June Issue 2015

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 4 years ago

This year at the Venice Biennale, the mother of all art events, curator Okwui Enwezor began a discourse that seldom resonates in the ‘metropolis.’ He has deliberately shifted the discussion from a celebration of art and its commercial viability to what one reviewer has termed the  ‘uneasy.’ In recent years, most major art events offer a token sprinkling of artists from the world’s troubled zones, but seldom does the narrative enjoy centrality. By bringing together artists from 53 countries, Enwezor has included the world as never before, to balance the scales. He seems to be questioning why the fringe should always remain the fringe by mainstreaming art voices that were unheard, unseen and unsung.

The shipyard of Arsenale that built the tall ships whose owners negotiated trade treaties with Islamic empires in the 15th century, and eventually were instrumental in giving the city its riches and its influence, has now been restored to accommodate another kind of wealth: Enwezor has lifted the curtain to an art of ideas that represents  “a vision of the world that is bleak, angry and depressing.”

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Nigeria-born Okwui Enwezor, with an expansive artists’ list comprising 136 artists, 83 of them from Africa, has enabled their discourse to cross the lapping waters of the Grand Canal where billion-dollar yachts elbow for space. If the reality of the artists and that of the collector/gallerist/art dealer/audience is not in sync then so be it, seems to be the message. One biennale crawler could not hold back his knee jerk reaction when he wrote, “…we all know the market is a force in contemporary art-making, so to totally ignore this fact seems, well, unhelpful and naïve.” It is perhaps naïve to forget that the 56th Venice Biennale is asking the audience to pause and reflect at art that leads them into a parallel universe with a sun-less world of factory workers, peasants, miners, laborers, the daily wage workers, whose lives are disenfranchised by the concentration of power, privileges and global wealth in the hands of a few.

Enwezor has committed the cardinal sin of deviating from the contemporary (read western) canonical template in which the political must remain ambiguous and personal but never enter the real world of the collective which demands that a position be taken. This ambivalence creates a tiny space for discourses on 21st century poverty, pain, suffering and discord but never represent it enough to critique the ideology of excesses. At the latest edition of the Venice Biennale, Enwezor has not only taken a position but offered a curatorial framework to artists who have doggedly pursued unsettling truths, sometimes at the cost of becoming outsiders.

Among other things, Enwezor’s Venice Biennale will be remembered as a brave show and it is bound to set off ripples in the art world and beyond. One such ripple is Icelandic/Swiss artist Christoph Buchel’s conversion of a church, that has not been in use for 30 years, into a temporary mosque. The interior is transformed with a large mehrab screening the altar, and with an Imam on board for the duration of the Biennale, the art project has been enthusiastically received by Muslim families who congregate in large numbers for Friday prayers. One of the reasons for this could be that Venice has no proper mosque. While the Muslims of 30 nationalities who live in Venice are keen to avail this opportunity to show a religious/cultural side that is not visible in the media, they may have to face disappointment soon as the Venice authorities are threatening to close down the temporarymosque/art installation in response to media outrage against it. This art project, which has created opportunities for interfaith and inter-community dialogue against Islamophobia in Europe, is being perceived as an invasion of religious space, both physical and spiritual, by the Italian media.

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Interestingly, at yet at another important grand historical site, Plazzo Benzon, Pakistan’s Rashid Rana and India’s Shilpa Gupta are being showcased together in an exhibition that was initiated by Feroze Gujral, the moving spirit behind the Gujral Foundation and the daughter-in-law of Lahore-born artist Satish Gujral. This collaborative project dares to dream of a future of cultural and economic partnerships between the two ‘midnight’s children,’ separated for six decades after their birth in August 1947, by the midwives of war and distrust.

‘All the World’s Futures,’ which is the theme of the Venice Biennale this year, highlights both the unflinching harsh reality and the immense possibility for change. It also shows that with a little courage and conviction, others too can follow the course charted by Okwui Enwezor, Christoph Buchel and Feroze Gujral.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.

The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80’s.