Wine, dine and pay for your biennale

Wednesday March 29 2017

Sehnsucht by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO | FRANK

Sehnsucht by Beatrice Wanjiku. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY 

By Frank Whalley

A gala dinner is being planned to raise back-up funding for the Kenya Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as fears grow that the immediate $1million promised by the government will not come through in time.

The exhibition is programmed to open in May — and two weeks ago Director of Culture Kiprop Lagat who is in overall charge of the project, commented: “We need (that money) as soon as yesterday.”

The cash is wanted to pay for the hire of the exhibition venue — the Late Renaissance Palazzo Clary on the Giudecca Canal — freight costs, transport, insurance and other expenses.

It was formally requested by Culture Principal Secretary Joe Okudo three weeks ago, but at the time of writing it still had not been released by the Treasury.

The idea of the gala dinner was mooted at a brainstorming session held last week at Diani, on Kenya’s South Coast, by members of the Pavilion team including Dr Lagat, curator Jimmy Ogonga, some of the artists, and Lydia Galavu, curator of fine arts for the National Museums of Kenya.

Suggestions included private funding either by one wealthy benefactor or a group of well-wishers, and the dinner was seen as a way of both publicising the plight of the Pavilion project and bringing potential donors together.

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With the request to the Treasury for the immediate $1 million for this year’s Pavilion went a plea for an additional $500,000 to cover the cost of setting up a Secretariat to oversee Kenya’s involvement in future Biennales.

Artists slated to represent Kenya at this year’s Biennale are Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Paul Onditi, Arlene Wandera, and the duo Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter who show as one artist called Mwangi Hutter.

Hanging the exhibition — to be entitled Another Country, after the James Baldwin novel of that name — would be the painters Michael Soi and Justus Kyalo.
The government stepped in with its offer of funding after widespread concern that the Kenya Pavilion, a showcase for the country’s homegrown talent, had in the past been effectively hijacked by the Chinese, who baffled visitors by showing their artists’ work beneath the Kenyan flag.

Details of the dinner have yet to be fixed… but my bet is that dim sum — those tasty little Chinese dumplings — and oodles of noodles will not feature too strongly on the menu.
Whatever the outcome of attempts to get the Kenya Pavilion up and running, at least one East African artist is guaranteed a place in Venice.
Step forward another of Kenya’s established stars, Beatrice Wanjiku, who has been invited to take part in an exhibition called Personal Structures that will run alongside the official Biennale programme.

The exhibition is being curated by the Dutch NGO, the Global Art Affairs Foundation, which aims (its website explains) to increase awareness of the more philosophical themes in contemporary art, architecture and culture in general.

In particular, it promotes the themes, Time – Space – Existence, attempting to make them more accessible to a wider international audience through exhibitions, symposia, publications and art projects.

Personal Structures, to be held at the Palazzo Mora and Palazzo Bembo in Venice and backed by the European Council for Culture, aims to introduce a number of international artists whom the Foundation believes to have broadly shared intentions, with each approaching their subject in strikingly individual ways.

The project was started in 2002 by the Dutch artist Rene Rietmeyer. Since then there have been 28 exhibitions and eight symposia. Since 2011, Personal Structures has been held alongside the Biennale.

The dealer and curator Lavinia Calza who arranged Wanjiku’s participation through her ARTLabAfrica agency commented: “It is both a privilege and a great pleasure to take Wanjiku’s work to Venice where it will be seen by such an informed and enthusiastic audience.”

Wanjiku’s contribution will include paintings from her new series Savages, a development of her Straitjacket series that examined constraints on our humanity.
Savages goes further and interrogates a general disillusionment with life.

These paintings, more allusive even than the Straitjacket series, carry the dark taste of blood, a sense of drenched flesh and an increasing concern with the bones of existence.

They can be seen as chilling, like Goya’s late murals or Francis Bacon’s visceral figures, but they are saved from a superficial drama by commanding our attention — and respect — with their almost palpable grandeur.

These are stirring, magnificent, paintings; not decorative, not pointlessly pretty, and with something to tell us.

They peer into the soul — and we can be thankful that whatever the outcome of the wranglings over financing Kenya’s Biennale Pavilion, the country can be proud of what is to be shown regardless at Venice by one of its finest artists.