From Kiribati to Nigeria, 5 New Countries at the Venice Biennale
Eighty-five countries from across the globe will bring boundary-pushing art to the Venice Biennale’s national pavilions this year. And while some of the world’s most powerful countries—like Russia, Germany, and the U.S.—take their usual place center-stage in the Giardini, some new additions, including two countries returning after long absences, shouldn’t be missed. Below, we take a look at what’s in store for presentations by Antigua & Barbuda, Nigeria, Kiribati, Tunisia, and Malta.
Antigua & Barbuda
Exhibition: “The Last Universal Man 1926–2009”
Artist: Frank Walter
Curator: Barbara Paca
Commissioner: Melville Richardson
Venue: Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli, Zattere Dorsoduro, 909/A
Frank Walter, Polaroid Photograph, 1992. Photo by Kenneth M. Milton Fine Arts Conservation. Courtesy of the Estate of Frank Walter, 2017.
A nation of just over 91,000 people, Antigua & Barbuda is mounting an ambitious exhibition celebrating the life of the late artist and poet Frank Walter, who passed away in 2009. “The Last Universal Man 1926–2009” provides a deep look into the artist’s mind through a selection of his works, which span 5,000 pieces of art and 25,000 pages of archival material. The first person of color to run a sugar plantation in Antigua, Walter descended from both slaves and slave owners, and struggled to reconcile these distinct parts of his identity, ultimately channeling exploration of his past and present into an imaginative world of philosophy, poetry, art, and music.
Exhibition: “How About Now?”
Artists: Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, Qudus Onikeku
Curator: Adenrele Sonariwo
Commissioner: Godwin Obaseki
Venue: Scoletta dei Tiraoro e Battioro, San Stae, Santa Croce 2059
Peju Alatise, Nation Interrupted, 2013-2015. Courtesy of the artist and the Nigerian Pavilion at 2017 Venice Biennale.
Nigeria’s recent influence on the Venice Biennale has been significant (the last edition was curated by the country’s Okwui Enwezor), but with “How About Now?” the nation presents its first pavilion, showcasing a trio of artists responding to the eponymous question. “The aim of the Nigerian Pavilion is [...] asking at what point does Nigeria’s ‘now’ begin,” explained curator Adenrele Sonariwo in a statement. The answer is at least partly in the past, with Victor Ehikhamenor mounting The Biography of the Forgotten, an installation of that looks back on classical Benin art and how colonialism shapes culture. Peju Alatise will present Flying Girls—eight life-sized sculptures which at once highlight the injustices women face in contemporary Nigeria while imagining a freer, more equitable future. And dancer Qudus Onikeku, drawing from his Yoruba heritage, looks for answers in the memory and flesh of the human body with Right Here, Right Now, a trio of performance films.
Exhibition: “ARS LONGA, VITA BREVIS! / SINKING ISLANDS, UNSINKABLE ART”
Artists: Daniela Danica Tepes; Performance collectives Kairaken Betio and Ngaon Nareau
Curators: Pelea Tehumu, Nina Tepes
Commissioner: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Eera Teakai Baraniko
Venue: Palazzo Mora, Strada Nuova, Cannaregio 3659
Daniela Danica Tepes, still from Kairaken Betio, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Like Venice, Kiribati—a remote string of islands in the Pacific Ocean—is sinking. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Kiribati’s president announced that, due to global warming and rising sea levels, the residents of his country will soon be forced to relocate. The impending disappearance of this paradisiacal country and its culture are the subject of its Venice Biennale debut, “SINKING ISLANDS, UNSINKABLE ART.”
Curated by Pelea Tehumu, the Kiribati’s Senior Culture Officer, and Nina Tepes, the project corrals the work of 35 Kiribati artists who preserve the island’s age-old traditions of dance, song, and performance. In the pavilion, footage of exuberant performances by collectives Ngaon Nareau and Kairaken Betio will showcase the vibrancy of the country’s culture. The beach on which they’re dancing looks idyllic and calm, but elsewhere in the exhibition artist Daniela Danica Tepes’s work reminds us that it, like the rest of the island, is in peril. In her Kiribati Warriors, a new animation, warriors dressed in traditional garb float untethered in an expanse of blue that simultaneously resembles the ocean and—more ominously—heaven.
“The Absence of Paths”
Commissioner: The Presidency of the Republic and the Tunisian Ministry of Culture
Curator: Lina Lazaar
Venue: Three locations including an outdoor checkpoint at the Arsenale shipyard, a central issuing center in the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi building, and a kiosk on the crossing of Via Garibaldi
Tunisia returns to the Venice Biennale for the first time since 1958 with an unorthodox presentation that addresses international migration. Unlike most national pavilions, “The Absence of Paths” won’t showcase the work of artists. Instead, “aspirant migrants” will activate the project, explained the project’s curator Lina Lazaar. At three locations or “checkpoints” in and around the Venice Biennale’s Giardini and Arsenale, anonymous migrants will hand fictional travel documents to visitors.
The interactive performance responds to Tunsia’s role as a gateway into Europe for many refugees; it also addresses human rights issues and international political disputes that have resulted from recent mass migration, an aftershock of war and persecution. The project takes on a particular significance in Venice, where the international art audience can metaphorically “move freely from nation to nation,” explained Lazaar, referring to the Biennale’s network of national pavilions.
Exhibition: “Homo Melitensis An Incomplete Inventory in 19 Chapters”
Artists: Adrian Abela, John Paul Azzopardi, Aaron Bezzina, Pia Borg, Gilbert Calleja, Austin Camilleri, Roxman Gatt, David Pisani, Karine Rougier, Joe Sacco, Teresa Sciberras, Darren Tanti and Maurice Tanti Burlò, artefacts from Heritage Malta’s national collection, and private collections and various archives from Għaqda tal-Pawlini
Curators: Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella
Commissioner: Arts Council Malta
Located in the waters between Sicily and Tunisia, the island of Malta has been a cultural melting pot; it’s been governed by the Byzantine Empire, Muslim rulers, the French, the British, and more. This year, for Malta’s first Biennale presentation since its debut in 1999, curators Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella attempt to visualize the country’s multifaceted identity through its art. Work by contemporary Maltese artists, selected from the curators’ respective networks and through an open call, will join ancient artifacts and archival photographs sourced from national collections. But Hutschek and Vella hope to accomplish more through the exhibition than just paint a picture of Maltese cultural output: “It is also about the presentation of these elements in various social and international contexts,” they wrote in a statement. “In other words, it seeks to show how cultural traditions are presented in public.”