“We should allow an African curator to turn the whole thing on its head”

Obsidian Rain by Kabage Karanja and Stella Mutegi

The haughty dismissals of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale by western critics overlook the welcome involvement of African architects, argue Kabage Karanja, Stella Mutegi and Patti Anahory.


It can be said that nothing important or thought-provoking lacks controversy. This year’s Venice Architecture Biennale serves it in plenty if we go by the criticism directed at the curatorship of professor Hashim Sarkis and his team as well as the many works produced by a diverse range of participants.

These criticisms include articles such as Carolyn Smith’s critique in the Architectural Review, titled Outrage: The Venice Biennale Makes a Mess and Oliver Wainwright’s review in the Guardian, headlined A pick ‘n’ mix of conceptual posturing.

Edwin Heathcote’s review in the Financial Times was titled Full of words, questions and stuff.

Roberto Zancan’s piece in Domus, titled Biennale, Stop Making Sense! at least presents a more balanced reading of the event, but yet with a sobering conclusion.

Our unapologetic positioning as Africans in this response to these criticisms cannot be understated, especially when considering architecture’s poor heritage of representation of diverse thoughts and practices of people seen to be “below” the enlightened global North.

This year’s biennale discusses urgent topics that we, as a global society, need to address if we are to build a more egalitarian, inclusive and ecologically conscious world

Broadly speaking and without too much posturing, we present a collective counter-position that can be partitioned into five main headings, with the simple brief to balance the debate surrounding this exhibition and how it was all put together.

It sifts through the thoughts of a few participants in the exhibition, processed and consolidated into, yes, more words and readings that can help visitors take a fresh and deeper look at the exhibition. We then conclude with some free-radical thoughts about the Biennale’s future.

Traditional models versus emergent models

Many of the criticisms fail to place enough gravity on the heterogeneity of contemporary practices, and the ongoing expansion of the architecture discipline. It seemed clear that some of the readings were locked in a nostalgic past where architecture is synonymous with construction.

This year’s biennale set itself to discuss contentions and urgent topics that we, as a global society, need to address if we are to build a more egalitarian, inclusive and ecologically conscious world.

The answers coming from participants attest to the diversity of topics that need to be engaged with if we are to achieve such a future, which has to be the opposite from, if at least in addition to a homogeneous one.

Architecture’s knowledge and strengths go beyond the beautiful practice of building that too often gets obsessively relied upon to address the questions of how indeed we will live together.

The value of research and the installation format as a medium to convey its message

The seemingly blatant disdain toward research and or the diverse range of research production is another telling point in some of the critiques.

Much of architectural knowledge is produced through research and the ways to display them demand formats other than the traditional instruments of architecture, such as plans, sections and models.

The installations mocked as “research” are serious works that try to bring to the foreground many of the pressing issues of our times.

If the criticisms were targeted to the medium through which such works got expressed, it would have been acceptable. What is not acceptable is the ridiculing of long-term, serious efforts to advance knowledge in specific areas by discarding them, after short bursts of analysis into the work.

The role of the curator

The figure of the curator was also attacked. This could not have been more apparent the moment statements such as “a good curator should mirror the practice of a museum curator” emerged.

This could not have been more anachronistic. Museum settings are one thing, international platforms such as the biennale are another, from the way works are produced to their meanings, audience and lifespan, which attests to the diverse role architectural exhibitions play today.

The museum model has long been challenged and, arguably, surpassed. Architecture and art exhibitions have been shifting in character while undergoing a significant self-critical revision. It is the role of the curator to work towards creating the conditions and pushing boundaries for this new model to emerge.

To not have bothered in the first place: fighting pandemic procrastination

According to the curatorial team, only a handful of participants were able to maintain their initial proposals without the need to change or adapt their installation due to the hardships and ideological shifts in thought that the pandemic brought, such as the loss of sponsorship or logistical challenges from shipping to production.

This in many ways made the exhibition all the more refreshing and current to not only consider the impact of the pandemic but, in the words of Roberto Zancan, to consider that this year’s biennale marked the end of an era. It was an incredibly difficult series of moments in time when the curator and the whole biennale institution found it crucial to have the exhibition.

There is a great need to reignite the energy of the city but also that of the architectural world as a whole. A decision made to live and work with the trouble, without the luxuries and mirage of the post-pandemic comforts that may or may not come to look back at 2020 and 2021 with the crystal-clear vision that hindsight affords.

Participants addressing architecture’s inability to grapple with the most difficult of issues and crises across the planet

We find it hard to avoid the stereotypical depictions of critics’ aloof and often ambivalent to works by diverse communities – and this exhibition has a good supply of diverse projects. Many participants either received the gross broad-brushed grouping under the demeaning banner of Hashim’s selection bag of candy, or in many cases, given overly surfaced critiques about their seemingly pseudo research, or as described by one critic, served as inedible “word salad” – a description that even made the proudest recipients of this criticism giggle inside.

The celebration of the many African participants seemed to be cut short by the clouds cast over such works as Alatise’s Alasiri installation

It begs the question, however, how deep did the critics dig to understand the participants, as probed in the Yoruba proverb quoted by Nigerian artist and architect Peju Alatise in Alasiri, her project in the Among Diverse Beings section of the Arsenale.

“Yara rebate gba Ogun omokunrin ti won ba afara denu”, runs the proverb, which means “a small room can inhabit 20 young men if they have a deeper understanding for one another.”

How much time was really afforded to actually review the work and research of the participants at the biennale, and by extension Hashim’s curation of the entire exhibition? Surely the cultural barometers of our time might every so often need calibration to look in closer to read the longer climatic formations of such an event, rather than the immediate weather patterns of a press-day opening in isolation?

The celebration of the many African participants seemed to be cut short by the clouds cast over such works as Alatise’s Alasiri installation. This is a continuous body of sculptural and architectural objects and readings, reigniting mythical figures of the past and present, all set within free-standing door openings linked to another African proverb that states: “Eniyan ri bi ilekun, to bagba e laye ati wole, o ti di alasiri” (“People are like doors; if they permit you in, you become their keeper of secrets”).

“How will we live together is a poignant question, made more complex by the current Covid 19 crisis,” said Alatise, whose body of work both creates and inhabits a space where both women and men are liberated through a phantasmagoria of feminist origins and infrastructures. “The answer begs for moral inclusion that I feel architecture alone cannot give.”

Patti Anahory (who co-authored this piece with Kabage Karanja and Stella Mutegi of Cave_bureau) and Cesar Schofield Cardoso from Cape Verde present their project Hacking (the Resort): Water Territories and Imaginaries in the Arsenale in the As Emerging Communities section.

It features an exquisite artisanal fishing line floating plastic bottle wave installation, which in their own words “investigates a confluence of the possibilities where tourists and local labour meet in a choreographed strained dance of labour and leisure”.

This project imagines a space and time where both disparities and possibilities are confronted in equal measure, with a continuous body of work that manifests in their built projects and digital artworks.

Separately, with the biennale in mind, Anahory emphasized the disparities in funding allocations to realise the exhibition. She asks what would happen if all participants were constrained to a capped budget as a way to balance the output from both an environmental impact perspective, and to squarely bridge the north and south global economic divide.

This project was also whitewashed under the broad-brush criticism of the entire exhibition

Our Nairobi practice Cave_bureau presents The Anthropocene Museum, “Obsidian Rain”, an installation under Galileo Chini’s fresco in the dome of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, presented as part of the As One Planet section curated by Sarkis. This is a post-colonial architectural reading, representation and proposal to critique the anthropocene era.

This project was also whitewashed under the broad-brush criticism of the entire exhibition, dismissing the installation via comical depictions of moonstones and meteor showers, when in fact the hanging obsidian stones follow the shape of a cave used by Mau Mau freedom fighters during the colonial period and celebrated by Malcolm X.

Today, Cave_bureau uses this story to curate forums of resistance against the continuous neoliberalist expansions of geothermal energy extraction that is often done to the detriment of the local Masai community and the natural environment in Kenya.

The stones, sourced from the Great Rift Valley, reference mankind’s earliest raw material, which was used to create stone tools. This is an ignored architectural heritage that catapulted the homo sapien species into the troubled brave new world that we find ourselves in today.

So here the floating cave structure is critically juxtaposed against Chini’s fresco in the dome. This architectural refocusing is grounded further back beyond Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; that is, the human race’s collective heritage of cave inhabitation by our early ancestors. This is a heritage that is still caricatured right up to today, more so in the surfaced reading of this work.

Concluding together

We live in a deeply broken and divided world where many of the participants choose to work with the communities that are most affected by the global pressures that have their anthropogenic roots in slavery, imperialism and colonialism.

This is a continuous struggle lived through today, epitomized by the climate crisis movements, The Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights movements among many others. These pressures are intertwined and exacerbated by the present-day neoliberalist powers.

Architects can no longer ignore and leave this difficult work to politicians and activists to address these formidable global challenges

It was in fact the use of the hybrid counter powers of the contemporary arts within architecture that was heavily criticized, which in fact allows many to mould our place within the profession that often struggles to meet the current global challenges head-on.

As Sarkis intimates, architects can no longer ignore and leave this difficult work to politicians and activists to address these formidable global challenges, lest we all just remain as professional pawns aloof and marginalized from the pulse on the ground.

The question posed by Sarkis, “How will we live together?” in many ways remains both rhetorical and requiring an immediate space to grow and generate these answers together, especially when many voices and ideas continue to be silenced and ridiculed.

One could argue that the profession remains in the early sketching phase of confronting our impotence in the face of these pertinent global challenges of our time, while the hurried brick-and-mortar readings and spatial-planning remedies that seemed to be so desperately craved could very quickly lead us towards the mistakes of our forebears.

One welcome criticism was that future biennales can no longer remain the same: this one indeed marks the end of an era

This biennale was in fact a safe and open space, where we never felt overburdened to be the monolithic authors of a bright new future but instead allowed to creatively work with the cultural and physical matter that would in fact help us forge this new future together.

One welcome criticism was that future biennales can no longer remain the same: this one indeed marks the end of an era, where mountains of matter are shipped to Venice without confronting and justifying the carbon footprint. We should enact previous suggestions where carbon is sequestered by planting trees across the globe and through working with marginalized groups to do so.

We should be questioning if anything should be shipped in the first place? Maybe we should even be pondering over the observation by one critic to look at the accumulated knowledge and dexterity of many of the domestic biennale installers, subcontractors and artisans that could be curated in its own right.

Finally, we should allow an African curator to turn the whole thing on its head. Maybe the one wearing the latest Royal Gold nugget on his neck right now or, better still, his protege, Nigerien architect Mariam Kamara, whose contribution to this year’s biennale was close to genius if you care to look and listen a little closer.

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