Minnette Vári
Minnette Vári's Portrait
Alien by Minnette Vári, 1998
Alien by Minnette Vári, 1998
Alien by Minnette Vári, 1998

Minnette Vári

And a Continental Patience

Submitted by: Minnette Vári

Written by: Alanna Lockward

Start date: 16-06-2007
End date: 21-09-2007
Location: Venice Biennale
Web URL: http://

Africa in the Venice Biennial history Art made in the African continent was exhibited in the 13th Venice Biennial for the first time in 1922. The 'Mostra della scultura negra' was the only parallel exhibition on view during that Biennale , but, strangely, none of the artists who participated were named. I say strangely because the list of those participating in other parallel exhibitions included the names Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock , and the like, ended in a tantalizing 'etc.' Artists born in the African continent had no name – do they now have one?

Before attempting a reply, I will briefly review some chronological evidence. In 1938 appeared the Mostra dei futuristi aeropittori d'Africa e di Spagna , curated by Marinetti. Thus, sixteen years after the work of artists from African countries was first exhibited in Venice, there occurred the prefiguration of what to some today might seem strange in the African Pavilion of the current 52nd edition: the presence of Miquel Barceló. In 1990, 52 years later, we find Paesi africani: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, curated by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Grace Stanislaus, also without a list of participants, the last one cited in the chronology (1895-1995) published by Mondadori for the Biennale's centenary. The African countries who were represented during those hundred years were: Congo (1968); Ivory Coast (1993); Egypt (1938 and then continuously from 1942 to the present); Liberia (1960); Senegal (1993); South Africa (1950-1958) and Tunisia (1958).

Considering itself an exhibition of art from both the African continent and its diasporas, while at the same time questioning essentialisms, Authentic/Ex-Centric (2001), curated by Salah M. Hassan and Olu Oguibe, was organized by the Forum for African Arts under the auspices of the Ford and Prince Claus Foundations.

That same year, at the 49th Biennale, Harald Szeemann presented the work of Minnétte Vári as part of his Plateau of Humankind at the entrance to the Italian Pavilion. On a miniscreen, the artist used her malleable nakedness to permeate the shield of South Africa. The symbol metamorphosized into an imposing butterfly or a thin cadaveric membrane, a watery stain, later to return to its original rigidity. In this year's 52nd edition, the entrance of the African Pavilion shows the projection of another work of Vári, Alien (1998). In Alien, as with much of her videoart work, Vári draws on her naked body. Defiant and monstrous, Alien dissolves any argument against the volatility of history. For this piece the artist copied high-impact video images from South African media that year, and transformed them into black & white, allowing only some elements to be visible against a white background. She then reproduced some elements of the actions in those images in the studio and later inserted her also monochromatic silhouette within them in her computer.

Vári approaches contemporary artistic discourses on her own terms, discourses that in most cases still deny her work and that of other artists from the continent autonomy with respect to their place of origin. The Baconian deformation of Alien within a twisted narrative causes us to imagine that something 'really' happened, but what? Nothing is fixed; the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. Again I ask: has the exposure of contemporary art made in the African continent changed for the better; do these artists finally have names in Venice? The answer is that, to use Vári's words, it is difficult to say, her own experience is ambivalent.

Before continuing with the Vári's impressions on her participation in the African Pavilion of this year’s 52 edition*, curated by Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami, I should finish my historical resume. At the 48th Biennale, in which Georges Adéagbo (Benin) played a stellar role, the other African artists that curator Harald Szeemann chose were Ghada Amer (Egypt); William Kentdrige (South Africa), and Philippe Parreno (Algeria). In the 49th edition, mentioned above, Szeemann exhibited, along with Vári, Tracey Rose, also from South Africa.

The 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 was directed by Francesco Bonami, who curated it along with 11 other specialists, including Carlos Basualdo. Basualdo presented Chris Ledochowski (South Africa), Antonio Ole (Angola), and Olumuyiwa Olamide Osifuye (Nigeria). In the Arsenale, the curator Gilane Tawadros presented Fault Lines, produced by the Forum for African Arts. Her selection, like that of the 2001, Authentic/Ex-Centric, included artists of the African diasporas. In this 52nd edition, diasporas' artists in the African Pavilion are: Jean Michel Basquiat and Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky (United States); Mario Benjamin (Haiti), and Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare (England).

In the previous 51st Biennale, Morocco was the only African country with its own Pavilion apart from the now customary Egyptian Pavilion of Giardini. There were no parallel exhibitions dedicated to any other African country. Individual participants included in the selections of the two curators included Candice Breitz, William Kentridge, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Robin Rhode in the exhibition of María de Corral (all from South Africa); and Rosa Martínez's included Ghada Amer (Egypt), Berni Searle (South Africa), and Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon).

In the current 52nd Biennale, the paintings of Chéri Samba (Congo) are given favoured visibility in the Italian Pavilion. Other artists from the continent found in the selection of Robert Storr include: Adel Abdessemed (Algeria), Yto Barrada (Morocco), Odili Donald Odita (Nigeria), Eyoum Ngangué (Cameroon), Faustin Titi (Ivory Coast), Philippe Parreno (Algeria) and Malick Sidibé (Mali) awarded with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievment. In the Portuguese Pavilion, Ângela Ferreira, an artist born in Mozambique, is the official representative. That the work of artists from the continent and its diasporas has now become part of the legitimate repertory in Venice is now a fact. So as to increase the impact of the appearance of the art of the African as well as other diasporas in the international mega-events, the Arts Council of England has created a new initiative, the International Curators Forum (ICF). At their inaugural conference, which took place during the same week as the inauguration of this 52 Biennale, David Lammy, by then Culture Minister of England, spoke to the participants. He emphasized again and again the enormous importance of presenting and legitimizing artists of the diasporas in today's Europe, referencing how in his own childhood art offered a reconciliatory vision of himself as a Black citizen of Europe.

That there now exists an African Pavilion in Venice is a good start, says Minnette Vári, the next step is to have one for each country. I should therefore mention that for the last twenty years artists from Latin America and the Caribbean have had to pay in gold for their participation in a joint pavilion.

Patience can become a fraternized emotion, especially in Venice.

(*) For more information: http://sindikadokolo.soso-arte.net