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Why Is the Venice Biennale's Kenyan Pavilion Exhibiting the Work of Chinese Artists?

It seems that the African cultural scene has just found a new owner.

by Riccardo Conti
24 April 2015, 12:09pm


'The Shame in Venice II', by Kenyan artist Michael Soi. Courtesy of Michael Soi.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy

On May 9th, Italy will host to the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale – arguably one of the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions. This year's edition – All The World's Futures – is curated by Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor and will feature 136 artists from 53 different countries.

Evidently the Biennale is an increasingly global event, which beyond its original mandate (to map the state of international art once every two years) has become a sort of collective media event wrapped in political correctness that forces it to sometimes include even tiny and artistically irrelevant countries (see the Vatican in 2013). Think about it as a sort of Games Without Frontiers but lacking a solid, meritocratic selection or any sort of minimum academic requirements.

The most prominent, and surreal, case in point this year is that of the Kenyan Pavilion: After the list of artists participating in the pavilion was published, it became apparent that there would only be one Kenyan artist involved in its making – Yvonne Brandle-Amolo. The rest of the names belong to a number of artists from China, while there is also the Italian Armando Tanzini – a character who has represented the African country two more times but isn't exactly known for his creative talent.

This isn't the first time such a thing has happened. Back in 2013, the Kenyan pavilion presented only two Kenyan artists, while the rest of the delegation was made up of Tanzini, Italian-Brazilian Cesar Meneghetti and eight Chinese artists. Even back then, there was a slew of annoyed and rather officious Kenyan voices denouncing the unacceptable sabotage of the Pavilion by so called "charlatans" who were unworthy of representing Kenya. Cultural analyst Nyairo as well as poet, blogger and performer Njeri Wangari demanded an official explanation from authorities, complaining about what they saw as a waste of an international stage.

Two years later, not much seems to have changed – other than the number of participating Kenyan artists having decreased that is. In addition to setting up an internet petition, Kenyan writer and journalist Binyanvanga Wainaina and artist Phoebe Boswell began to tweet about the fiasco, wondering how a person can represent a country when they are completely disconnected from its artistic and cultural scene. Recently, American critic Roger Denson also reached out and asked curator Okwui Enwezor to shed light on the affair.

At this point, it is also important to point out that it isn't just the Kenyan pavilion that seems to be used to represent artists from other nationalities. Last year, the Biennale itself released a statement emphasizing every country's autonomy in managing national pavilions. According to the exhibition's organisers, "the Biennale does not interfere in any way [with the organisational aspects of every national participation] leaving full autonomy to the participating country."

Many of the foreign pavilions are cared for and curated by Italian critics and other personalities, who are free to interpret the country that appointed them as they see fit. But what's the process behind these appointments? And, in the case of Kenya, why are there only Chinese artists? And just who is Armando Tanzini?

Armando Tanzini is a rather interesting case in point: The Livorno born 70-year-old building contractor is known for his bizarrely luxurious compounds in the Kenyan town of Malindi, where he's lived for the past 45 years. Tanzini is part of an Italian scene that's obsessed with Kenya – just like his friend, businessman Flavio Briatore as well as an array of ex-politicians and journalists. In the public conscious, Tanzini is presented as all manner of things: a poet, an architect, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur and philosopher, a Latin lover and – above all – an artist. There's even a song on YouTube outlining all of his humble traits:

When trying to peruse his artistic curriculum however, there's little to be found. Well, there's plenty of talk about him meeting Andy Warhol in NY back in the time that every single person living in NY met Andy Warhol, but I am not sure if that counts. The only other obvious accomplishment being the fact that Tanzini has been taking part in the Venice Biennale since 2003 – always in the Kenyan pavilion.

The first newspaper reports concerning Tanzini appeared in 1990, listing him as a friend of FIAT's Edoardo Agnelli, who was at the time arrested in Malindi for the alleged possession of 300 grams of heroin. Tanzini is the proud owner of the White Elephant Art & Sea Resort in Malindi, which Agnelli used to frequent.

But is being a distant acquaintance of Warhol and the proprietor of a colonial-British bar resort enough to make Tanzini an art ambassador for an African country? Well, yes apparently.

It's this very issue that sparked the debate. In fact, in April 2014, the Kenyan Ministry of Sports, Art and Culture released a statement dissociating itself from what they saw as the unfair occupation of the pavilion and the influence peddling of Armando Tanzini, who seems to be acting as a representative of the Republic of Kenya.

Given the embarrassment that 2013's Kenyan pavilion caused, it will be interesting to see this year's installation. Especially since the festival's curator Okwui Enwezor is the first African director in the history of the Venice Biennale.

Aside from being a rather elegant man, Enwezor is a major academic, art historian and the director of Haus der Kunst in Monaco. His career to date, especially after his involvement in Documenta in 2002, has garnered him a reputation as one of the most central figures in the post-colonial contemporary art world.

His work has also been highly influenced by the question: What entitles Westerners to evaluate and reflect on art produced by non-Western populations? Enwezor has spent the last 15 years discussing this at universities across the globe.

Sure, he's not responsible for individual choices made by the national pavilions, but he has actively participated in the committee that has worked for the African representatives. Bearing in mind the enormous curatorial work done by Enwezor to organise this year's Biennale, the fact that Tanzini has returned as an artist is very peculiar.


'The Shame in Venice I' by Kenyan artist Michael Soi. Courtesy of Michael Soi.

Is the Venetian platform really interesting for Africa, or is it more interesting for political intermediaries and local investors who see it as opportunity for profit and cultural legitimacy? It seems that the African cultural scene has just found a new owner that not only occupies the territory but, through its artistic ambitions, basically reduces the aesthetics of an entire nation to something comparable to Shakira's 'Waka Waka'.

@ByzantineVampyr