This week marks the last week of the 57th Venice Biennale. One pavilion that interests me is the Kenyan one which hosts the exhibition Another Country which includes the following artists: Arlene Wandera, Mwangi Hutter, Paul Onditi, Peterson Kamwathi, and Richard Kimathi. I will let the cat out of the bag right away, I did not read James Baldwin’s Another Country or visit the Kenyan pavilion in Venice. After reading an interview in C& with the curator of the pavilion Jimmy Ogonga I was puzzled why he choose to name the exhibition after Baldwin’s book.
Another Country is a 1962 novel by James Baldwin. The novel is set in New York’s late 1950s. It contained many hot topics that were taboo at the time including bisexuality, interracial couples, and extramarital affairs.
In an interview, C& contributor Awuor Onyango asks Ogonga straightforwardly why the curator choose to use the work of a black queer iconic writer for the title. Ogonga replies that the writes should be regarded separately from his work and that it is the work he rather focusses on. What was important for Ongonga is Baldwin’s position as a scholar and a man on the street that looks at society. The curator states that Kenyan contemporary art doesn’t have the necessary educational infrastructure to be able to decode or unpack a lot of the things that one is talking about or dealing with as a society.
I wonder what this implies. Does this mean that Kenyan contemporary artists do not use art to review or critique occurrences in society because it misses a certain educational infrastructure? I don’t think so because Ongonga continues by revealing that Another Country the book and Another Country the exhibition together give a rich reading of contemporary society. Hereby he states that Kenyan artists do deal with aspects of society. In combination with the overall Venice Biennale theme of main curator Christine Macel Viva Arte Viva, Ongonga regards it as an opportunity to see the power of art. I have to say that I question the ability to substantiate this grant statement. How can you make a claim like this without explaining what the relation is between the book and the art, the art and the overall theme and what the power of art entails?
Awuor Onyango clearly had set his sights on getting insights into what I mean to base an exhibition of a national pavilion, of a country that does not recognize queers as part of its population, on a queer black American writer. He asks the curator point-blank what it means. The curator answers that sexuality was not one of the things that were taken into account. The objective was by no means to comment on the issue of queers in Kenya.
It seems that Onyango does not back down. He kept on trying to get a comment that includes a political dimension of the exhibition out of the curator. He asked if the list of participating artists is a comment on art or artistic practice by female artists in Kenya. I am not sure in what way it could be regarded as a comment because two out of six* artists is female, and that’s an unjust proportion. But again, the curator answers by saying that the intention of the exhibition was not to tackle this issue, it was not part of the process and it is a question for someone else to look into.
Although this blog is only based on an interview with the curator, I wonder in what way is the exhibition a rich reading of contemporary society, if it was not the intention to take these issues into consideration?
Another Country is on view at the Kenyan pavilion in Venice until November 26th.
*Mwangi Hutter are two persons: a man and woman