Interview with Fernando Alvim and others involved in the African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
by Bettina Malcomess
The following is based on several conversations, press conferences and interviews primarily with Fernando Alvim, co-curator of the first Africa Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. What you will read here is the summary of a conversation that took place over the course of the three day press preview of the Biennale. At times co-curator and writer Simon Njami, collector Sindika Dokolo, Dakar Biennale Curator N'gone Fall and Curator and artist Olu Oguibe were part of this conversation. Their interjections are also recorded. As such this is not a conventional interview but an edited or 'remixed' record of a conversation in response to the controversy surrounding the African Pavilion.
Bettina Malcomess: What is your response to the controversy surrounding the choice of a private collection for the African Pavilion?
Fernando Alvim: For me this controversy was the result of a single email posted on the website Artnet making allegations of corruption towards the Sindika Dokolo collection. Sindika Dokolo is in the process of taking legal action against Artnet. For me this cultural malevolence amounts to a kind of pathology, a fear that the world has of Africa representing itself. I find this strange given the huge potential to be generous of those post-independence countries in Africa, such as Angola, in preserving the cultures and religions of the coloniser.
BM: What about those artists from Africa not represented in this collection, when in fact many of the artists represented do not even live in Africa?
Simon Njami: This was never meant to be an anthology of art from the African Union. It is interesting to limit Africa to a geographical position. I refuse to define what is an African.
Sindika Dokolo: The intention of the show was never to be representative. I would like to emphasise the subjectivity in artists' and curators' responses to questions around what is African. I never attempted to put an 'African' flag on my collection. This is not a collection of African contemporary art, it is an African collection of contemporary art.
Olu Oguibe: The age of non-Africans telling Africans what they are is over. As someone who understands the logistics of curating in Venice, I would like to add that not many curators could put together a show here in three months without an existing body of work to draw from. I would like to commend Sindika Dokolo for his generosity in making it possible for a significant collection of African art to stay on the continent. I hope the press can return that sense of generosity.
N'gone Fall: A French journalist at one of these press conferences asked me if we could talk about 'contemporary African art'. I had replied that she was 15 years too late. African artists have been included in the Arsenale for years, look at Yto Barrada and Malick Sidibe being so prominent in this year's show.
BM: Tell me about the process that resulted in 'Check List - Luanda Pop' being selected for the Africa Pavilion?
FA: When the call for proposals was sent out Simon and I put together a proposal to use the Sindika Dokolo collection. Initially we couldn't agree on a name. Simone wanted to call it 'Check List'. I took the name 'Luanda Pop' from the work of Angolan photographer Kiluanji Kia Henda. Eventually we called it 'Check List - Luanda Pop'. The proposals were sent to a jury, appointed with the approval of Robert Storr. I have read the transcript of the conference call where members voted. 'Check List' was unanimously selected.
BM: What is the history of this collection? Why the controversy around this?
FA: I think what happened is that a single complaint was blown out of proportion. People are talking about something that they do not really know about. This ignorance amounts to a kind of violence. I continually have to re-invent myself and justify what I do to the West. As such my work on the Luanda Triennale in Angola does not interest the international media, I may as well be working under the table. I worked for years building up this collection with German collector, Hans Bokhart. Following his death, I received a message from his widow that plans were being made to sell the collection to other European collectors. I responded that by rights this collection should be bought by someone in Africa. We were given 10 days to raise the money for the collection. Sindika Dokolo is the one who bought the collection.
BM: How did the controversy around the collection spiral out of control so quickly?
FA: You see, there are politics underlying the decision to have an open call for proposals for an African Pavilion. There are certain people who are threatened by projects produced in Africa, as they would lose their jobs as the representatives of Africa to the West. This explains the other letter signed by Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan criticising the selection of a single collection. Olu Oguibe had responded that the call should be open. Who do they think they are? They are not Africa.
SN: Furthermore, it was a completely open call - even an Austrian collector responded. What is interesting is that wildest attacks didn't come from the West.
FA: The Biennale had promised us $200 000. However, at the last minute MoMA withdrew their $100 000, as their policy disallows sponsorship of a private collection. However, the choice had been approved by Storr's appointed committee. In fact, Simon only received an explanation at a discussion with Storr organised by the British Council in Venice two days ago. We had two options. Either we pull out and have a press conference explaining why, or we fundraise in Angola. We had one month. Two months before we had already drawn up our contracts with builders and designers. It cost us $300 000 to bring 65 artists, producers and architects to Venice. In fact the salaries we pay to exhibition producers is 500 Euro higher than the salary paid to Biennale Union employees.
BM: Did you experience any other resistance during installation?
FA: Every two days there was another problem. They wanted us to remove our billboard as it conflicted with the Biennale branding. Then the British Council placed the Pavilion with collateral events. And the worst was when Robert Storr asked us to change the name of the pavilion from 'Africa' to 'Area'. When we were first selected he had requested us not to make 'another "Africa Remix"'. I found out there was a big conference in Rome to discuss the African Pavilion and all the collateral events. I was never invited to this. At that point I also found out that in the discourse of the Biennale, from president Davide Croff, it was written: 'Robert Storr curates the African Pavilion'. I think Robert Storr wants to be Mr. Africa! I threatened to go to the press. The mistake was corrected. After this every time I was interviewed, the press was accompanied by someone from the Biennale to make sure I didn't get too angry.
BM: Did you feel that you received much support for the African Pavilion from other African countries or artists?
FA: The response now that people see the pavilion is good. But when the proposal was selected, no-one congratulated us. In fact, the responses from South Africa were disappointing; for example some of the comments put on the website Arttheat were interpreted by a lot of people in Angola to be racist. It's not that we wanted financial but moral support, which is what we got from the Angolan government.
SN: There is something interesting about Angola. They are funding African work first, whereas in South Africa, around R5 000 000 was raised for 'Picasso and Africa', but it was very difficult to finalise the budget for 'Africa Remix'.
NF: One of the problems is that there is no local strategy. There is no sense of African art history and art appreciation. After 15 years of having a Biennale in Dakar I am still called 'the lady involved in the entertainment business'. In Dakar we have been waiting for the rebuilding of our public museum for 20 years.
BM: One of the comments made about the pavilion is that there is too much on the show. Why is this the curatorial strategy?
OO: I would like to comment that it is hard to make the statement you're supposed to make as a curator when the initial struggle is political. It is almost a buffet syndrome. We don't trust that there will be a second time so we take too much, and then half-way through we're full. I think that both Simon and Fernando have been affected, spiritually, by the press and the organisers. It is going to take them a while to get over this.
FA: Our curatorial strategy was like the title: 'pop' and 'jazz'. We also employed the model of the Luanda Triennale and established a relationship with the context months before, working with an Angolan architect to reflect the L-shape of the Arsenale. We also worked with the light at different times of the day in Venice. We tried to give you the feeling of not being able to locate yourself. You must have read Simon's quote from Sartre about light in his writing about the 'shock of being seen'.
BM: Do you think that the Africa pavilion has a place in Venice now, and in the future?
FA: The decision to have an African Pavilion was not made through consultation with African practitioners or curators. Even the selection of the jury did not include many people working with African art, or any French or Portuguese speakers. This is not the first 'African' Pavilion, what with 'Faultlines' (2003), 'Authentic/ Excentric' (2001), and exhibitions of South African artists after their un-banning in 1993. When the proposal was accepted, we met with the President of the Biennale to explain that we would accept only if this was the first, not the last time. When we had our official opening to the press, the President asked to be there to announce that this was the beginning of a permanent African Pavilion in Venice.
BM: And to turn the question around, what is the place of the Venice Biennale in contemporary 'African' art?
FA: For me, this is a little project. I am very concerned with the toxic dependence of artists on the powers of curators and structures. They have no autonomy. When art becomes a 'Grand Tour' this is a problem. For me, Venice is about fashion, it is like a 'fake orgasm'. For me, Venice has just been a tool, especially for Angola. We took a Luandese team of 25 people who built a space and mounted 128 works. We did not rent but bought 72 projectors. All of this experience and equipment will come back to Luanda. We have been asked by the Angolan president to make Luanda the cultural capital of Africa. Instead of using the Ford Foundation money to move African art to Manhattan we now have African support for African culture.