilion, citing the theme of this year’s Biennale, “All the World’s Futures,” as the inspiration for a selection that focuses on “the creation of an identity.”
The selection of foreign artists isn’t without precedent in Venice. In 2013, France and Germany swapped exhibitions for their respective pavilions to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a treaty on Franco-German friendship, and Germany invited four foreign artists — China’s Ai Weiwei, French-Iranian Romuald Karmakar, South African Santu Mofokeng and India’s Dayanita Singh — to represent it.
When it was announced that the Kenyan flag would be removed from the pavilion he curated, though, Stagl said, “Politics should never have anything to do with art.”
The high cost of hosting a national pavilion in Venice has fueled speculation over how artists from China — a much wealthier nation — were tapped to appear under the Kenyan flag in the first place. Still, the underlying sentiment in Kenya is that the government needs to take a more proactive role to avoid such controversies in the future. The ministry of culture recently announced it is already putting its muscle behind efforts to organize a more inclusive and representative pavilion in Venice in 2017.
Not everyone is convinced, though, that the government will stand by its word. “For the longest time, art in Kenya ... has not been something the government would take seriously,” said artist Michael Soi, whose satiric series “Shame in Venice” recently tackled the Biennale controversy. “I don’t believe it’s going to start now.”