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Why Are Chinese Artists Representing Kenya At The Venice Biennale?

Mar 30, 2015
Originally published on April 17, 2015 12:57 am

There's something sketchy at this year's Venice Biennale — the international art exhibition sometimes dubbed the Olympics of the contemporary art world.

When you come to the Kenyan pavilion, almost all of the artists will be ... Chinese.

The Biennale, one of the oldest and most important exhibitions of contemporary art in the world, takes place in Venice every two years. Thirty countries, including the U.S., have a permanent slot.

About 50 other countries have applied for their own exhibition space, called a pavilion. The East African country of Kenya hosted its first pavilion in 2013 and plans to host another this year, featuring mainly Chinese nationals. None of them have apparently ever been to Africa or reference it in their work.

The controversial roster — including contemporary artists Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang, and others — has provoked outrage among Kenyan bloggers and artists. It's also provoked a sense of deja vu — the same thing happened in 2013. Kenya's first-ever pavilion was also overwhelmingly Chinese.

"I was a member of the jury for the last Biennale in 2013 and the Kenyan Pavilion was shambolic," writes Olabisi Silva on Facebook. The founder and director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria, wrote that the Kenyan pavilion was "full of Chinese and Italian artists with some [Kenyan artists] in a dark room."

"A frightening manifestation of neocolonialism vulgarly presented as multiculturalism," wrote Wenny Teo in a critique of the 2013 exhibit, "to be avoided like the plague."

In Nairobi, where the Kenyan contemporary art scene is gaining traction with serious art buyers, the news is being felt not just as an artistic flop but as a colossal missed opportunity. "It's a kick in the stomach," says Sylvia Gichia, director of Kuona Trust, an artist's collective and residency program in Nairobi. Organizations like hers work hard to bring Nairobi's artistic renaissance to a global audience via art fairs and art auctions.

Needless to say she is dismayed that the 370,000 art lovers who visit the Biennale will see none of the work that's driving the contemporary Kenyan scene. "What," Gichia asks, "do the Chinese have to do with visual arts in Kenya?"

Nobody in Kenya's government will answer that question. (Calls and texts to the personal cellphone of Nairobi's minister of culture, Hassan Wario, went unanswered.) In most countries, the government either selects the artists or assigns that duty to a private gallery. In Kenya, the government apparently played no role other than to fob off the job to an Italian curator, Paola Poponi.

Poponi cannot say she has ever set foot in Kenya, but her official title is "commissioner" of the Kenyan pavilion, the same title she held in 2013. She defended the choice of artists, in an email liberal with capitalizations, saying that the Kenyan pavilion ably expressed the international theme of this 56th Biennale, which is All The World's Futures.

Poponi wrote, "Talking about art FROM ANOTHER PART OF THE WORLD during an art exhibition can be useful for KENYA, always more able to create its OWN IDENTITY." She said that art should not be constrained by geography and explained in a follow-up email that "MEETING THE REST OF THE WORLD" would enable Kenyan artists to analyze their own experiences "more deeply." 


But if Poponi's goal is to expand the vision of Kenyan artists and have them "meet" the rest of the world, what better way than to invite Kenyans to the Biennale exhibition?

Poponi wrote back to say that the pavilion does feature Kenyans. Two of them. The one ethnic Kenyan in this pavilion — Yvonne Amolo, who has won awards for her film about racism — lives in Switzerland and has no connection to the contemporary Kenyan art scene.

The other Kenyan citizen is a 72-year-old Italian-born painter, sculptor and real estate magnate who has lived in the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi for nearly a half a century. Armando Tanzini sits at the heart of this controversy, because he's the only artist whose work has appeared in both the 2013 and 2015 Kenyan pavilions.

On his Facebook page, Tanzini describes what he is all about:

"I love Africa, I love it with its endless qualities and its anful defects, I love it because it's innocent and poor, I love it like I love all my neighbors, also the rich one, but the poor — uncomfortable — are signals. Why don't we turn our head to this forgotten world placed under Equator? Why don't we try to help them to make concrete the huge richness of their land and their souls? Not as missionaries, but as smart and sincere managers, ready to give and receive. I've been working with them for 30 years, testing several irrational economies such as tourism, agriculture, handcraft, estate activities and so on. I discovered that only magic of creativity could face those economic appalling emergencies, especially in artistic and scientific fields."

I sat down with Tanzini last week in a cafe in Nairobi to understand how the pavilion had come to be. He spoke proudly of the art workshops he holds for Kenyan children at his exclusive beachfront lodge. He described with awe his adopted hometown, Malindi, where he first bought property in the late '60s. That was long before the town would become known as Kenya's "Little Italy" for its palatial Italian resorts frequented by Formula One racers and celebrity politicians.

Tanzini, a prominent figure in this Italian scene, doesn't mingle much with Kenya's contemporary artists. But when I asked him about the controversy around Kenya's pavilion, he explained that if not for his efforts, Kenya would not have any pavilion at all.

"The government of Kenya, they don't know about this important exhibition, the Biennale," he says. "I try several times to help them to understand."

Finally, in 2013, with the government's approval, he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Kenya a pavilion and organize the show. This year he says it wasn't solely his money. He had other private sponsors. But again, no funding was forthcoming from Kenya's government. "Unfortunately, if I want to bring Africa, or Kenya, I must compromise in some way," he said. "Compromise because we have no[t] the money."


Tanzini wouldn't elaborate on what this compromise was, or where the additional money had come from, or if the commercially successful Chinese artists in the pavilion were invited because they, too, could also pay their own way.

But if you were tasked with organizing a show in Venice and you wanted to find artists with the money and incentive to chip in on the sizable entrance fee, you would do well to look to the Chinese. Davide Quadrio, a curator of Chinese contemporary art at Arthub Asia in Shanghai, says he knows "many artists" that "buy their introduction to Venice. And they don't even care about the venue anymore. Or the credibility of the show."

The reason, he explains, is the outsized value of the Venice imprimatur to domestic Chinese collectors. Chinese artists can sell their work for more money if they can say they've shown in the prestigious biennial exhibition.

"Somehow Venice became a sort of brand for many organizations in China to position their artist inside China," he says. "The value that Venice represents in contemporary art for China? Is actually the China market."

That doesn't make Kenyan artists feel any better. Even Tanzini admits that he feels "guilty" and "sad" because he would like to bring other Kenyan artists than himself.

When I asked him which artists he would have liked to bring, I expected him to name a leading Nairobi-based artist like Peterson Kamwathi or Sam Hopkins or Miriam Kyambi.

Instead, he gestured to his young Kenyan secretary, Sarah, sitting next to him on the couch. (Moments earlier, while Tanzini had been using the restroom, she had told me that she wasn't an artist but had quite enjoyed participating in some of Tanzini's workshops.) "She has such talent," Tanzini insisted. She does "amazing work with rubber."

A petition circulating on Change.org, titled Renounce Kenya's fraudulent Representation at 56 Venice Biennial 2015, proclaims that "a group of well connected persons, who lack neither the intellectual nor creative capacity to represent Kenya's contemporary art to the international arena, are posturing to the world as the Kenyan Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial in Italy."

The Biennale would not respond to requests for comment. When the exhibition opens on May 9, participants will have to contend with Kenyan protesters, who say they'd rather have no pavilion at all than one that doesn't represent their country. Novelist Binyavanga Wainaina told me that "we have people there, watching out for it, watching out to document it."

He was quick to point out that his issue is not with the Biennale nor with Tanzini but with Kenya's Ministry of Culture — and Kenya's dismissive attitude toward the arts.

"That this parody could happen two years ago was already far from excusable," Wainaina said. That it would happen a second time, without government comment, he says, is "farcical."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and most important exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. This year Kenya will be a part of the exhibition for only the second time. And NPR's Gregory Warner reports that there's something odd about the artists who have been chosen to represent that country - almost none of them are Kenyan.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Let me just start by reading some of the names of the artists representing Kenya in the Biennale this year: Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang - successful Chinese artists who've apparently never been to Africa nor engage it in their network. So what most of the 350,000 visitors to the Venice Biennale will never realize is that the Kenyan art scene is hot. Kenyan artists are gaining traction with international buyers and auction houses.

SYLVIA GICHIA: So for this to happen, it's just kind of a kick in the stomach.

WARNER: Sylvia Gichia is the director of an artist collective and residency program in Nairobi called Kuona Trust. She says the same thing happened with the Venice Biennale in 2013, where Kenya's first-ever pavilion was also overwhelmingly Chinese artists.

GICHIA: What does the Chinese have to do with the visual arts in Kenya?

WARNER: Nobody in Kenya's government will answer that question. In most countries, the government either makes selections or signs the job to a private gallery. In this case, the most active Kenyan citizen involved in the planning seems to have been an Italian-born painter who has lived half a century in the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi.

AMANDO TANZINI: Yes, I have - I think I have the best land that is in Malindi.

WARNER: But 72-year-old Armando Tanzini is studiously vague about what he actually does for a living, other than paint and sculpt and run a B&B.

TANZINI: I believe that things come from the sky, do you know? If I need money, the money come.

WARNER: And in 2013 a lot of money did come. With the government's approval, he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Kenya a pavilion and organize the show. This year he's again in the show, though he says it wasn't solely his money. He says he had other private sponsors. But again, no funding from Kenya's government.

TANZINI: Unfortunately, if I want to bring Africa or Kenya, I must compromise in some way.

WARNER: What do you mean?

TANZINI: Compromise because we have no the money.

WARNER: Tanzini would not say what this compromise was or where the additional money came from or if the successful Chinese artists in the pavilion were invited because they also could pay their own way. But if you did want to find artists with the money and with the incentive to pay for a spot in Venice, you would probably look to the Chinese.

DAVIDE QUADRIO: There are many artists I know that they buy their introduction to Venice.

WARNER: Davide Quadrio is a curator of Chinese contemporary art at Arthub Asia in Shanghai.

QUADRIO: And they don't even care about the venue anymore or the credibility of the show.

WARNER: He says the Venice label is revered by Chinese collectors, and so Chinese artists can sell their work for more if they say they've shown there.

QUADRIO: And here I'm saying something a bit risky, but I don't care. The value that Venice represent in contemporary art for the China is actually the China market.

WARNER: Now, this does not make Kenyan artists feel any better. And even Armando Tanzini, the Italian living in Malindi, says he feels guilty that he's the only artist traveling from Kenya. The one other non-Chinese artist in the show was a Kenyan-born filmmaker living in Switzerland.

TANZINI: And I'm really sad - sad because I would like to bring somebody else than me.

WARNER: So here's this petition that's going around. I don't know if you've seen it.

Sadness switched to anger when I showed him a petition circulating on change.org.

But it says (reading) a group of well-connected people who lack neither intellectual or creative capacity to represent Kenya's contemporary art. They are posturing to the world as the Kenyan pavilion.

TANZINI: OK. Those stupid people, they speak about colors. We are speaking about that?

WARNER: I see. You think it's racist.

TANZINI: Absolutely.

WARNER: The Biennale would not respond to requests for comment. And in their defense, the Kenya pavilion is not the only one to feature artists who are non-nationals. But when the exhibition opens there will be Kenyan protesters in Venice who say they'd rather have no pavilion at all than one that so flagrantly does not represent their country. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.