By Tajudeen Sowole
A Nigerian Pavilion at the ongoing 15th edition of Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, breaks the elusiveness that has been haunting the country's participation at the global gathering in Italy every two years.
Installation work ‘Diminished Capacity’ by Ola-Dele Kuku for Nigerian Pavilion at the 15th Venice Architectural Biennale, Italy
PHOTO: FILIPPO PERETTI
While Zimbabwe, Angola and South Africa among other few countries in Africa have had pavilions at the over century-old visual arts exhibition at the Venice Biennale, a Nigerian pavilion remained elusive. More worrisome, many failed efforts in the past appeared to have been an impediment for subsequent attempts. In fact, the jinx breaker, Diminished Capacity, works of artist-architect Ola-Dele Kuku - currently showing as Nigerian Pavilion till November 2016 - nearly went the path of other failed attempts. It took the doggedness of Kuku and intervention of government to rescue the exhibition from being confined to 'another failed-attempt.'
Ironically, Nigerian artists and other art event creative professionals have contributed to the success of quite a list of biennales and other global gathering of art in Europe, Middle East and Africa. It is however perspicuous that, within and outside Nigeria, the vast potential of these art professionals have not directly benefited the country, in the context of national profile. For examples: a Nigerian based in U.S., Okwui Enwezor was the director of 56th edition of Venice Biennale Art Exhibition, last year, perhaps, the first Black person to be so privileged, yet Nigeria had no pavilion at the same event; and Bisi Silva, a home-based curator and founder of Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos was the creative director for the 10th Bamako Encounters, a biennale of photography in Mali, last year, in addition to having been on the Selection Committee of Art Dubai, UAE for many years as well as a jury member at 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. These potentials, and similar others, have not produced a Nigerian Pavilion at any major global art biennale nor generated any yearly art event or biennale in Nigeria.
The Venice event, which has been hosting countries from across the world is art and architecture equivalent of the Olympics, showcasing creative identities of participating nations. The Visual Arts exhibition, last year had 89 countries participated with some individual Nigerian artists showing under non-national pavilion platform.
In separate, exclusive chats with me, the two individuals behind the success story of a first Nigerian Pavilion at Venice Biennale: the artist-architect whose work is being exhibited, Kuku and director of International Cultural Relations, Ministry of Information and Culture, Mr Nkanta George Ufot explained the hidden facts about Nigeria's fragile route that made the current effort a reality. From his Brussels, Belgium base, Kuku shared his journey towards making Nigerian Pavilion a reality at the ongoing Architecture exhibition of Venice Biennale, which ends in November 2016. For Ufot, the much talked about attempts that did not generate any pavilion for Nigeria in the past, perhaps, never really existed in the thinking of government.
In his effort to have a solo exhibition in Rome, Kuku, last year had a discussion with an Italian curator, Camilla Boemio. But to Kuku's surprise, Boemio wanted to know why it was not possible for a Nigerian pavilion to be implemented at the Venice Biennale on two different occasions. Kuku recalled that on one of the two failed-attempts, Enwezor was the artistic director of the Venice Biennale. His findings showed that the organisers of Venice Biennale had placed Nigeria among countries in its black book of unserious speculators. "I later found out the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia had blacklisted Nigeria (together with some other countries in Africa and Asia), due to failure of adequate funding, national acknowledgment and support, as well as non conformity with the requirements of the Fondazione Biennale." Not satisfied, he wanted to know what went wrong.
Whether art or architecture, dearth of professionals that are capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with the bests from around the world is not the issue with Nigeria, Kuku agreed. But the problem, he noted, is that most countries in Africa "lack" fundamental "cultural infrastructure and affiliated institutions that make such activities economically viable, which in turn stimulate multiple potential possibilities both nationally and internationally." Nigeria, he cited, has the highest number of profound art professionals outside the continent.
Worried by the wasting potentials of Nigeria, Kuku shelved his proposed-exhibition in Rome and made attempt to get Boemio curate Nigerian Pavilion at the 15th Architecture Venice Biennale.
"This brought about my contact with the Charge d'Affaires of Nigerian embassy in Brussels H.E. Mr. Ibrahim. B. Rabiu in March 2015. " Rabiu would later suggest the involvement of the then Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, in Abuja. The suggestion led to the involvement of Ufot.
Whatever led to the two failed-attempts at staging a Nigerian Pavilion, Kuku wanted to know from Ufot, perhaps to learn from the past and avoid possible mines ahead. Surprisingly, Ufot, according the artist-architect, denied federal government's involvement in the two botched attempts. "His reply was that there has never been a proposal to implement a Nigerian pavilion allegedly presented to the ministry of culture by institution or individual," Kuku disclosed.
One recalls that in 2013, a process was being started by actress, Ego Boyo-led Temple Production, in collaboration with the British Council Lagos to have a Pavilion titled Nigeria Rising: Journey to Venice Biennale at the 2015 edition of Venice Biennale Art Exhibition. During the first public forum for stakeholders, held at Moorehouse in Ikoyi, Lagos, the National Gallery of Art (NGA, which was represented at the forum, appeared not not in full support of the process.
But in Italy, two years after, Kuku was determined to change the narrative. He was delighted that the International Cultural Relations office had determination "to intervene in order to change the negative attitude assumed by the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia." Kuku's proposed exhibition in Rome, would later be converted into contents for the Nigerian Pavilion. With the effort of Ufot, a team, Kuku stated, was raised to ensure that the Nigerian Pavilion flies. An architect and director - Creative Intelligence association, Lagos, Mr. Koku Konu; and CEO Arthouse Contemporary Ltd, Mrs. Kavita Chellaram were the two individuals who worked behind the scene with Ufot.
However, the change of government back home nearly led to another botched attempt as the delay in ministerial nominees by President Muhammadu Buhari caused a friction between the ministry and the Venice Biennale organisers. "The Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia had insisted that for Nigeria to receive an official letter of invitation, the ‘proposal to participate’ letter was to be signed by the minister of culture, and the commissioner for the pavilion should also be from the ministry," Kuku said. Trouble started when the signature of the Permanent Secretary at the ministry appeared on the proposal for participation and was rejected by Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia. The organisers had insisted that only an acting minister’s signature would be accepted.
"But after a series of heated exchanges between Mr Ufot and the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia for not accepting the signature of the Permanent Secretary, Lai Muhammed was nominated as Minister of Information and Culture." Kuku recalled how Ufot's "relentless efforts continued immediately after the nomination of the new minister by presenting the letter for the minister’s signature."
A national Pavilion is the responsibility of governmental agency of home country. For an individual to have initiated the idea and brought the government into in midway, perhaps, created some challenges for the ongoing Nigerian Pavilion. "The 15th International Architecture, Venice Ma-November 2016, was actually introduced to the Ministry through the effort of Architect Kuku," Ufot stated via email. But government's involvement, he added, was mere endorsement, regretting the ministry's inability to support Kuku's exhibition financially. "While we have been able to support the administrative and political process of being part of the Exposition, it has not been possible in the area of financial support as the project was not included in the 2016 budget," Ufot explained. "We genuinely appreciate the brilliant effort of Arc kuku and his team in making it possible for the country to participate in this important international outing."
Perhaps, in the future, a Nigerian Pavilion would enjoy the support of government. "It is our fervent hope that the Nigerian Government will support more adequately future exhibitions in this direction."
Specifically, what actually went wrong in the failed attempts of the pasts? "I have no comment," Ufot replied.
Quite amazing that in the year of Nigeria’s first showing at Venice Biennale, most remarkable achievements came from the Diaspora. While Kuku made history mounting the first ever Nigerian Pavilion, another architect, Kunle Adeyemi who is based in The Netherlands was given a Silver Lion Award for his Makoko Floating School work at the same event.
About Kuku’s Diminished Capacity: The theme, according to Kuku is aimed at highlighting awareness of the contemporary global phenomenon of 'Socio-Cultural Conflicts', with specific focus on the role of 'Information Communication' and the 'Mass Media.'
“The contemporary sociology of mass media communication reveals a consistent presentation of agendas rather than reports which are illustrated by selected interest in particularities, focus and oversight.’
“The main statement of the exhibition was a text written in neon - 'Africa is not a country'! This was to serve as a reminder to Nigeria, that the perception of the continent is not consensus with what we are!
“When there was famine in Ethiopia, it was United Supports of Artists for Africa (USA); when aids was rampant, it was aids started in Africa and so on. That is diminished capacity! Hence, is Nigeria part of the assumed country called Africa, or is Nigeria the leading country on the continent called Africa?”
International support for the Nigerian Pavilion came from two galleries in Brussels, (LMS Gallery and Philippe Laeremans Tribal Art Gallery) and The University where I teach the international masters programme (KU Leuven - St Lucas Architectuur, Gent).