Open the Gate

Olu Oguibe, 9 October 2006

[This letter was initially written in response to a letter from Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor to Robert Storr, Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale. It was copied by the writer to interested parties and is reproduced here with his permission.]

To Dr. Salah Hassan
Forum for African Arts

September 19, 2006

Dear Salah,

Thanks for your email of September 1 regarding the response from yourself and Okwui Enwezor to artistic director Robert Storr’s open call for proposals for the African Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale (letter attached below). I had hoped that you would call to discuss this on the phone as your promised, failing which I felt that I should send you my thoughts on the matter as well as share those thoughts with other concerned parties.

I would like to say that I do not share the views that you and Enwezor have expressed in your letter to Robert Storr regarding the issue at hand. I do not share the view that it is wrong for Mr. Storr or the Venice Biennale Foundation to make an open call for proposals that allows other parties in Africa or elsewhere the opportunity to put forward their ideas and visions for an African exhibition in Venice. On the contrary, I happen to think that Mr. Storr’s decision to establish an African pavilion as an official part of the Biennale is, at least in the interim, a very positive and commendable development. And as a firm and consistent believer in open processes, I also think that Storr and the Venice Biennale Foundation have done the right thing by making the proposal process an open one that anyone with a good idea and the resources should be able to participate in. I do not accept or share your view or Enwezor’s that under no circumstance should the process be opened to wider participation or that the Forum for African Arts should exercise a perpetual monopoly over African participation in the Venice Biennale outside the main exhibition.

As I understand it, what you and I have struggled for all these years is that more Africans should have the opportunity to present their work and ideas to the contemporary art world, be they artists, curators, historians or critics. That is why we established the Forum for African Arts. I believe that Robert Storr’s idea of an open call fits this ideal while the present call by you and Enwezor to close the process and preserve it for a privileged few runs contrary to it. I sincerely believe that there are other curators out there in Africa or elsewhere with good ideas that might offer contemporary African artists even more opportunity to be seen and understood in varied lights. There are emerging as well as established curators all across the continent: in South Africa, in Egypt and the rest of Maghreb, in Ghana and Kenya and Senegal and Ivory Coast and Angola and Ethiopia, as well as abroad, who would appreciate the chance to present their visions to the world. There are institutions, also. To deny them the opportunity to do so, and demand instead that only the Forum for African Arts be recognized in Venice, would run contrary to all that you and I have worked for. I think it is wrong and unnecessary.

True, the task of presenting an exhibition in Venice is not an easy one and requires a great amount of resources both financial and logistical. In this regard, the Forum for African Arts may be considered to have an advantage. But we would never know what other individuals or institutions can do unless they, too, are given the opportunity to take on the challenge of taking African artists to the Venice Biennale, which is what I believe Robert Storr’s open call does. We may have experience, but how do we allow or encourage others to acquire the same experience if we demand that they be shut out of the process, as you and Enwezor have demanded in your letter to Robert Storr?

We may have clout and connection, but we have no monopoly on vision. We cannot turn our advantage into a right. Moreover, we cannot afford to be part of any demand, idea, arrangement or suggestion that seeks to limit the opportunities of African practitioners in the art world. We simply cannot afford to turn ourselves into gate-keepers.

As an organization, we should present our ideas to the Venice Foundation. So should others in an open process that rewards merit rather than privilege or loyalty. If in the end our idea for an exhibition in Venice is chosen for its rigor or for the experience or resources that the organization brings to the project, all well and good. But to demand that there must not be any open calls or process, or argue that only we should have the opportunity to take African artists to Venice is a step in the wrong direction. Let’s not forget that the first such pavilion for Africans in Venice was organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, and not by any exclusive African monopoly. That “pavilion” won the first exhibitor’s prize in Venice in 1990. It is sad enough that the Forum for African Arts has turned its back on such open processes within, and now prefers to appoint curators without open calls for proposals that give a broader array of African curators the chance to participate, but we cannot seek to impose the same closure on others.

My entire career in the contemporary art world has been devoted to the struggle for more openness and more opportunities for all, not less. For this I have been vilified and often wrongfully accused by many, but it is a path that I have every intention to continue on rather than retract from. Two years ago, on July 6, 2004, I wrote an open letter to the Venice Biennale Foundation and the City of Venice in which I argued that the time was more than right for a female artistic director for the Venice Biennale. In that open letter I concluded thus:

It is important that Venice breaks the tradition of male-curators-only. For one, the tradition is obviously anachronistic and not in tune with the times. It may appear consistent with another sad fact, which is that very few museums in the world today have female directors, but that is not a trend worth replicating. As the premier biennial of modern and contemporary art, Venice occupies a powerful symbolic position. Whether they succeed or fail in the details, a female artistic director for Venice will nevertheless help address a problematic reputation as well as inspire numerous young curators who may otherwise believe that there is a glass ceiling.

Eventually, the Venice Biennale did appoint female artistic directors, which was a very positive step. I see Robert Storr’s open call for wider African participation in Venice in same light. I believe we have a duty to embrace it, rather than oppose it for personal gain. I believe we ought to continue to encourage greater and wider participation by all, especially the teeming body of young curators now emerging on the African continent, and not seek to shut anyone off. Also, if we are serious about building open societies on the continent, I suggest that it is time that we began to embrace transparent processes and open participation.

I hope that Storr and his team are not pressured to abandon their idea by the letter from you and Mr. Enwezor. I also propose that in order to avoid any conflict of interests, members of the board of the Forum for African Arts should not participate in the panel that Robert Storr has proposed for this process. There is no shortage of African experts or other individuals that could serve on such a panel, which could be chaired by someone of the integrity of Ery Camara, president of the jury of the 49th Venice Biennale, for instance.

Ultimately, special African pavilions in Venice will not be sufficient to address the more critical issues of Africa’s poor representation in the biennial’s main exhibition or the continued inability of African nations to establish pavilions that promote the work of their citizens on the world stage. For now, however, the Venice Foundation has taken another positive step with its open call for proposals and ought to receive our encouragement, not our condemnation.

With very best wishes,

Olu Oguibe, Artist
Member of the Board, Forum for African Arts
Senior Fellow, Smithsonian Institution and Associate Professor of Art and Art History, University of Connecticut


  1. Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo | December 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

    I am glad that I read this. So many things are clearer. The open call is a great step forward,lets try not to go backwards. We have great curators who will surely put in good proposals and be sure that their visions are at least considered.

  2. raphael chikukwa | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    To Mario

    Is there anyway we can get a letter from those two Salah and Okwui on line so much that we can all learn about this whole story. For those who remember Dakar Biennale 2004 at Duta Sack, we should Question our Afrikan brothers who want to be called Afrikans when they like to.I still feel Robert is right and we should support him.

  3. Mario Pissarra | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Raphael, I did request permission from Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor to publish their letter online, but they declined. Perhaps they will reconsider once they see the responses that Olu Oguibe's response is generating.

  4. Smooth | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Dear Mario,

    I would think it will be nice if you can also get Enwezor and Hassan's side of the story. It will be good to compare notes.

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


    Thanks for the facility you have provided. I do not know the people being discussed here. However, my feeling after reading Oguibe's letter, I can not agree more. Ijeoma, I support you unreservedly on your opinion expressed.

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

    Look at Robert Mugabe today, he has been there for Donkey years not wanting to let go. He has Killed history and do we need that in the arts? No.The same guys who have been there for many years still want to Control the curatorship Industry in Afrika. Give young Curators a Chance and we can have new ideas coming out of this Pan Afrikan Pavilion. This is not like Afrikan chieftanship whereby you can only religuish power when you die. Olu and Robert we still support you with or without the letter on the line from Okwui and Salah.

  7. Olu Oguibe | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    As readers may deduce, a copy of Hassan and Enwezor's letter to Storr was sent to me by one of the authors as part of a note for my information preparatory to a discussion that did not happen. My reply duly contained the note and all its contents. I am happy to share the reply with all that content, that is, including the letter to Storr, with anyone who requests it. It wouldn't make a difference, though, beside providing more talking points. What would make a difference is for curators, independent and institutional, to respond to Storr's call with strong, articulate, and feasible exhibition or project proposals. Storr has made an open call; are there enough people out there who are up to it? If not, then, talk won't really matter. Hassan and I took African artists to Venice in 2001. It's up to others now, and Storr's call is open till end of October.

  8. raphael chikukwa | October 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

    Dear Olu

    I do agree with you my brother and being one of the Afrikan Curator I feel its all up to us now to present our ideas.We all need to Support Robert Storr and Olu this is important to support an initiative which will benefit us all.The gate has been opened and we start fighting do we all think Afrika needs this at this point in time? No a BIG NO i say. Lets not be like our Afrikan Politicians, lets get our Afrikan Dream out there and thank you Robert Storr .Olu thank you for Supporting this positive step, we are behind you.

    zimbabwean independent curator

  9. C. Krydz Ikwuemesi | December 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

    The apparent quest for monopoly by the Forum for African Arts in relation to the Venice Biennale only turns it into a cabal or an art mafia. The ability to speak for, or represent Africa, is certainly not the preserve of anyone or any organisation anywhere in the world.

  10. Ijeoma Uche-Okeke | October 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

    I am quite pleased that there is someone out there that is supportive of the kind of initiative shown by Robert Storr. Oguibe has always been a controversial figure from when I knew of him at varsity in Nigeria and his sojourns in the West. We need a voice like his out there. Too often in Africa we orchestrate the demise of our own progress and it is time that we devise new approaches that will benefit not only individuals but the collective. I applaud Oguibe's stance and initiative.

  11. Rasheed Araeen | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Why are diasporan Africans fighting for a Venice pie? I haven't read the letter of Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan but what Olu Oguibe says is the same story. They all want the same thing: how they can package Africa and sell it to the West. There is no concern for the basic work of theory and art history, for which one needs serious scholarship that require hardwork, both physically and intellectually. Without this mediative discourse whatever Africa produces as art becomes like any other commodity without any profound meaning or significance. That is why an institute within Africa that supports and finances independent research work and scholarship is extremely important. But most African intellectuals are only interested in the rhetoric of exclusion and inclusion. When the West kept the doors closed to African artists, they shouted abuses against the West; and now when the doors are open, everyone is full of praise for the very system which was once eurocentric. No one wants to think why were the doors once closed and why are they now open. Are we now in a better position to understand what has Africa contributed to art not only in terms of its (African) particularity but, most importantly, its universality?

  12. Olu Oguibe | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Rasheed, you raise some good points, but it is important that we stay with the issue here. There is no need to be dismissive of the hard work that people are in fact doing, or condescending. In the decade since the end of Apartheid a great deal of sound intellectual effort has come out of South Africa regarding that country's contemporary visual culture, which may say something about the relationship between a stable, open society and robust and vigorous intellectual enterprise. Nor do I think that Oguibe, Enwezor and Hassan have anything to be ashamed of regarding the contributions that they have each made to theory and intellectual discourse on African visual culture over the past fifteen years or so, compared to their peers from elsewhere. I have practically crucified my own studio career in that cause, yet it does not pay my rent.

    Also, there is no shame in exhibiting in Venice or working to ensure that the efforts of African artists enjoy pride of place alongside those of artists from other parts of the world. Practicing artists who must make a living plying their wares on the global market know how useful it is to be seen alongside their peers from elsewhere while they continue to make their mark in their local communities. Plying their wares is what artists have done since the beginning of time, and packaging and selling are integral to the business of art. Artists get exposed, they attain the recognition that they deserve, they earn better, make more ambitious work, establish a more enduring creative legacy, and hopefully invest in their communities and in the future of other artists. Let us not confuse the issues. The situation is not one of either-or where we must choose between global representation and intellectual inquiry. Both are important, and, historically, both rely on patronage. Africa, unfortunately, is not like the United Kingdom where one can easily set up an institute or journal with ready seed money and annual funding from the Arts Council of Great Britain. I'm sure we'll get there, too. For now, what I've raised is the need to bring some level of transparency to the global culture game so that we can make further progress, and not regress instead. For anyone whose sincere goal is to advance the careers of contemporary African artists, I see no difficulty or contradiction in such endeavor.

  13. raphael chikukwa | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am


  14. Karroum | January 1, 1970 at 12:00 am

    Le principe de Forum est important, mais aussi et surtout celui du travail

    cooperatif sur le plan de l'action artistique, mais sur le plan du travail

    intellectuel nous sommes obliges de nous confronter a l'histoire, aux oeuvres

    et aux questions du devenir de l'humanite toute entiere.

    Les questions que nous nous posons aujourd'hui en Afrique concerne le monde

    entier. C'est avec cette affirmation que nous devons ouvrir le debat et

    permettre un maximum de rencontres, aussi bien a Cap Town, Rabat ou Venise…

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

    Vittoria Martini asks if Olu Oguibe is still convinced that Robert Storr made the right decision to make an open call for the Africa Pavilion and establish a selection panel. The answer to the question is absolutely yes. Storr set up a sound selection panel of professional artists and curators whose names are publicly available. The panel looked at several proposals and unanimously selected a proposal. They knew the proposal was to present work from a private collection. To question the proposal is to question the decision or wisdom of the selection panel, and given that the panel is publicly known, such questions should be directed at the panel for once. Not to do so doesn't make a great deal of sense to me.

    What does it mean for Olu Oguibe to be represented by a private Angolan collection? Ms. Martini further asks. The answer is: frankly, I do not understand the question. As an artist and an African, I am certainly not ashamed to be in a private Angolan collection as I am not ashamed to be in several private European and American collections, or indeed a Nigerian collection. Besides, almost almost all the work on display in the entire 52nd Venice Biennale, from the American Pavilion to the Arsenale main exhibition to the work in the Georgia Pavilion, are drawn from collections, some of them private, some public. I am in fact at a complete loss what all this fuss over private or public collections are about. Artists make work for sale, and those works are sold to individuals or institutions. Artists do not make work to store under the bed in friends' apartments. When a curator selects such work for an exhibition, they borrow it from the collector. Exhibitions are constantly curated from private collections. Half of the work in the Georgia Pavilion come from one private collection in New York. And

    I have no problem with Angola or should I? I am an American citizen, too, and I do not know as I am a Nigerian, and I do not know that either the US or Nigeria is the most favored nation in the world.

    Anyone who is serious should please talk about the work in this exhibition, the curating, the exhibition design, the choice of works, and please quit this diatribe about private collections. Would my inquisitor rather my works were in the Jean Piggozi collection, and would they make such fuss if works from that collection had been selected by a panel of professionals to be presented in Venice? Could people find something more relevant to discuss, please. The general feeling in Venice this preview weekend is that the Africa Pavilion is certainly one of the best curated. You may disagree, but you must see the show in order to disagree.

  16. Yasmin Canvin | January 3, 2007 at 12:00 am

    [This comment was received after Storr's panel of experts selected Check List/ the Dokolo collection to represent Africa in Venice]

    I am a freelance curator, not of African heritage, but have tried to respond to the Eurocentric art world through my work. I think the gate needs to be an intellectually equal gate for it to truly benefit those taking part. Would a curator ask a panel of 5 experts to select a single exhibition proposal to represent Europe? Would the chosen proposal suggest that all the work should come from a single art collection? I accept there are cost issues and many other difficulties in showing an exhibition of art from Africa in a European context, but we are supposed to be creative. Does the show have to address a whole continent? Could the expertise not be used to produce a well curated exhibition with a theme or show work by a just a few well-chosen artists? Would that not help the curators and artists involved to be seen on an equal platform to those in the west in critical debate? And finally why was an eminent curator like Dr Storr surprised at the quality of art being made in Africa?


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