Dirty Laundry: Can we think beyond Venice?

Mario Pissarra, 7 June 2007

I have previously argued that Africa’s representation in Venice is irrelevant when compared to the need to develop alternatives at ‘home’. In essence my argument is that we should not judge the success of South African art (or African or ‘non-western’ art for that matter) by its presence or absence in the prime venues of the ‘international’ arena, of which the Venice Biennale is both a leading example and symbol. The health of a country’s art should not be judged by the number of international ‘stars’ it generates, since this may provide a false picture of the state of art in that country or region. Rather it should be evaluated on the quality and extent of its art practice, galleries and museums, art education, publishing, patronage, and all the critical components of art infrastructure that are essential for the development of art.

My argument is that by directing our energies at government to support representation in ‘Venice’ we effectively ignore fundamental challenges and inadvertently perpetuate an iniquitous system where Africa (and the ‘rest’) will always be judged according to its value in the ‘centre’ rather than in its own environment. Simply put, what should our priorities be if we are to develop a sustainable practice?

The recent choice of Check List, drawn exclusively from the Sindika Dokolo collection of contemporary African art, to represent Africa in Venice introduces some new dimensions into this debate. I refer specifically to the allegations by Ben Davis in Artnet that the Dokolo collection has been built on money looted during the last days of Mobutu’s rule in the Congo. What Davis did not emphasize was that this does not only cast a shadow on the forthcoming African exhibit in Venice, and by extension Venice itself, but also raises critical questions about the credibility of the fledgling Luanda Trienal of which the Dokolo collection is an integral part.

The implications of the Dokolo collection (and the collector’s ongoing patronage) being built on ‘dirty money’ are so depressing that some may choose to ignore Davis’ article or to read into it grounds for ‘afro-pessimism’, although it should be noted to Davis’ credit that he pointed out that many collections in the west were (or are) also built on dubious foundations.

The question arises as to whether the kind of money required to organize an exhibit in ‘Venice’ necessitates problematic alliances, or whether this is simply endemic to patronage of most large scale events. (Who remembers Mike Van Graan’s “Don’t Quibble with Kebble” article in Mail & Guardian, where the respected commentator urged critics to be grateful of Kebble’s support for the visual arts?) Dare one ‘bite the hand that feeds’ or be better advised to look the other way?

In reporting on the selection of Check List, ArtThrob demonstrates the prevalent tendency to avoid the difficult issues of patronage. ArtThrob noted that ‘eyebrows were raised’ at the idea of Check List being drawn from a single collection. No mention was made of Davis’ allegations. Is the question of Check List deriving from a single private source of any significant consequence, when it has been alleged that the collection itself amounts to little more than money laundering? Should we steer clear of these uncomfortable issues out of ‘solidarity’ with Check List’s curators Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami? When we keep quiet do we do it out of self-interest, and when we speak up do we commit professional suicide?

Ultimately what the debate around who should represent Africa in Venice does is to distract from asking harder questions: what kind of programmes really need to be developed for art on the African continent? Can we think beyond biennales?

Both Johannesburg and Cape Town biennales highlighted the phenomenon of large scale events being poorly attended by the wider public, a pattern that is repeated across Africa. While government support, or lack of, is a significant part of the problem a challenge remains for the art community to prove that it can develop a comprehensive vision and plans informed by local realities. Given the numerous difficulties we face it becomes far easier to lobby for representation in Venice, or to design events that are thinly disguised versions of imported models.

This was submitted for print publication early in April 2007 and an edited version appeared in Art South Africa vol. 5 no. 4, alongside other comment on Venice. Note that the online edition of Art South Africa contains a defence of the Dokolo collection by one Ray Duncan. Also note that three months after Artthrob first raised its eyebrows in March, Sue Williamson appears to be countering dissenters by citing Robert Storr and Olu Oguibe’s rejections of criticism of the Dokolo collection. See “Venice: What took so long?”


The day after posting this online I became aware for the first time of Sindika Dokolo’s response to the Artnet article, published on 18 May 2007 on Artnet. MP 8 June 2007.


  1. lola | September 6, 2007 at 12:00 am

    The first African Pavilion in Venice Biennale was in 1922.

    See the article by Iolanda Pensa.

    And think about why the second issue is just in 2007 !!

  2. Olu Oguibe | September 6, 2007 at 12:00 am


    You make a good point that "the health of a country's art should not be judged by the number of international stars it generates, since this may provide a false picture of the state of art in that country or region. Rather it should be evaluated on the quality and extent of its art practice, galleries and museums, art education, publishing, patronage, and all the critical components of art infrastructure that are essential for the development of art."

    But, your argument also reveals that you have no idea why nations and artists go to Venice. In other words, you do not understand what Venice is all about. And lack of understanding should not be presented as wisdom.

    A few centuries ago, Europe initiated the practice of world trade fairs. The Crystal Palace in London was built for that purpose, and the Chicago trade fair eventually became perhaps the most famous of those trade fairs. It was at the Chicago Trade Fair that ice tea was invented.

    The purpose of trade fairs was to give each emerging industrial nation an opportunity to showcase its most recent and significant scientific and cultural products and that way not only place it's progress alongside those of other nations, but even more importantly, show the world what it has to offer in terms of marketable resources. The trade fairs brought prestige to nations, proved that they did not lag behind other nations, promoted their intellectuals, and helped them build an international market.

    Today, international trade fairs continue: among them computer and electronics trade fairs, agricultural produce trade fairs, and perhaps most significantly, armaments trade fairs where nations display and hawk their weapons of mass destruction. Gains made at these fairs sometimes prove sufficient to sustain entire economies.

    The Venice Biennale was established at the end of the 19th century to serve this purpose: namely to parallel the trade fairs and provide each nation opportunity to showcase the latest and most significant of its visual culture. Egypt was invited to establish a pavilion for the first edition of the Venice Biennale, and has exhibited in Venice since then. Other African countries have not had that privilege, certainly not with any consistency.

    The purpose of appearance at the Biennale is not to guage the health of a nation's visual culture, but to give it an opportunity to bring that bill of health and promote it before the world: as a matter of prestige, as a matter of equal standing before nations, as a matter of dedication to its artists.

    Every society owes a debt to its artists, just as artists owe a debt to their societies. A nation has a duty to promote its art and culture, to elevate and sustain it, to help provide its creators with the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder, as I've said elsewhere, with their peers the world over. Any nation that cannot do this fails its artists and fails itself.

    The numerous nations that have brought their artists to Venice this year, from Lebanon to the struggling, post-Soviet state of Georgia, are not entirely stupid. They understand what America understood at mid-Century when it poured funds and resources into promoting its artists as the standard bearers of world art. And that is that there is much to be gained.

    We live in an already globalised world–whether we approve of it or not–in which artists already circulate from place to place and are part of an equally global circuit. Contemporary art is not a village affair. And let it be stated quite clearly that it hurts when these artists watch their peers being presented before the world as representatives of their countries, and our artists know that noone is about to do them that honor or avail them of the numerous opportunities for growth and fulfilment that such honor brings.

    I don't know what we have against superstars, but artists are not only a cultural resource, they're tax payers, also. The more successful they are, the more they contribute to our tax payer pool, and that pool does help build libraries and exhibition halls, and it helps sustain publishing. We know 'superstar' artists who have gone on to found residencies and shared studios and avail other artists of those opportunities and spaces. No one thing stands alone and by itself.

    You should also ask; why are we at the Olympic games when we have school playgrounds to build? Why are we at the United Nations when we have innumerable, critical municipal issues to resolve ? Why the World Cup? But, these things are not either/ or matters.

    Over the past couple of days I have been witness to a group of artists who feel pride to have come from Africa, and feel even more pride to appear before artists from the rest of the world and proclaim that they are from Africa. I have also witnessed hundreds of Africans who are not artists walk through this "African Pavilion" with pride in their chests and smiles in their eyes.

    Let's not keep confusing issues. Let's not keep up this either/ or diatribe. Is there any reason why our only concern must always be to subsist, to have the least feasible, to turn inwards and navel-gaze instead of engaging the world.

    South Africa already made a particularly regrettable mistake by shutting down the Johannesburg Biennale right when it was beginning to yield perceptible fruit. Another mistake driven by same arguments that were proferred to justify the discontinuation of the biennial would be unpardonable.

    If there is anything you should do, Mario, it is to tell your minister for culture, Mr. Pallo Jordan, that Olu Oguibe said that it is high-time that South Africa began to place its wonderful artists on a pedestal in the community of nations. That pride of place translates. it inspires entire generations of younger artists to realize that they come from a society and culture that stands its ground in the world, and that they, too, can aspire beyond fulifillment on the local stage alone. There is far more than enough sophistication and resources in South Africa to do it, and there is really no excuse not to. I would like to go to Venice to watch any one of these fine people step up before the world and claim the first prize for South Africa, even the golden lion of Venice. Just why not, sir?

    The world is ours to claim. There is really no reason not to do so.

    Olu Oguibe

    Arsenale, Venice

  3. Muthoni Kimani | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    I was reading something from the East African side of Africacolours.org some time back and their argument was that African art aught to be returned to Africa where it belongs. Many people argued for and against, and my contribution was that we need Africans who have learnt the art of appreciating their own creative works like Dokolo to make returning meaningful.

    I still feel that as artists, first and foremost the most important issue for us is that someone African is collecting! For me that is important. Money laundering or otherwise is a political position for even some of the artworks we go to see in Europe were stolen from Africa and nobody seems to have any questions for those who stole, but appreciate that they saved it from destruction and now they want it back in Africa!

    I am not condoning art theft and all other such acts of theft, merely to appreciate that art is being collected and that the other issues should be debated in a more appropriate forum, like scorpions desk.

    But seriously, isnt the act of collecting just so important for African-based initiatives to ever become a reality that is even meaningful?

    Without collectors Africa continues to rob itself of the artworks that it doesnt have to send out enmass. Africa needs collectors. If they be crude in their ways, the moralists should pursue that matter seperately rather than stay the hand of collection. Am sure this sounds crude, but like I've said before mine is to commend where its due, an African collector for a change.

    Muthoni Kimani

  4. Olu Oguibe | November 6, 2007 at 12:00 am

    Dear Mario,

    First, the idea that engagement with the outside or specifically with Venice "has prejudiced auto-didacts" is of course not borne out by the facts. Perhaps it is the case with South Africa, but overall, African appearances in Venice have in fact not placed self-taught artists at a disadvantage. Good example: the most prestigious prize at the Venice Biennale is the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. This year, that prize went to an African auto-didact: Malick Sidibe. Among the few African artists in the 100-artist artistic director's exhibition at the Arsenale, pride of place is given to Cherie Samba, again an auto-didact. In the African Pavilion at least one in ten of the artists represented is a self-taught artist.

    Second, and perhaps more important, is that when we argue for "priorities" and "choices", we obviously present an either/or argument. And my position is that there is no reason for choices to be made between promoting a nation's culture internationally and growing that culture internally. Both ought to be pursued simultaneous, and South Africa, I insist, has the resources to do so. I should of course grant that, luckily, South Africa is already doing that by promoting international exhibitions of South African artists and sponsoring artists to residencies. More can be done, and Venice is a positive challenge to engage.

    Such projects need not be funded exclusively or primarily by the government. Private and corporate interests are always a good source. But the government must provide the vision and leadership, and do the necessary and easy fund-raising to realize them.

    I would buy your argument about prioritization if it were the case that funds that could have gone to presenting South African or African artists in Venice is, at present, being expended on any significant art projects at home that you can point to. If you could point to five significant structures that have been consciously and consistently funded since 1997 with funds that could have gone to the Johannesburg Biennale, then, we'd be heading somewhere. The fact, however, is that in this either/ or situation, the evident tendency, it seems to me, is toward neither.

    As you rightly implied, our leaders see the arts as merely "instrumental". In the wrong way, that is. Funding cultural development is a habit, and that habit is not cultivated by discriminating between promoting cultural institution building at home and promoting cultural representation abroad. Both should and must go hand in hand.

    I wish I could point that several African countries that are capable of pursuing that necessary development path, but as it stands, my conviction is that perhaps only South Africa can or stands a good chance of finding the will so to do. Let's pool our intellectual energies and resources toward making it reality.

  5. Bisi | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    What you need to realise is that over 70% of the work in Storr´s exhibition came from private, individual and corporate collections and also from the artists´galleries. Does the fact that the African collection comes from one individual instead of several individuals´collection make it better or worse than Storr´s exhibition? I think we need to be thankful to Artnet and Ben Davis who in trying to single out, isolate and then destroy an individual has brought to the forefront the nauseating hypocrisy that characterises the West. The most superficial research by anybody of some of the most visited collections in Europe and America reveals a sordid history of corruption, lack of ethics and fraudulent practices associated with some of the most respected art dealers of the 20th century.

    As for African representation, I agree with Olu. Without the African pavillion the entire continent would have been absent apart for the 7 or 8 artists included in Storr´s exhibition and the awful exhibition at the Egyptian pavillion. As it was, there were few African artists, curators, or writers who attended the event. The African presence should be consolidated and strengthened over the coming years.

    However the African presence in international exhibitions should not be done to the detriment of cultural development on the continent. As Olu says continental and international development most be pursued simultaneously.

    For your information Mario cultural exchange and interaction has been going on in Africa for a long time and i can name several artists´ projects to do with artistic mobility in Africa This kind of activity and interaction is growing and deepening year on year. I think what your stance highlights is a very South African perspective or situation, one in which SA artists have spent the last decade or so flying over the African continent to Europe and America but suddenly realise that there are over 50 other countries within their immediate vicinity that they know nothing about and have no contact with. Hence the crisis of isolation that seems to be the undertone of your reasoning.

    I think South African artists and cultural workers need to start getting out and about the continent a lot more to see and interact with the cultural activities taking place. Mario maybe you need to set up a section on African mobility within this site.

    As Olu suggested what we do need to do is pool our resources together within the continent and also in the presentation of our art in the international arena. We have the intellectual and financial resources as a continental to do it. What is wrong with 5-6 countries coming together to create an African pavillion that is funded 100% in Africa. The funding can come from multinationals, private companies and committed individuals who litter the continent but prefer to use their money building mansions etc. One of the more interesting pavillions outside of the gardini that i visited at the Venice Biennale was the Latin American (Ibero-American i think they called it) pavillion in which 8-10 Caribbean and South American countries had pooled their resources, rented the whole first floor of a fabulous palazzo and presented the work of one artist per country. In the same palazzo downstairs Armenia had 3 rooms, Scotland had about 4 or 5 rooms and an independent non profit UK arts organisation had 4 rooms. It was such a wonderful example of people and countries coming together to have some form of presentation. And the works were very well installed too. I also visited a space shared by Wales and Lebanon. The lebanese pavillion introduced some very interesting artists one of which i hope to include in a forthcoming art project i am curating. The Lebanese and the Armenian pavillions were funded and organised by private individuals and patrons. The Central Asia pavillion consisted of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan who had between 1 to 3 artists per country. Why can´t Africa adopt some of these strategies. I don´t think Angola or any African country should have to carry the burden on its own ever again.

    Whilst i support international representation I am also acutely aware of developing activities at home. At the beginning of 2008 I will be curating the first Nigeria/South Africa exhibition featuring 2 artists Lucy Azubuike and Zanele Muholi. I hope to be collaborating on other inter-continental projects in 2008 and 2009. It is not about either/ or, it is about both at the same time. And that time is NOW!


    Kassel, Germany

  6. Azanian | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Process- still remain the most important aspect of art.

    If it effects the human condition or not does not really matter.

    But then again the question of price occurs.

    Venice is just a market.

    The most inspirational about the Venice debate is the "ice tea invention"

    Artists will have to find creative ways of accesing public money from postmodern Pallo.

    Mario keep it simple – dont stop talking.

    regards to all-

    from the metropole

  7. Elisabeth Prah | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    The origins of an art collectors wealth is nobody's business but the collector themselves. The Art world never questions the origins of the wealth of western, Asian, and Latin American collectors. So why African collectors? This hypocrisy is despicable and should not be tolerated.

    Art is universal and can be collected by anybody with the means to do so. African collectors play an important role in developing the nascent nature of contemporary art in Africa today. We need to encourage the development of more collections of contemporary art from Africa , within the continent and be very cautious of Pigozzi-like collections which favours an exotic image of contemporary Africa.

    Elisabeth Prah

  8. Its not yet uhuru | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    A missed opportunity it is for Africa in Venice Biennale 2007. Are we saying there is no cutting edge works coming out of Africa today?

    Whats the point of showing works which have been shown 100 times around Europe. As much as we want to say it was nice being there and be seen. We must ask our selves, why are we there in the first place? The answer is simple, To show the best coming out of Africa. Why recycle some of the works which have been shown years ago? Lets put our house in order and be counted, not this rubbish of individuals who want to smile because they finally been part of the show. Same names as if there are no new names coming out of Afrika.

    Lets be serious and make a difference guys. We have become the laughing stock of the world today becouse of this show. Afrikan pavilion???? Whose Afrika and whose show? The same names. A biennale in Nigeria would be a good thing with all the people like you Olu and Okwui. Lets stop looking at South Afrika because everything arrives in South Afrika and it ends there.

    We in Nigeria we look at you two guys and always be proud of you. What is happening to you by looking up to South Afrika? Yes there is nothing bad about South Afrika but its been long since you two have been renowned WORLD GURUS I must say. What have you done for Nigeria your own Country.

    I am not being Nationalistic but Ekapa 07 was Nationalistic, it was about South Afrika not Afrika. Do I need to remind you.

    Okwui and Olu you might all think its all good to be associated with South Afrika but they have their own nationals to look after not us as Foreigners. Kwame Nkrumah died with his Afrikan Dream and now we have Afrika Divided. I am sorry to sat this to you my brother but I want you to Understand it becouse you always visit South Afrika and you have no idea about what is there at the grass roots. No one was happy for You Okwui curating that Biennale in 1997. You are not one of them, sorry to remind. You need to know Oga. You go see.

  9. Bob Nandipha Nkabinde | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Why fight fight as we do about a represantation of us all as sons and daughters of Africa. Now lets all get ready for the Next Venice Biennale and stop fighting. We can not all be there the same time, your time will come and you will be there in Venice one day. Thanks to the two curators Simon and Alvim. Well done guys, you have opened the the doors to others.

    A good project will always speak for itself and thats why we are all contributing to this Forum. The African Forum played a very important role and we must not forget all our brothers in the Diaspora who have been putting the pressure. We must remember Okwui and Salah Hassan for all these years and the other guys have been fighting out there for this to happen. Lets bury our differences and make it for the better and the good for the coming generation.

    There is no need to be selfish, Venice was not build in one day. It will take time and one day other countries in Africa will have their own pavillion.Good for Africa and well done Robert Storr, Alvim,Simon Njami and those whom I have forgoten by names. Our African Flag is flying at last.


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