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Critics and investigative journalists have both had a lot to say about the African Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Kim Gurney explains why

Liza Littlewort,Untitled(Machiavelli’s Message to Robert Storr), 2007,Ink, watercolour,gouache, pencil,saliva and splashesof tea on paper. Courtesy of the Artist and ArtheatA special African Pavilion will this year be included in the prestigious 52nd Venice Biennale, which takes place from June 10 until November 21 under the curatorship of Robert Storr, an American curator and critic who was recently named Dean of the Yale School of Art. This significant gesture was intended, in Storr’s words, to point the way to “a greater, more permanent inclusiveness in areas of the world and of art making too long overlooked in the international exhibition circuit”. However, the selection of an exhibition for the Pavilion, drawn from the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, has been contentious on various fronts –in particular ethical concerns around its provenance as well as showcasing art from just one source comprising work that is not necessarily ‘new’.

The Dokolo collection comprises over 500 works by 140 artists from 28 different countries. The resulting exhibition, entitled Check List, will be curated by Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami, organisers respectively of the Luanda Triennial and Africa Remix exhibitions, and housed in the Artiglierie space of the Arsenale. This decision was announced on February 14 after an open call for submissions from interested parties. The Venice Biennale selection panel was impressed with the winning project’s curatorial strengths and viewed the Dokolo initiative as “a signal undertaking within the context of art patronage in Africa generally”. The art world is unconvinced, for various reasons. The collection, it is pointed out, was largely acquired from a prominent German collector and is not the result of sustained patronage. More serious concerns have also been raised about the political and business connections of its patron. In February, online magazine Artnet reported that “Dokolo’s father, Sanu, created the Bank of Kinshasa, which channelled money to members of his own family — including his son Sindika, then still a minor — bilking the state and normal depositors of more than $80-million when it imploded in 1986”. Based in part on an article published in French-language newspaper La Conscience, the report, widely picked up by the media afterwards, further accused Sanu Dokolo’s heirs of “mafia-like” activity. It also detailed the implications of the patron’s marriage to Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos.

The selection process itself also involved dissension. Two of the founders of the Forum for African Arts, which organised the African pavilion during 2001, 2003 and 2005, were “outraged” and “strongly disappointed” at the open call. Curators Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor wrote last year that it was a deliberate attempt to undermine the Africa in Venice project and its African Pavilion. They called on Storr to reconsider and factor in the Forum’s developed proposal to be curated by Chika Okeke-Agulu.

However, Olu Oguibe, also a board member of Forum for African Arts, disagreed. In a response circulated to concerned parties, he said the open call was a very positive and commendable development and the Africa Forum should not turn themselves into “gatekeepers”. Director of Art Collections at Iziko Museums Marilyn Martin is also a board member of the Forum for African Arts. She questioned the functioning of the Forum’s board in an open letter to Hassan. In addition, Martin said it was a shame there was still a need for an African Pavilion rather than national pavilions or spaces.

“Taking responsibility for the way in which our artists and our aesthetic production are represented remains critical and requires our focus,” she said. “This controversy and debate may just be instrumental in unlocking the necessary commitment and action and I hope that the Forum for African Arts can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.” The previous Venice Biennale in 2005 did not have any specific African representation, in contrasttoits twopreviousiterations. However, seven South African artists were included in the Italian Pavilion and the Arsenale.

Kim Gurney is Johannesburg-based freelance writer and news editor of Art South Africa

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