Venice Architectural Biennale gives overdue voice to long-silenced Africa

VENICE – Scottish-Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko is giving a platform to voices that have long been silenced at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens Saturday, the first ever curated by an African, featuring a preponderance of work by Africans and the African diaspora.

The 18th architectural Biennale, titled “The Laboratory of the Future,” explores decolonization and decarbonization, topics about which Africans have much to say, Lokko said, citing the long exploitation of the continent for both 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 to resources since time immemorial. We operate at a place where resources are not stable. They are also often fragile. They’re often exploited. Our relationship to them is exploitative.”

Lokko tapped global stars like David Adjaye and Theaster Gates among 89 participants in the main show — more than half of them from Africa or the African diaspora. To reduce the Biennale’s carbon footprint, Lokko encouraged the participating architects, artists and designers to be as “paper-thin” as possible with their exhibits, resulting in more drawings, film and projections as well as the reuse of materials from last year’s contemporary art Biennale.

“This exhibition is a way of showing that this work, this imagination, this creativity, has been around for a very, very long time,’’ Lokko said. “It’s just that it hasn’t found quite the right space, in the same way.”

It is a fair question why an African-centric exhibition has been so long in coming to such a high-profile, international platform like Venice.

Okwui Enwezor, the late Nigerian art critic and museum director, was the first African to head the Venice Biennale contemporary art fair, which alternates years with the architectural show, in 2015. Lokko was the first Biennale curator selected by President Roberto Cicutto, who was appointed in 2020 during the global push for inclusion ignited by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

“This is more for us than for them,” Cicutto said, “to see the production, hear the voices we have heard too little, or heard in the way we wanted to.”

Impediments in the West to inclusive events with a focus on the global south were evident in the refusal by the Italian embassy in Ghana to approve visas for three of Lokko’s collaborators, which Lokko decried this week as “an old and familiar tale.”

A refocusing of the North-South relationship is suggested in the main pavilion’s facade: a corrugated metal roof cut into deconstructed images of the Venetian winged lion. The material is ubiquitous in Africa and other developing regions, and here offers free shade. The lion, native to Africa and for centuries a symbol of Venice, serves as a reminder of how deeply cultural appropriation runs.

“I don’t see any lions around here,’’ Lokko said wryly.

Inside, Adjaye’s studio exhibits architectural models created “outside the dominant canon,” like the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library in South Africa that takes inspiration from pre-colonial buildings. Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama explores the colonial exploitation in the installation, “Parliament of Ghosts.”

And Olalekan Jeyifous, a Brooklyn-based Nigerian national, creates a sprawling retro-futuristic narrative around the fictional formation of a united African Conservation Effort, something he imagines would have been constructed a decade after African decolonization in an alternative 1972.

His is no utopia. This new global Africa he imagines is flattened, at the expense of local traditions.

“It’s never utopia/dystopia. Such binary Western terms, that I’m really interested in operating outside of,’’ he said. “It’s not just: We’ve solved all the problems now. Everything’s fantastic. It’s never that simple.”

More than in previous editions, the 64 national participants responded to Lokko’s themes with pavilions that found a natural echo with the main show and its focus on climate change issues and an expanded, more-inclusive dialogue.

Denmark offered practical solutions for coastal areas to work with nature to create solutions to rising seas, proposing Copenhagen islands that invite the sea in to form canals, not unlike Venice’s. The strategy contrasts with Venice’s own underwater barriers, which, underscoring the urgency of the issue, had to be raised during the Biennale preview week outside the usual flood season and for the first time ever in May.

Decolonization was a natural theme at the Brazilian pavilion, where curators Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares show the architectural heritage of indigenous and African Brazilians, and challenge the “hegemonic” narrative that the capital, Brasilia, was built in the “middle of nowhere.”

“Decolonization is really a practice,’’ Tavares said. “It’s an open word, like freedom, like democracy.”

The U.S. Pavilion looked at ubiquitous plastic, invented and propagated in the United States, and how to cope with its durability, under the title “Everlasting Plastic.” In one of the five exhibits, Norman Teague, a Chicago-based African American artist, designer and furniture-maker, used recycled plastics from such everyday items as Tide laundry detergent bottles to create one-off baskets, referencing weaves from Senegal and Ghana.

Teague said he was inspired by Lokko’s themes to consider “how I could really think about the lineage between the continent and Chicago.”

Ukraine returns to the Biennale with two installations that, in the gentlest possible way, serve as a reminder that war continues to rage in Europe. The pavilion in the Arsenale has been decked out in black-out materials to represent ad-hoc, if futile protective measures ordinary Ukrainians are taking against the threat of Russian bombardment.

In the center of the Giardini, curators Iryna Miroshnykova, Oleksii Petrov and Borys Filonenko have recreated earthen mounds that served as barriers against 10th century invaders. Though long abandoned, overtaken by modern farming and sprawl, they proved effective against Russian tanks last spring.

Despite their serious message, the curators said they hope visitors will come to lounge, and that children will be left to roll down the grassy hills.

“These spaces, the fortifications, are a place to be quiet, to chill. But it is also kind of a reminder that somewhere, someone is fearing for their safety,” Filonenko said.

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