Chinese Artists Take Over Kenyan Pavilion at Italian Art Fair

Visitors at this year’s Biennale, one of the world’s most important international art fairs, will learn something rather strange when the exhibit opens on May 9: The exhibit’s Kenyan pavilion features almost exclusively Chinese artists.

The Biennale is an international contemporary art fair that takes place in Venice every two years. Over thirty countries, including Kenya and the U.S., have their own permament slots – so called pavilions – here. Most countries appoint a governmental committee that select artists for their respective pavilion. In Kenya, however, the government played no role. Instead, Paola Poponi, an Italian curator that has never set her foot in Kenya, was given free reigns to select artists as she pleased.

This inevitably poses a couple of rather unnerving questions: Why is Poponi in charge? Furthermore, why has Poponi selected artists that have, like her, neither been to Kenya, nor referenced Kenya in their artwork?

According to NPR’s East Africa Correspondent Gregory Warner, who has been speaking to Poponi as well as to other curators and artists, the reason remains unclear.

“Talking about art FROM ANOTHER PART OF THE WORLD during an art exhition can be useful for KENYA,” wrote Poponi in an email addressed to Warner, asserting that the exhibit actually features two Kenyan artists.

However, Yvonne Amolo, the only ethnic Kenyan artist at the Biennale, lives in Switzerland and has no ties to the contemporary Kenyan art scene while the other exhibited artist, Armando Tanzini, is Italian-born and lives in Malini – a coastal town mostly populated by foreign politicians and Formula One racers.

Tanzini has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a Kenyan pavilion at the Biennale. The problem, he says, is that the money he used wasn’t all his. Some of it came from private sponsors, who, while Tanzini has never confirmed it, are presumably Chinese.

“The government of Kenya, they don’t know about this important exhibition,” he said. “Unfortunately, if I want to bring Africa, or Kenya, I must compromise in some way.”

In response to the absence of Kenyan artists at the Biennale, a Nairobi-based organization calling itself “Kenya Contemporary” has addressed a petition to the Kenyan Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts.

“Due to multiple failures in our systems, local and international platforms where Kenyan artists and our socio-creative infrastructure can gain capital have been poorly managed, misrepresented and outrightly appropriated,” reads part of the petition, which refers to the Biennale as an exhibition of “profound global significance.”

"The Shame in Venice 1" by Michael Soi, shared on his Facebook page.

“The Shame in Venice 1” by Michael Soi, shared on his Facebook page.

Nairobi-based visual artist Michael Soi recently shared a series of satirical paintings entitled “The Shame in Venice” on Facebook, offering his take on this year’s Biennale.

“Misinformation, corruption and lack of information regarding the participation into the Biennale itself,” Soi told a reporter from OkayAfrica when asked about what he thought could explain the artistic misrepresentation at the Biennale. “And of course, lack of government support towards having a proper Kenyan pavilion.”

Instead of the current Kenyan roster, which comprises six Chinese and only two Kenyan artists, Soi said he would much rather have seen contemporary artists like Wangechi Mutu, Naomi Wanjuki Gakunga, Peterson Kamwathi, Paul Onditi, Richard Kimathi, Jimmy Ogonga and Jim Chuchu.

“The list is as long as the Great Wall of China,” he added.

Originally from Sweden, Chris is a journalist with an extensive interest for African culture and the arts.