Kenyans shine at Italy art Olympics


Weathering landscapes by Wanja Kimani in the Kenya pavilion at Venice Biennale 2022. -PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG

What you need to know:

Despite numerous setbacks in the weeks leading up, the Kenya pavilion at Venice Biennale 2022 was probably the most successful to date. Described as the ‘Olympics of the art world,’ is one of the largest international contemporary art shows.

Fifty-eight countries and 213 artists participated in the 59th Biennale from April to November 2022 in Venice, Italy. Over 800,000 tickets were sold.

The Kenya pavilion, titled Exercises in Conversation, was curated by artist and producer Jimmy Ogonga, with arts writer-curator Simon Njami as the project adviser.

The theme explored the relationships and dynamics between participants in a conversation and how complex relationships affect stories, history, and pedagogy.

“The national pavilion is there to showcase contemporary Kenyan art in its most avant-garde form,” said Ogonga.

Syowia Kyambi and Kaloki Nyamai artworks in the Kenya pavilion at Venice Biennale 2022. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG

The featured artists were Syowia Kyambi, Dickens Otieno, Wanja Kimani, and Kaloki Nyamai. Together they offered a window into the quality and diversity of Kenya’s visual arts; their works layered with subtle messages that stimulate thought and dialogue.

“For this edition, it was important to select artists talking about something corresponding with what the Biennale was trying to deal with,” said Ogonga.

Milk of Dreams, the overall theme for the 2022 Biennale, is the title of a children’s illustrated fantasy book. The exhibition’s overarching themes looked at the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses, interpersonal relationships, and connections to technology and the Earth.

The Biennale’s main areas are the Central Pavilion at Giardini, and the Arsenale, a former shipyard converted into an exhibition space.

The Kenya pavilion was quite a distance from the centre of the action. Nevertheless, the rustic-looking Fabrica 33 hall, with exposed brick walls, lattice windows, and high-ceilinged interiors, was an attractive spot for the eclectic pieces on show.

Syowia Kyambi’s installation, I’ve Heard Many Things About You, explored Germany’s colonial past in Namibia, especially the atrocities committed during that period.

 I Have Heard Many Things About You by Syowia Kyambi in the Kenya pavilion at Venice Biennale 2022. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG

It comprised a long veil of archival pictures and text, stitched together and hung from the ceiling, and a red-and-black national Herero dress from Namibia with deep historical roots.

“The conversation element and methodology of stitching fit into the curatorial concept around Exercises In Conversation,” said Kyambi, who is of Kenyan and German heritage.

Much of her wider art practice aims to stimulate wider conversations around “issues to do with historical narratives that haven’t been discussed much and bringing out invisible stories.”

Dickens Otieno presented large wall hangings crafted in his signature style of woven strips cut from recycled aluminum cans. Early in life, his mother was a tailor, which informed his interest in the method of fabrics, and his art also reflects the weaving traditions of Kenya.

Dickens’ use of ubiquitous objects typically found in urban environments inspires deliberations about excessive consumption, repurposing, and environmental consciousness.

 Dickens Otieno artwork in the Kenya pavilion at Venice Biennale 2022.  PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG

UK-based Wanja Kimani presented Weathering Landscapes, a series of female forms in different outstretched and inward curling poses, painted on clear glass using plant-derived pigments. Hung in mid-air, the pictures had a delicate, ethereal quality.

“I view the body as a landscape, an ecological site that can inherit, evolve, desire and rest,” said Kimani, who painted them in spring, the season of regeneration.

Alongside these was Weathering Bodies, a video she filmed in the British countryside. It looks at how a place can inform memory and alter how we navigate a landscape.

“It brings together ideas of the hypervisibility of the black body against a British rural landscape,” she said.

Kaloki Nyamai also went gigantic with his Biennale paintings on scrunched-up canvas. In addition to multiple coats of paint, Nyamai’s technique incorporates charcoal, newspaper, and threads, sometimes stitching together pieces of canvas.

His abstract figurative illustrations often comment on history, the future, and daily life in Kenya.

Venice Biennale started in 1895 and takes place every other year. Nine African countries had national pavilions in 2022, including first-time entrants Cameroon, Namibia, and Uganda.

The Zimbabwe pavilion was among the 10 Best National Pavilions. The Uganda pavilion received a special mention at the Biennale awards ceremony “in acknowledgment of their vision, ambition, and commitment to art and working in their country.”

Kenya has had a problematic liaison with the Biennale since the country’s debut appearance in 2013. It was a disappointing start as only two of the 12 artists selected by Italian curator Paola Poponi were Kenyan (Kivuthi Mbuno and Wangombe Wachira), the rest being Italian and Chinese.

In 2015 the national pavilion was again non-representational of Kenya as six of eight artists were Chinese. Two years later, Ogonga and members of the artist community miraculously put together a national pavilion without any support from the government.

Kenya was absent from the Biennale in 2019.

The 2021 event was postponed to 2022 due to Covid-19, and Kenya returned. However, it was no easy ride. Funding was slow in arriving, and resources were mobilised at the last minute to cover dozens of requirements from air tickets and accommodation to website creation, hiring service providers, and assembling the exhibition space.

For the first time, the Ministry of Culture was in attendance, and former Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed formally inaugurated the event in April 2022.

“The atmosphere during the opening night was incredible because we felt the support of the people that made it possible,” said Kimani.

The featured artists hope their participation in the art Olympics inspires the next generation of Kenyan creatives.

“The previous group paved the way for us. Hopefully, we have paved the way for the next ones,” said Kyambi.

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