Category Archives: Kampala

Now you see me, now you don’t: All the World’s Futures – the 56th Venice Biennale

All the World's Futures exhibition catalogue

All the World’s Futures exhibition catalogue and press material

Venice Biennale is back. Big. Bursting at the seams with art. From ‘traditional’ art forms like drawing and painting to conceptual pools of water. The biennale endures in its incredibly expansive character. Its political focus is not surprising seeing as curator Okwui Enwezor’s initial training is political science. In his catalogue essay, The State of Things, Enwezor says:

All The World’s Futures, (is) a project devoted to an appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.”[1]

He refers to political turmoil since World War 1:

“… we live in the terrible wakefulness of new crises, uncertainty, and a deepening insecurity across all regions of the world.”[2]

This paints such a bleak picture of our times. I am intrigued, but also filled with trepidation. I am not sure if I want to be immersed in an art of activism, an art of preaching, an art that might disconcert me. I have lived through the Amin war and the Museveni war in Uganda. Do I want to confront other people’s reflections on such a ‘state of things’?

I recall the 2002 Documenta X1 in Kassel, Germany, for which Enwezor was Artistic Director. Turmoil was at the forefront even then. In the preface, Enwezor stated:

“… Documenta finds itself confronted once again with the spectres of yet another turbulent time of unceasing cultural, social, and political frictions, transitions, transformations, fissures, and global institutional consolidations.”[3]

It appears that Enwezor has continually attempted to articulate and make sense of this turmoil. I wonder how much longer we can afford to do this. Can artistic gestures chart a way forward?

Then.

In 1895 the first Venice Biennale was launched to celebrate the silver jubilee of King Umberto 1 and Princess Margherita of Savoia. It took two years to plan an exhibition of outstanding Italian art by Venice city council officials. King Umberto 1 was a decisive leader who attempted to reconcile various political and regional elements in Italy. He also personally directed and funded relief efforts when Venice and Verona suffered massive floods in 1882. Venice municipality never forgot. Over time the biennale grew bigger to include German and Austrian artists, then other Europeans. Later foreign countries had a stake in the Giardini, the main exhibition space, with Belgium building the first national pavilion in 1907. Today there are 29 pavilions in the Giardini and other national exhibitions without pavilions are installed in various buildings across the city, as well as additional exhibitions and events. The aspiration for an international art exhibition presenting a broad range of art continues today.

Entrance to the Giardini

Entrance to the Giardini

Presence. Absence.

King Umberto 1 had expansionist ideals for his foreign policy. Italy attempted colonial expansion in the Horn of Africa, making progress in Eritrea, capturing Massawa in 1885, before being defeated in 1896 in the Battle of Adwa, northern Ethiopia. However, there are no visible traces of this relationship at the biennale. The gains in that battle are still celebrated in Ethiopia today. It is in the pantheon of current ‘state of things’ in this part of the world. Addis Ababa is present as a stop on the Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project with a sampling of photographs of the landscapes they traversed by Emeka Okereke, Beautiful Obstacle, en route Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (2011), Portrait of a Group in Ethiopia, Goha Bridge, Ethiopia (2012), and Ala Keir’s Equilibrium, Addis Ababa – Ethiopia, IB 2011, a photograph of an Anbessa bus headed downhill on Churchill road, set against skyscrapers full of bright new businesses. Keir’s photograph makes visible the city’s social and economic realities and challenges: an overcrowded public transport system against nascent Addis Ababa with an opulent hedonist ethic.

 

Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project, Installation view, Venice Biennale, 2015

Invisible Borders: The Trans-African Project, Installation view, Venice Biennale, 2015

Uganda is also invisible at the biennale yet she has a significant connection with Italy. Italian missionaries were at the helm of education and health provision in northern Uganda since the 1950s. I went to a nursery school in Gulu town run by Italian nuns in the mid 1970s. On a trip to Gulu five years ago, I was delighted to find it still running, by Ugandan nuns this time. Well, consider that an aside.

But Aboke Girls. That is crucial. In 1996, under cover of darkness and ironically on Uganda’s Independence Day 9th October, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army abducted 139 secondary school girls from St. Mary’s College, Aboke, Apac District. The deputy headmistress Italian nun Sister Rachele Fassera and a male teacher bravely pursued and rescued 109 of them. The effects of this war and others like it run deep in the world consciousness.

Another event of national significance is the successful climbing to the summit of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains by Luigi Amedeo, Duke of Abruzzi, nephew of the Umberto family, and his party in 1906. He named the highest peak at 16,810 feet after his aunt Margherita. The geopolitical ‘state of things’ has shrouded the Rwenzoris in a contrasting veil of nature’s bountiful beauty and guerrilla activities. A similar cloud hangs over Kampala’s art production and reception where elites and expats form the core audience. The KLA ART festival has attempted to break this state of affairs by taking art out of galleries and directly to the people in unexpected sites across Kampala, for instance, on boda boda motorcycle taxis, and in the Railways Building. Artists are gradually engaging a strategic mobility arising out of a need to broaden their audiences by using the Internet and taking advantage of international residencies and exhibitions. Some, for instance, Samson Ssenkaaba Xenson and Helen Nabukenya are adaptable and attempt to navigate a world whose fluidity in expression, presentation, and political and temporal concerns can be difficult to decipher.

Much of the art exhibited in Venice Biennale is under the umbrella of national pavilions. It takes a certain level of political acumen and economic heft to position a country at this level of cultural diplomacy and visibility. Even if many artists criticize catastrophic systems of governance, participation in the biennale is a clear indication of the current state of economic things, the disparity between governments’ engagement with the arts.

 

Possibilities

“Can a work of art bear witness to its time…?”[4]

Enwezor asks in All the World’s Futures his catalogue essay. I ask then, does the art discomfit the viewer enough to urge them to look beneath the surface of things? How about the art that is not seen, because it cannot, yet, afford to be seen? This level of invisibility brings to mind Italian writer Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities a series of imagined conversations between emperor Kublai Khan and traveller Venetian Marco Polo. These city descriptions exist as Polo’s memory of Venice, presented as recollections in pantomime before he learns Kublai Khan’s language, and then as contemplative, inventive descriptions when he can speak the Tartar language. There is a complexity of communication and a high level of imagination that conjures these cities into being for both the emperor and Polo. Calvino provides us an example of the possibilities latent in imagination, in memory, in places, in people, to communicate across barriers. Leafing through his atlas, over cities embroiled ‘in nightmares and maledictions’, Kublai Khan was disheartened that all effort of empire building led to naught if the final resting place was an ‘infernal city.’

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.”[5]

Polo suggested two ways of getting out of this inferno: first, to accept it and be such a part of it that it is inseparable from you. The second one requires constancy in seeking enduring alternatives that then need room to have an impact.

When world problems are identified, how are we to understand them in order to formulate alternatives? Are these problems that nations can address as separate entities, or do we need to try and expand collective action beyond activist groups to include whole nation states? How do we achieve equity and justice? How do we eliminate extremes in wealth and poverty? Are any works of art outstanding in proposing potential paths out of this predicament? Is it the function of art to serve these purposes? Is there an imagination, like that of Calvino’s Kublai Khan that we can wield?

The Icelandic Pavilion presented Christoph Buechel’s La Moschea installation in Santa Maria della Misericordia, a former Catholic church now privately owned. Venice authorities fearful of extremist reactions and citing regulation disobedience closed it after two weeks. Buechel claimed to be promoting religious tolerance in this historic city where trade with Islamic countries has a long history, but no house of worship for Muslims exists. The process of getting the church to function as a mosque involved consultation with local Moslem communities whose spiritual vitality was evidenced in the numbers that turned up to worship. The crucial process of dialoguing that Buechel undertook might form a basis for transparency and perhaps tolerance. But where are the limits of art?

Emeka Ogboh, The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015, installation view, Venice Biennale 2015

Emeka Ogboh, The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015, installation view, Venice Biennale 2015

A solemn sound installation The Song of the Germans (Deutschlandlied), 2015, by Emeka Ogboh struck a cord for me. It is a thoughtful and meticulously researched work. The German national anthem is sung by a choir made up of immigrants from Africa, and presented as a ten-channel installation in a dark room at the far end of the Arsenal. In their varied languages, the reverent rendering of the anthem touches on issues regarding identity formation; creating community; the richness endowed through diversity; and proffers a sense of belonging to a common destiny in a place where fate often deals migrants a different hand from their gilded expectations. It was poignant, so much so that I was glad that its display site opens to the outdoors. Water. A garden. A place to absorb the full resonance of this work. Ogboh has been travelling to Addis Ababa conducting research for his African Union, Peace and Security building sound installation commission. Again he uses an anthem, the African Union anthem, as a centrifugal force from which all other elements emanate. To forge a future out of All the World’s Futures ‘state of things’ might lines from the German national anthem be torchbearers? “Unity and justice and freedom … let us all strive for this purpose …”

Notes

[1] Okwui Enwezor, “The State of Things,” in la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Biennale Arte 2015, Exhibition catalogue, 019.

[2] Ibid., 018.

[3] Okwui Enwezor, in preface to Documenta 11_Platform 5: Ausstellung / Exhibition, Kurzfuhrer / Short Guide, 2002, 6.

[4] Okwui Enwezor, “The State of Things,” in la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures, Biennale Arte 2015, Exhibition catalogue, 019.

[5] Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (London: Vintage, 1997), 165.

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