Venice Architectural Biennale gives overdue voice to long-silenced Africa

May 20, 2023  -VENICE, Italy (AP) — Scottish-Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko is giving a platform to voices that have long been silenced at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens Saturday, the first ever curated by an African, featuring a preponderance of work by Africans and the African diaspora.

The 18th architectural Biennale, titled “The Laboratory of the Future,” explores decolonization and decarbonization, topics about which Africans have much to say, Lokko said, citing the long exploitation of the continent for both human and environmental resources.

“The Black body was Europe’s first unit of energy,” Lokko told The Associated Press this week. “We have had a relationship to resources since time immemorial. We operate at a place where resources are not stable. They are also often fragile. They’re often exploited. Our relationship to them is exploitative.”

Lokko tapped global stars like David Adjaye and Theaster Gates among 89 participants in the main show — more than half of them from Africa or the African diaspora. To reduce the Biennale’s carbon footprint, Lokko encouraged the participating architects, artists and designers to be as “paper-thin” as possible with their exhibits, resulting in more drawings, film and projections as well as the reuse of materials from last year’s contemporary art Biennale.

“This exhibition is a way of showing that this work, this imagination, this creativity, has been around for a very, very long time,” Lokko said. “It’s just that it hasn’t found quite the right space, in the same way.”

It is a fair question why an African-centric exhibition has been so long in coming to such a high-profile, international platform like Venice.

Okwui Enwezor, the late Nigerian art critic and museum director, was the first African to head the Venice Biennale contemporary art fair, which alternates years with the architectural show, in 2015. Lokko was the first Biennale curator selected by President Roberto Cicutto, who was appointed in 2020 during the global push for inclusion ignited by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.

“This is more for us than for them,” Cicutto said, “to see the production, hear the voices we have heard too little, or heard in the way we wanted to.”

Impediments in the West to inclusive events with a focus on the global south were evident in the refusal by the Italian embassy in Ghana to approve visas for three of Lokko’s collaborators, which Lokko decried this week as “an old and familiar tale.”

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