by Mary Pettas blogger
A dozen artists from China and Kenya present a seemingly united front at the Kenyan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, under the umbrella of ‘Reflective Nature: A New Primary Enchanting Sensitivity’ – an exhibition that aesthetically bonds the natural African landscape and the consumerist instincts of the modern world. The project has managed to divide public opinion, with some labelling it neo-colonial and corrupt.
Split in two, between Caserma Cornoldi in the mainland and the island of San Servolo, the Kenyan Pavilionprompts, for the first time, a synergy between Kenyan and Chinese artists. Among them, African artist Mbuno Kivuthi, Italian sculptor Armando Tanzini (a Kenya resident for decades) and Chinese painter Feng Zhengjie, joined by Italo-Brazilian artist César Meneghetti in a special project, all set to identify, reveal and explore the natural borders within, and outside of ourselves. The presence of only two local artists, however, didn’t go unnoticed by the those in the art world, and many have commented on the lack of representatives from the emerging modern Kenyan art scene, and the failure of the Pavilion to adequately represent or even reference Kenya’s cultural and artistic traditions.
Artistic collaboration between local and foreign artists is a fact that would normally go unnoticed in the Biennale; France has chosen an Albanian artist for their pavilion this year, for example, and the Germany pavilion sees four artists of Chinese, Indian, South Africanand France nationalities on show. Yet for a country whose art scene is so grossly underrepresented, the dominance of Chinese artists and simultaneous eclipsed presence of Kenyan creative forces, here, raises concerns of a more sinister political, commercial and cultural nature. Dr. Wenny Teo, Iwan and Manuela Wirth lecturer of modern and contemporary Asian Art at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, wrote in a relevant article for The Art Newspaper that ‘… the exhibition is a stunning example of present day Orientalism, and its cursory inclusion of the two Kenyan artists is Primitivism at its very worst.’ Naming her article, Orientalism As Multiculturalism at the Kenya Pavilion, she talks of the ‘blatant marginalization of Kenyan artists,’ in a national pavilion show that was, in addition, put together by two Italian curators. With these issues and questions in mind, we present you the twelve participants of an exhibition that have generated such controversy:
Settled in Kenya, via stops in Florence, Paris and the US, Livornese sculptor Tanzini(b. 1943) has been confessing in multiple ways his love for this magical and troubled land. Having tasted the most cosmopolitan facets of art (he hung out with Andy Warhol while in the US), he eventually fell for African tribal art – a critical encounter in his career, that turned him from painting to sculpting and architecture. In addition to his artistic production, Tanzini established ‘Do Not Forget Africa,’ a foundation created to increase public sensibility on both social and cultural issues in the continent, winning the UNESCO prize in 2000. Among other important exhibitions around the world, the artist represented the Kenyan Pavilion in the 50th Venice Biennale.