Saturday 25 May 2013

'Venice Biennale 2015'… Seeking a curator for Nigeria Pavillon

 By Tajudeen Sowole
 Preparation for Nigeria’s debut participation at Venice Biennale in 2015 is in top gear.  However, choosing a curator that will coordinate the artistic contents and interpret the theme of the country’s Pavilion remains a challenge.
Nigeria, no doubt, is blessed with artists and curators in contemporary practice, home and in the Diaspora, but selection of participants and successful packaging of the diverse contents at the global and competitive Venice Biennale, Italy, will require in-depth preparation for a proper articulation within the framework of a chosen theme.

 Over a month ago, preparations for Nigeria to make its first appearance at the 56th edition of Venice Biennale began in Lagos, courtesy of a private initiative and supports of the National Gallery of Art (NGA) as well as assistance from the British Council, Lagos.

 For quite a number of reasons, Nigeria cannot afford not to impress at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015: currently, a Nigerian, Bisi Silva, is among the five-member jury for the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale, which opens in the next few weeks; Nigerians in the Diaspora are holding top positions in big contemporary spaces such as museums and galleries; Nigerian artists, in recent times, have made remarkable marks in art exhibitions and art auctions abroad. Examples of such exhibitions included dOCUMENTA 11 held at Kassel, Germany, which had Okwui Enwezor as artistic director, from 1998-2002; Nigerian artists were impressive during an European tour of 88 artists from 25 African countries themed Africa Remix and described as the largest gathering of African artists abroad; and recently, Africa’s participation, via Marker at the just held Art Dubai Fair, which had over 20 artists from West Africa was led by Silva. With these shows, Nigeria had made strong statement on the contemporary global art space.
Okwui Enwezor. PHOTO BY: Alix Laveau

  Usually, there are three main prizes at stake at the Venice gatherings: Golden Lion for Best National Participation; Golden Lion for best artist in the International Exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace); Silver Lion for a promising young artist in the international exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace).   
At the 54th outing in 2011, Germany won the Golden Lion for best National Participation with its presentation of the late artist, Christoph Schlingensief’s work. Aside of the main awards, there are Honorable Mention and Golden Lion for Life Time Achievement.

It is not impossible for Nigeria to make a mark, pat least, picking up an award despite participating for the first time, as efforts are being made to make 2015 a reality. And as crucial as the role of a curator is, in winning a prize, it is expected that by now, the organisers of the Nigeria Pavilion should have appointed one to start working, particularly given the complexity that may arise in selecting artists that truly represent the country’s creative diversity.

More importantly, the artists would need enough ventilation to factor the 2015 into their schedules, particularly in creating works, purposely for the exhibition. Given these factors, indeed, getting a curator to lead a team of creative professionals should be now for an elaborate preparation that the outing deserves.

However, picking a curator for Nigeria Pavilion of Venice 2015 appears to have begun to create headache for the Ego Boyo-led initiative.  A source disclosed that two Nigerians who practice in the Diaspora have been “informally named”. One of them, the source said, “is very experienced” and is “most likely to be named the curator”.

While the international experience of Nigerians practicing abroad is crucial to the success of a Nigeria Pavilion, it appears that most of the foreign-based curators who have made marks abroad have little or no home experience within the Nigerian art space of the last ten to 15 years. In fact, some of them never handled any art project in Nigeria.
Bisi Silva, a member of Jury, Venice Biennale 2013. PHOTO BY: Stephan Röhl.
Assuming the curator has to come from the Diaspora, does this mean creative managers of Nigerian art that are home-based lack required international exposure? “There are experienced curators in Nigeria”, Professor Frank Ugiomoh, art historian at University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State argued. He disagrees with the idea of outsourcing curator for the Nigeria Pavilion.
“Are the exhibitions all over Nigeria organised by ghosts?” Ugiomoh asked, while expressing doubt if a curator from abroad could read the “nation's mood and package it from Diaspora.” The art scholar cautioned that not tapping from the abundant professionals at home is like “going to Venice naked.”
Given a “success” story ascribed to the 2009 edition of African Regional Summit on Visual Arts and Exhibition (ARESUVA), an international gathering, though held in Nigeria, it could be argued that artists at home do not lack curatorial experience; the exhibition section of ARESUVA 2009 was curated, jointly by Tonie Okpe, Simon Ikpakronyi and Uwa Usen.

As much it is important to promote homegrown expertise, the fact that Nigeria has not had an experience of a biennale at a global level makes input from abroad crucial. “We have not been to Venice or big biennale before, apart from Dak’Art in Dakar, Senegal. I think, we need to tap from our resource in the Diaspora”, Dr Kunle Adeyemi, artist and teacher, Yaba College of Technology said. Adeyemi recommended a merging of the local and foreign experience to form a good team. According to him, “someone like Bisi Silva is a good example of a curator who has the advantage of both sides”. He however canvassed staging several workshops as part of the preparation, “so that in the process, we can come up with a team.”

And if the mix of home and foreign experience is a major criterion for selecting a curator who leads a team of creative or technical professionals for the Nigeria Pavilion at Venice Biennale, in 2015, Silva appears like a good choice.
Aside being the representative of the black race in the five-member jury of the 55th Venice Biennale, Silva has other impressive international credentials when it comes to contemporary art. She was co- curator of the 7th Dak’Art Biennale and of the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Greece as well as curated Marker, a section of Art Dubai Fair, 2013. And having run Centre for Contemporary Art, (CCA), in Lagos since 2007 till now, working with Nigerian and foreign artists here and outside the country under the centre’s solo and collaborative projects with international organisations, Silva’s familiarity with the home space would count for a Nigeria Pavilion in 2015.
  From the Diaspora, the experience of Enwezor could also be of importance, having curated quite a number of international exhibitions and was artistic director of dOCUMENTA 11 as well as 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 and serves on several art advisory boards and jury. Arguably one of the leading names from Africa on the international art space, Enwezor, the director at Haus der Kurst, Munich, Germany is not active on the Nigerian art environment.

Another likely choice of a curator is Chika Okeke-Agulu. Currently based in the U.S., Okeke-Agulu organised a Nigeria section at the First Johannesburg Biennale in 1995 and has published several books, including Contemporary African Art Since 1980.
                                                                                       Chika Okeke-Agulu

The Venice Biennale is regarded as the largest gathering of artists on earth and is 118 years old.

Last week, Silva and five curators selected from Europe, U.S. and South America were announced as jury of the 2013 edition. Other members of the jury include Ali Subotnick, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, U.S.; Jessica Morgan, a curator, International Art, at Tate in London, U.K; Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director of Tate Liverpool; and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, the chief curator of the 9a. Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Chong Cuy is the president of the jury.
  According to the Board of Directors of Venice Biennale, chaired by Paolo Baratta, the Jury will attribute the following prizes: Golden Lion for best National Participation; Golden Lion for best artist in the International Exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace); Silver Lion for a promising young artist in the International Exhibition Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace). 

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