It seems China is in the news for all the wrong reasons again this week. We have the blatant racism vis-a-vis African patrons in a local restaurant, the usual litany of woes regarding their perceived involvement in poaching and more recently the furore that has erupted following the news that they are officially representing us in one of the biggest art shows in the world, the Venice Biennale.
It really should frustrate Kenyans and the rest of the world that the Venice Biennial Kenya pavilion has more Chinese stuff in it than a dollar store. Have no idea what were on about? Well read on.
In 2013 there was an uproar in the arts community after it came to the attention of Kenyan artists that at the 55th Venice Biennale Kenya had a pavilion. The Venice Biennale has often been called the Olympics of the art world and brings together critics, artists and art lovers from all over the world. Each country participating gets a pavilion to showcase art from that particular country. At least, that is what is supposed to happen.
Kenya’s pavilion in 2013 was in the news all over the world. In fact all the African pavilions garnered a lot of media attention; South Africa for having one of the largest groups, Angola for winning the Golden Lion for national participation at their first appearance and Kenya for having barely any Africans.
Critics say the works themselves are stereotypical: Primitive-looking African paintings by Kenyan Mbuno Kivuthi and “tribal” sculptures by Italian Armando Tanzini in a small room; hi-tech digital works by several Chinese artists in a much bigger one -The BBC
The theme for the 2013 Kenyan pavilion was collaboration, so we could conceivably laugh it off as showing how Kenya, Italy and China worked together to create our display. Fast forward to this year though and you have a similar grouping of people once again with minimal Kenyan presence. Kenyans this time round are furious. Perhaps, they used the same logic that was used for the infamous restaurant: don’t trust an African unless otherwise accompanied by a large group of Europeans/Chinese.
The theme of the Biennale this year is Creating Identities. At this point this seems to be a laughable concept seeing as Kenyans have never been allowed to showcase the existing identities that they already have.
KENYACreating IdentitiesYvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo, Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Armando Tanzini, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang, Double Fly Art CenterCommissioner: Paola Poponi. Curator: Sandro Orlandi Stagl. Deputy Curator: Ding Xuefeng. Venue: San Servolo Island
As if to rub salt in the wound, OkayAfrica reports that the Kenyan Minister of Culture snubbed a meeting organised by artists and art stakeholders the point of which was perhaps to tell him off, or conceivably to get more information out of him concerning this massive snafu. A meeting was set by the Minister’s office for Friday afternoon, when he was conveniently unavailable due to his being a Muslim and requiring to be at the mosque. You cant get any slicker than that.
Tiw this all off with two quotes, one from a petition that all Kenyans need to sign and with the words from a Facebook post by everyone’s favourite satirist of Western portrayals of Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina
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.- Petition to renounce Kenya’s fraudulent representation at 56 Venice Biennial 2015 & commit to support the realisation of a national pavilion in 2017
Is Armando Tanzini 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 write to Okwi Enwezor the Nigerian curator of the Venice Biennale 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 Rome embassy taken since 2013? How come we are back at zero? Who has been in touch with them? What are they saying?- Binyavanga Wainaina
This first appeared in UP Magazine