For Artists Representing Zimbabwe, the Venice Biennale Carries Different Stakes
Representing a nation at the Venice Biennale has long been believed to mark a turning point in an artist’s career. It has cemented mid-career artists as generational leaders, and brought emerging artists significant cultural opportunities through press, exhibitions, and commissions as well as financial stability through sales at fairs, galleries, and auctions. These gains, known as the “Venice bump,” are real and profound—especially provided you represent a Western nation.
Who can forget the incredible international introduction to Anish Kapoor who represented the United Kingdom’s Pavilion in 1990. Prior to Venice, Kapoor’s prints were selling for $2,000-$10,000 with select sculptures selling between $20,000-$35,000. Following the Biennale, Kapoor received large-scale public art commissions and his auction prices ballooned, including the record-breaking 1998 Christie’s sale of Pot for Her (1985) for £40,000 ($66,872), nearly double the low estimate of £25,000. Other artists who were emerging at the time of their Biennale pavilions—Jenny Holzer, United States, 1990; Annette Messager, France, 2005—saw similar post-Venice success.
But while the Venice bump may be a given for Western artists, African artists have always struggled with visibility at the Biennale. The only African country with a longstanding presence at the Biennale is Egypt, which opened their pavilion in 1932. Zimbabwe made its pavilion debut in 2011 and since then has remained a constant in Venice, showcasing contemporary art by emerging and mid-career artists, often to much international and critical acclaim. Looking at the market numbers for artists who have presented at that pavilion reveals just how difficult it is for non-Western artists to succeed even after inclusion in the prestigious Biennale.
Up until the 58th Venice Biennale, the Zimbabwe pavilion was curated by Raphel Ckickukwa, chief curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Ckickukwa has spoken widely about using the pavilion to bring international visibility to Zimbabwe. As such, he favored group exhibitions to gain as much exposure for the artists as possible rather than follow the single-creator pavilion model that seems to be the standard of Western presentations.
Zimbabwe’s 2011 debut exhibition, “Seeing Ourselves: Questioning Our Geographical Landscape and the Space We Occupy from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” presented work by Tapfuma Gutsa, Misheck Masamvu, Berry Bickle, and Calvin Dondo in a show that was largely devoted to sculpture, mixed media, photography, and video. All the artists included in this premiere pavilion have maintained an artistic practice since that exhibition.
Masamvu received gallery representation at Goodman Gallery following the Biennale. A few years later, his paintings were selling for $16,000 to $19,000, and in 2020 he made his auction debut. This spring, he set a record at Phillips, where his painting Twitching Bulb (2022) sold for £22,680 ($29,949), which was nearly double the low estimate of £12,000. It is only the second piece of his to sell in this price range.
The artists selected for Zimbabwe’s presentation at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 foregrounded more painterly and sculptural practices. The exhibition, “Dudziro: Interrogating the Visions of Religious Beliefs,” featured Portia Zvavahera, Michele Mathison, Rashid Jogee, Voti Thebe, and Virginia Chihota. Of the group, Zvavahera’s career rise can be linked to her debut at that pavilion.
The Venice bump for Zvavahera was initially one of cultural significance that sowed the ground for her 2019 auction debut with a work on paper. Zvavahera only had one solo gallery show prior to her inclusion at the Zimbabwe pavilion and no sustained press about her practice. Since “Dudziro,” she has had a solo gallery exhibition almost every year, has been the subject of articles and one art monograph in addition to receiving representation by David Zwirner gallery in 2021. At the Phillips 20th century and contemporary art evening sale in 2020, her oil painting Arising from the Unknown (2019) sold for £163,800 ($212,222), which was roughly three times the high estimate of £60,000. Zvavahera continues to be a leading artist on the rise and is included in the main exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale, “The Milk of Dreams.”
The 2019 exhibition, “Soko Risina Musoro,” which dealt with sociopolitical themes amidst fantastical scenarios through, largely, figurative paintings, cast renewed international attention towards Zimbabwe. After that show, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami absolutely received the Venice bump. Her work entered the auction market in 2020 when the oil on paper Sango neMuchero (2014) sold at Christie’s for £37,500 ($48,788), more than ten times the low estimate of £3,000 ($3,700).
Since then, she has maintained a steady auction presence with her painting Skye waNehanda (2017) selling at the Hong Kong Sotheby’s auction for HK$3,780,000 ($486,396) in 2021. The other artists included in “Soko Riina Musoro,” Neville Starling, Georgina Maxim, and Cosmas Shiridzinomwa, all maintain a steady gallery or exhibition practice but have yet to hit auctions or make significant sales at fairs.
Successes like Masamvu, Zvavahera, and Hwami are exceptions to the rule, however, for those who show at the Zimbabwe pavilion. Most of the artists from the above editions lack a global profile, and similar stories can be told about the 2015 and 2017 Zimbabwe pavilions: many included in these exhibitions maintain an art practice but have yet to receive the international outreach that marks a significant change in their practice. If we break down the market success from the artists featured across Zimbabwe’s pavilions from its 2011 premiere through 2019, roughly 14% (three out of 21) of them have received the “Venice bump”—about the same rate as those from other national pavilions that include multiple artists, like Ghana.
The post-Venice success for some of the artists presenting at the Zimbabwe pavilion is significant but a far cry from the meteoric rise of artists who present at Western pavilions, which have a history of consolidated power at the Biennale. These numbers certainly reflect the importance of being included in the Venice Biennale, but they also demonstrate that inclusion and its benefit are experienced far from equally, often closely tracking established legacies of international clout and colonial pasts.