The Venice Hustle

How an Italian hotelier came to represent Kenya at the Venice Biennale.

Armando Tanzini's collage of green flip-flops – in the shape of the African continent.

How has an Italian hotelier, albeit one who has long-standing ties to Malindi, managed to take over the Kenyan Pavillion at the 2015 Venice Biennale? Armando Tanzini has lived on the Kenya coast for 45 years, and has made a lot of ‘stuff’, from carved driftwood elephants, to baobab trees, to beach villas, to bad collages made from “found materials” – including green flip-flops – in the shape of the African continent. I will grant him the fact that he is known as much for this as he is for mingling with wealthy Italians who holiday in Malindi. However, he is entirely disconnected from the contemporary Kenyan art and culture scene, and has not been known to attempt to get to know Kenyan artists, let alone to represent them.

When the news broke that this Italian hustler was running the Kenya Pavillion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, SkepticAfro alerted the African arts and culture community via Twitter:

Kenyan artist Michael Soi also contributed, quickly creating a couple of satirical works to help us visualize what’s going on.

There’s history to Tanzini’s Kenyan “hustle.”

Back in 2013, a Kenyan Pavilion mysteriously popped up at the 55th International Biennale di Venice. It was commissioned by an Italian woman, Paola Poponi, and ‘curated’ by an Italian man, Sandro Orlandi, a double act previously unknown to  the Kenyan arts and culture scene. The show consisted of 12 artists; one, this long-term Italian resident in Malindi, Armando Tanzini (whose work had shown at Venice ten years previous, also ‘on behalf’ of Kenya), alongside 8 Chinese, 1 Italo-Brazilian, and only 2 Kenyans. Another thing to note is that Orlandi had been involved in Biennial Italy-China, a project that had brought Italian artists into dialogue with Chinese. (Not-so-surprisingly, a couple of the Chinese artists from that endeavour were now exhibiting in this show, as part of the Kenya Pavilion. Orlandi had also previously curated Syria’s Pavilion at the 54th Venice biennial.) You get the picture.

Not much factual information can be found on this project; the Internet, usually brimming with juice on things that take place in such a public realm, is remarkably barren. One blogger at Culture Trip tried to be optimistic about the mish-mash: “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’.” Tanzini is described as an artist who:

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.

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.”

Enough said.

Because of this sordid history, it’s no wonder that people already had their doubts about this year’s Kenya Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. And again, it features mostly Chinese artists, and Armando Tanzini. And again, it is commissioned by Paola Poponi and curated by Sandro Orlandi, though he seems to have bagged himself a deputy in Ding Xuefeng. It must have been tricky to rally the Chinese artists from such a distance, so perhaps they thought it better to have a man on the ground. The concept is laughably called ‘Creating Identities’ – which tells us that there isn’t even an attempt to disguise the insincerity of the curatorial construct this time.

The outrage this time is palpable. Artists and writers and bloggers and gallerists and twitterers are fuming, an online petition has been drawn up, and last week, the Minister of Culture called a meeting in Nairobi to discuss the whole fiasco. Only, he never showed up. According to Binyavanga Wainaina, the meeting was set for 2pm. A group of arts and literary people converged in a meeting room and were told to wait. Apparently they waited, and waited, and at some point the group were told that the minister was at the mosque praying, as it was a Friday (so why was the meeting for Friday afternoon?). So they waited again, and then a special-branchish type came to sit with them, and then they waited some more, and then they were asked by someone else why they were waiting, and then they went to Trattoria to drink beer, since they met no-one and got no answers.

Since their inception, National Pavilions at the Venice Biennale have been an opportunity for countries to present themselves in new, idiosyncratic, progressive ways, to celebrate cultural, national identities on a world stage, and to artistically engage in critical conversation with one another. It’s a big responsibility to host a Pavilion, as it falls upon each individual country to determine the design, the curation and the funding for their Pavilion independently, with no set method. Governments, Ministries of Culture, and the relevant powers-that-be of each country adds its voice to the conversation, meticulously choosing its artists and curators to ensure its voice – and “cultural face” – is heard and seen by the powerful world of fine art, which consist of chosen artists, celebrity tastemaker-curators, and billionaire buyers. Together, they can change the way in which we visualise a nation.

As an artist, when you think about the Venice Biennale and what it might feel like to be selected to represent your country in it, you probably start by questioning the legitimacy of your own voice whilst being caught offguard by the notion that the nation state has anything to do with your art. As artist Tavares Strachan who represented the Bahamas in the last biennial says, “Most artists might argue that the process of artistic practice now is more about being a citizen of the world than representing one particular place”. Yet you are presumably expected to explore your own sense of national identity a bit, since the responsibility must be to determine, within the confines of your practice, your country, and the context of the global contemporary, what representation truly means. In the run-up to the last Biennale, Art Review published a series of questionnaires with artists from around the world, asking what it meant to represent their country in the National Pavilions. The words ‘problematic honour’ stood out, not quite an oxymoron, but certainly indicative of the complex pressure beheld by such a nomination.

Personally, I’ve always had a fragile notion of the meaning of ‘home’. I was born in Kenya to a Kikuyu mother and fourth generation British Kenyan father, raised in the Middle East, and now live and work in London. In moments of whimsy, hypothetical contemplation I’ve often wondered, if I had to fight a war, which country would I risk my life for? If I have children, where would I root them? When I reach old age, which veranda would I like to be sitting on, watching which sunset? And as an artist, of course, which country would I want to represent in the Venice Biennale?

The answer to all these questions is Kenya. Of course, Kenya. So, in 2013, it was with heart-happy delight that I read that Kenya was to have its own Pavilion. And later, when I read that the Kenyan Pavilion was described as “a frightening manifestation of neo-colonialism vulgarly presented as multiculturalism”, “Primitivism at its very worst”, “To be avoided like the plague”, my heart sank with a mighty thud.

I recall the name Tanzini from childhood holidays spent at rented villas on Casurina Beach in Malindi, of which he had designed almost all. A longterm resident to Malindi, Tanzini’s biography says things like, “Tanzini’s vision of Africa is very different from the majority of European artists. He sees Africa not as an exterior land but rather the fulcrum of all civilizations. Africa is not just a geographical area, it is a central point fully connected to the universe. The West gives little time to understanding that Africa gave birth to us all… but like a mother, she waits patiently…”. So sensitive to the plight of Africa, he set up a foundation called Do Not Forget Africa, just in case we did. Rumour has it the president owns some of his work. Over 45 years, he made Kenya his ‘home’, and carved a niche (and an obscene number of exotic wild animals and maps of Africa) for himself as artist, architect, and designer. And so it is without malice that I understand that, when he sits on his veranda and contemplates whimsy things, he too must have imagined ‘representing’ Kenya at Venice – though I imagine he probably assumed he would be doing it an enormous benevolent Western favour in the process. So, when he saw a huge gaping hole in the cultural framework of Kenya, where the governmental departments responsible for providing a healthy infrastructure onto which their artists can thrive seemingly gave no fucks, he thought nothing of the problematic honour entailed; he put his opportunist thinking cap on, grabbed his mercenary Italian curatormates, dug into Chinese pockets in return for allowing some of their substandard artists to exhibit, and crudely threw in a couple of token Kenyan artists, whose work bore no relevance to current art practices coming out of Nairobi at the time, as a way of legitimizing this cynical, perverse vanity project. As commentators have since discussed, in the spirit of critical engagement that the Venice Biennale champions so strongly, this could have been a clever curatorial conceit, commenting on the confluence of both Italy and China on Kenya’s growing economy. Only it wasn’t. Bizarrely titled ‘Reflective nature: a new enchanting sensitivity’, a title that, let’s face it, means nothing at all, it was a befuddled, baffling, perverse hodgepodge of poorly realised artworks, “summed up,” as East African art dealer Ed Cross says, by “the main instigator, Armando Tanzini’s carved African woman. This piece (most likely not carved by him as he is in the habit of paying African artists to produce work for him under questionable ethical circumstances) seems to hint at his relationship with Africa. The unfortunate woman lies prostrate on the floor with her well rounded “African bottom” raised invitingly for someone to take advantage of.”

Back in 2013, The Kenyan Pavilion was the laughing stock of the Biennale. People were livid. How could Kenya have got it so wrong? There was so much artistic energy coming out of Kenya. As @skepticafro tweeted, Kenya gave the world Wangechi Mutu. The whole thing didn’t make sense. Who were the jokers responsible, and what on earth could they possibly have done? I read on. It wasn’t a Kenyan Pavilion at all, it was a shitshow. A farce. A really bad joke told really badly with no punchline. Told by this opportunist named Armando Tanzini and his merry band of ill-fitting, below parr Chinese artists and Italian imposters. This wasn’t Kenya’s voice. 

Then, artists and arts organisations in Nairobi rallied. The Minister of Culture was called upon in vain. I followed some of it as best I could from London for a while. And then, I admit, the whole sorry story left my mind. 

And now here we are, this year, with Okwui Enwezor at the helm of what is set to be the most inclusive Biennale to date, with 36 artists of African descent (including Wangechi Mutu) exhibiting in their own right in the central Pavilion. Would Kenya rise triumphant, claiming back its Pavilion and heralding the powerful artistic voices that shouted in outrage two years ago? I had visions of Wangechi Mutu’s goddesses singing chopped up, collaged Kikuyu arias about what it means to be a woman in the world, to the world. Or maybe we would be invited to peer into Arlene Wandera’s dollshouse interiors, or consider our bodies against Gor Soudan’s wire mesh limbs. Or maybe the Pavilion would be lined with dozens of paintings by the prolific Michael Soi, detailing the quirks of Nairobi life. Or, perhaps, Boniface Mwangi would be invited to fill the Pavilion with fat, blooded, squealing pigs; after all, it is the true sign of a progressive government to allow satire and vigorous critique. There were so many possibilities.

But no. No. Tanzini and his henchmen have triumphed again, and my heart – and the credibility of the Kenyan Pavilion – is set to sink further still.

But the real problem here isn’t Tanzini. The problem isn’t the extreme lack of critical curatorial intention at the last Kenyan Pavilion. The problem isn’t the inclusion of Chinese and Italian artists and the exclusion of Kenyan ones. These are all the metastases. The problem – the tumour – is that the powers-at-be don’t seem to care enough about Kenya’s cultural voice. How else would they allow a regressive, dishonest, cynical, cronied neo-colonial (and frankly just not very good) voice to continuously speak for the country at one of the most prestigious international jamborees in Contemporary Art’s calendar?

The author of this Crytical Paradoxes blogpost, which re-alerted me this year to the fiasco, sent out a call to arms. It says: “The Kenyan artists have their rock and cellphone. The rock is their knowledge and desire to shape their own lives, while their cell phone is their connectedness, among themselves and with the rest of the world, with access to a massive network of people with a similar conviction, linking them all together to form a formidable matrix.” My initial tweet last week, which lead to this longer post was:

 #Kenya artists! Why haven’t we thrown our rocks hard enough to claim back our Pavilion after the ’13 fiasco? #Venice

When I sit in moments of contemplative, hypothetical whimsy, and consider which country I one day would dream my voice could represent at Venice, the answer, of course, is Kenya. Not yet, and maybe never. This is a (problematic) honour that must be worked for and earned. But it is so important to me and to all of Kenya’s current and future artists that we work now on the powers-at-be, to create a viable, credible stage for our voices to be heard. We must throw our rocks now, and vow for this never, ever to happen again.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.