© Copyright 2015 The Economist
This year’s Venice Biennale will be even more surprising than usual, thanks to its Nigerian-born curator
OKWUI ENWEZOR, the artistic director of the 2015 Venice Biennale, which opens next month, speaks the slippery, abstract language so common to high-flying contemporary-art curators. An exhibition, he declares, is “a project that will be located in a dialectical field of references and artistic practices”. Anyone wanting a clear sense of what he thinks should look at what he does rather than what he says.
For 30 years Mr Enwezor has been a curator and critic, intent on stretching the canon of traditional Western contemporary art and testing what it might become. The youngest son of an intellectual Igbo family, at 18 Mr Enwezor left Nigeria for New York where he met a number of African-American artists, including Glenn Ligon, a favourite of Barack Obama.
Seeking a way to make his mark, in 1994 he founded Nka, a journal about contemporary African art. Shortly after, Mr Enwezor got his first big break, curating the fledgling Johannesburg Biennale. It won him, at 35, one of Europe’s leading curatorial jobs, overseeing Documenta, a prestigious exhibition that takes place in Kassel in Germany every five years. Now he heads Haus der Kunst in Munich, a cutting-edge museum that is a natural springboard for Venice.
The Venice Biennale is made up of over 80 national shows and a central exhibition curated by the artistic director. Whereas the national pavilions are often rich with explicit geopolitical connotations, the Biennale’s own sprawling show has generally shunned politics. Not this year. Titled “All the World’s Futures”, Mr Enwezor’s exhibition will include work by 136 artists from 53 countries—much of it concerned with the “politics of the image”.
Mr Enwezor has a reputation for being a left-wing martinet. In the coming months, his politics, as well as his aesthetics, will be put to the test as he mingles with the millionaires who patronise the Biennale and the defiant artists that he has invited to mock the global financial establishment.
Seasoned Biennale visitors will not be surprised that artists are intent on portraying their disapproval of the 1%; two years ago a British artist, Jeremy Deller, created a mural in which a giant William Morris, a Victorian social reformer, hurled a super-yacht belonging to Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch, to its doom. Mr Enwezor has invited Mr Deller back; this time he’ll create an installation honouring factory workers from the 1860s.
The forces behind the global economy are one of Mr Enwezor’s obsessions. This year, in the exhibition’s grandest room at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, actors will read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” out loud: all four volumes, including the footnotes. Other works will act as counterpoints to Marx: Andreas Gursky’s record-priced, large-scale photographs of stock exchanges and, at the other end of the political spectrum, Hans Haacke’s controversial opinion polls, which have, for over 40 years, asked the public questions about the politics and finances of individual art-world patrons.
The show’s second main theme derives from Mr Enwezor’s zeal for discovering and promoting the work of unknown young artists, especially those from Africa and the African diaspora. One of the notable recent developments in the art world has been the great commercial success of artists of African descent, who are represented by powerful dealers in London and New York, such as Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Victoria Miro and Luhring Augustine. Serious contemporary-art buyers increasingly feel that their collections are lacking if they do not include carefully chosen works by leading black artists.
Mr Enwezor has invited a number of well-known black names, such as Mr Ligon, Chris Ofili, Wangechi Mutu, Ellen Gallagher, Kerry James Marshall, Isaac Julien, Theaster Gates and Lorna Simpson. They all explore the history of race relations and the politics of beauty, putting their own particular stamp on contemporary art.
A new generation of artists who live and work in Africa will also be on show. Ibrahim Mahama, a 28-year-old from Tamale, Ghana, will have the largest work in the Biennale. Along a 200-metre stretch of wall on the outside of the nearby Arsenale will be a giant tapestry made from brightly patterned fabrics and the burlap sacks that are used to transport coal and the other commodities that form the backbone of the Ghanaian economy.
Found materials like this are also an important feature of the work of many artists in Mozambique, where 15 years of civil war left behind tonnes of armaments. Gonçalo Mabunda is one of several who use decommissioned weapons to make “gun throne” sculptures (another is Cristovao Canhavato—also known as Kester—whose work is one of the mainstays of the African collection at the British Museum).
Traditional artistic materials like paints and pencils are likely to be used for graphic ends. Nidhal Chamekh, a young Tunisian, will show his “martyr drawings”, which depict flayed and dissected bodies in frightful anatomical detail. Meanwhile, Karo Akpokiere, from Nigeria, will present a series of droll paintings inspired by the fast-moving pop culture that has emerged in Lagos, Africa’s most populous city. Defiant, satirical and full of energy, these works embody the new artistic forces that Mr Enwezor is bringing to the world’s biggest art exhibition.