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Bettina Malcomess on the Venice Biennale

The 52nd edition of the Venice Biennale saw the opening of the first official African Pavilion, its hip title Check List Luanda Pop. Excitement was however tinged by controversy over the choice of a private collection. In light of the precariousness of cultural initiatives in South Africa, exemplified most recently by CAPE 07, it is interesting to note that in 1990 the Biennale itself faced collapse. It was saved by a shift from public to private funding. This year is not the first time African artists have shown at Venice. There was a substantial Nigerian/Zimbabwean contemporary show in 1990; 2001 saw the group exhibition Authentic/Ex-centric, followed two years later by Faultlines. Certainly, the experience of Africans in Venice has never been easy. One curator confessed that it had been so expensive to transport artworks that unless he sold some of the work, it would have to remain in Venice. The curators of Check List, Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim, after unanimous selection of their proposal, faced several difficulties, including the last minute withdrawal of sponsorship by the Museum of Modern Art, and the suggested replacement of the title “Africa” with “Area”.Despite the controversy the pavilion has attracted much attention and positive press. This was assisted by Alvim’s branding, strikingly placed outside the venue and at sites within the city, and the presence of an outspoken and accessible group of critics, curators and artists. The show refuses to locate Africa by specificity of place, artistic medium or history. The curatorial strategy is influenced by the improvisation, eclecticism and dissonances of jazz. The 800sq/m space is ingeniously designed to emulate the interconnecting L-shapes of the Arsenale, as well as to recreate the maze-like experience of Venice’s streets.The largest of the exhibition spaces has Kendell Geer’s Post-Pop Fuck mural situated opposite Yinka Shonibare’s sculptural installation How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (2006), which has two headless mannequins pointing guns at one another. Appearing at intervals in between: works as diverse as Mounir Fatmi’s Save Manhattan (2006-7), Andy Warhol’s Muhammed Ali prints from 1978, Santu Mofokeng’s urban billboard photographs, two lithographs by Marlene Dumas, as well as memorial installations, paintings and graphic works. The other half of the exhibition area was devoted to a varied selection of video work, including Minnette Vâri’s Alien Safari , a work that still remains poignant, Ruth Sacks’ Don’t Panic (2005) and Tracey Rose’s familiar underwater basketball game sequence. Here too Ingrid Mwangi’s video work ‘plays’ with the assumptions of identity and gender, reflecting the show’s overall shifting between fixity and fluidity. While the exhibition design successfully reflects the claustrophobia of walking through Venice, the competition of sound and sense created by other works makes appreciation of Alfredo Jaar’s poetic five-part Muxima (2005) video work, or Amal Kenawy’s Booby trapped Heaven difficult. Check List almost reads as a single work. Although one can criticise it for this, this is in fact part of the intention, inherent in the show’s name and perhaps the statement it attempts to make.The Venice Biennale is as intricately layered as the city it inhabits; it is difficult to get a sense of the whole. The more established national pavilions occupy the Gardens, while newer arrivals such as Ukraine, along with what are called collateral or fringe events, are housed in several privately owned or rented spaces spread throughout the maze of ancient streets and canals. Robert Storr’s two group exhibitions, installed in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, are collectively titled Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind.The work he selected for the Arsenale show offers a somewhat didactic reflection of what Storr describes as our “troubled times”. Examples here include Emily Prince’s hand-drawn replica’s of American soldiers missing in action in the Iraq, Nedko Solakov’s project to document Russia’s reclamation of the intellectual property for the AK-47, images of bombed out buildings, borders, guard houses and sniper positions. These are not direct images of conflict, but rather portray the subtleties of the structural violence that infiltrates the ordinary, the everyday. Morocco’s Yto Barrada, in a series of photographs titled Iris Tingitana Project, documents the extinction of a type of flower as holiday resort developers redefine the southern Mediterranean coastline. These images are juxtaposed against black and white photographs of men sleeping in public spaces, the ambiguity of their poses suggesting death. Malick Sidibe, winner of the Golden Lion, is represented by a 2001 series of his signature style studio portraits. Storr’s choices often favour the academic over the aesthetic. Form and content are sometimes a tight fit; perhaps the cost of curating such a large exhibition under a single theme.In keeping with its history the Giardini offered a survey show. Painting predominated, Storr favouring abstraction. His impressive line up included late career bodies of work by Sigmar Polke, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter and Robert Ryman, alongside a series of drawings by Louise Bourgeois and a parody of religious frescoes by Raymond Pettibon. Like the African Pavilion, the concentration of video work was often overwhelming. While viewing Cheri Samba’s paintings the words “I am not a terrorist”, repeated in different languages, filtered in confusingly from an adjacent installation.The Biennale also marked the launch of the new Portuguese pavilion on the Grand Canal. Here Angela Ferreira, Mozambican-born and South African educated, exhibited Maison Tropical. Ferreira constructed a sculptural model based on the architect Jean Prouve’s Modernist project to build a structure that could be dismantled and reassembled in the colonies. Viewers have to negotiate this structure to enter the space where photographs of ruins and leftover foundations are displayed.Judging the national pavilions is possibly the most arduous of tasks at Venice. While geographically located, the work is stripped of context, making it difficult to read. Britain’s Tracy Emin and France’s Sophie Calle are both familiar internationally; this made their pavilions accessible. Not so with the Egyptian Pavilion, where the theme was “Egypt… source of civilisation… and junction of cultures,” The artists, among them Hadil Nazmy and Sahar Dourgham, have rebuilt what appears to be primitive structures out of palm branches. Conversations with Egyptian artists attending the Biennale revealed that they, as well as their commissioners, had to tow a nationalistic line. Behind the national pavilions one often senses a lingering ethnicity Bettina Malcomess is a writer and theory of art lecturer at Michaelis School of Fine Art

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