There has been justified uproar in the art community over the shenanigans that took place at the Kenyan pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. The Venice Biennale is one of the most important fixtures in the art world. It brings together artists, art critics and art lovers from all over the world. Countries are given pavilions to show their best work to the world. The pavilions are owned by their respective countries and are a show of national pride or at least should be.
There are varying reports to whether this is Kenya’s first time in Venice as it’s indicated otherwise on the Venice Biennale website. If this is truly Kenya’s second time in Venice, the situation is even sadder than earlier imagined. No one noticed the first time Kenya participated and the second time was noticed for all the wrong reasons.
If you are still unaware, Kenya’s participation at the Venice Biennale has been marred by confusion and what can rightly be termed as misrepresentation. The Kenyan pavilion is being curated by an Italian, Paola Poponi, that is unknown in art circles and has only two Kenyan artists, Kivuthi Mbuno, Chrispus Wangombe Wachira, and eight Chinese artists. The Biennale as with all art promotes a spirit of collaboration but that cannot be argued in this case as Kenyan artists were not aware of the existence of the Kenyan pavilion. This observation was made by several journalists among them from the BBC , the East African and culture trip. The Kenyan pavilion is apparently a huge flop with the work being thought to be of poor artistic quality. It is quite an embarrassment for Kenya as a nation as it is after all, a national pavilion and anything that happens there is believed to be sanctioned by Kenya and a representation of Kenyan art.
South Africa had its first pavilion in 2011 and it’s still being talked about two years later. Zimbabwe takes its participation seriously with talk of President Robert Mugabe being actively involved in the process. This year was Angola’s first time in Venice and it did Africa proud by winning out of 88 contenders, the Golden Lion award for the best national participation. The curators from the three countries are professionals and the artists representing the said countries are nationals.
A lot of hard questions must be asked about Kenya’s poor showing in Venice. Why weren’t Kenyan artists aware of the pavilion? Why did the government sanction a misrepresentation of Kenyan art to travel to Venice? Who in the government oversaw said sanctioning? Why is China so largely featured in the Kenyan pavilion? Does it have something to do with the funding required to go to Venice that they are so many Chinese artists featured in the Kenyan pavilion? Why is the curator a largely unknown artist? What exactly is the process to getting a pavilion in Venice?
Kenya doesn’t take its arts and culture seriously. We also haven’t embraced contemporary Kenyan art. We’re still stuck in the Maasai shukas, curios and beads and have not realized there is so much more to Kenyan arts and culture that we can share with the world. We also need to realize that art isn’t a hobby or a pass time for people with nothing to do but a serious profession that can serve towards national pride.
What is the way forward? How do Kenyan artists and the government get to meet halfway? How do artists attract corporate funding? How do we as country elevate art to its rightful place in the society? The government should start by vetting some of these art bodies that claim to be supporting Kenyan art when in essence they are taking advantage of a loophole in the system to pursue their own agendas. Artists should also roll up their sleeves and get interested in playing a bigger role in the management affairs of the art circuit in Kenya or these kinds of things where they aren’t kept in the loop will continue to happen.
Art isn’t an elitist and abstract thing but acts as a custodian of a people’s heritage and a reflection of their existence. All over the world, people are proud to name and praise the artists from their country. The Kenyan pavilion at the Venice Biennale was a screw up. Kenyans should be angry that we are basically the laughing stock of Venice. How it happened must be investigated and the necessary actions taken. The next one is in 2015. Will we do it right this time or will we wait to be surprised and embarrassed again?
Why would Chinese artists represent Kenya at the Venice Biennale?