The Kenyan government has officially denounced its own pavilion at the upcoming 2015 Venice Biennale.
Outrage had been growing within Kenya’s artistic community ever since it was announced that only one Kenyan had been selected to represent the country at this year’s international exhibition, along with six Chinese artists (none of whom live or work in Kenya) and one Italian artist. A Change.org petition titled “Renounce Kenya’s fraudulent Representation at 56 Venice Biennial 2015 & commit to support the realisation of a national pavilion in 2017” was subsequently launched and garnered 397 signatures.
Kenyan artist Michael Soi also responded with satirical paintings showing Kenyan artists outnumbered by Chinese ones. “For those who don’t know, Kenya has a lot of great contemporary artists who can represent Kenya,” Soi told The Guardian. “The likes of Wangechi Mutu, Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, Peterson Kamwathi, Paul Onditi, Richard Kimathi, Jimmy Ogonga, Jim Chuchu … I could go on and on. That Kenyan pavilion is as phony as a three dollar bill.”
At first it seemed as though the government wasn’t going to get involved. On March 20, Hassan Wario, Kenya’s minister of culture, sports, and the arts, stood up a group of artists and curators he was scheduled to meet with to discuss the issue. “[Wario], who failed to show for a promised meeting with a group of outraged artists, may like to consider whether this farce does Kenya justice or turns the country as well as the festival organizers into laughing stocks,” Frank Whalley, himself an expat, wrote in The East African.
“The Government is aware that a team of seven individuals, one Italian (Armando Tanzini), one Kenyan (Apiyo Braendle-Amolo) and five Chinese (Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui and Li Gang) are wrongfully presenting themselves as the official Kenyan pavilion which is curated by Sandro Orlandi Stagl and Ding Xuefen,” he stated, inexplicably leaving out Double Fly Art Center, a Chinese collective that will also be present. “The Government of Kenya dissociates itself with this group and strongly condemns their acts of impersonation.”
The minister reserved especially strong words for Tanzini, an Italian expat who represented Kenya in the 2003 and 2013 biennales and whose work has provoked much criticism in the country. “Tanzini and his team have presented themselves wrongfully and repeatedly as Kenya’s official representative,” Wario said.
He also said his office is investigating how this happened to ensure “no such misrepresentation of Kenyan artists occurs in the future.” He added, “I will be working closely with the relevant professional art organizations and artists to carefully select a committee and curator who will work with my Ministry to select the finest Kenyan artists to represent our nation at the 2017 Biennale.”
Whether that will really translate to greater representation of Kenyan artists at the next biennale remains to be seen. In the meantime, it seems the current pavilion will go on — painfully, for everyone involved — as scheduled.