By Jacquiline Mwangi
Published May 3, 2015
Kenya shall not participate in the seven-month 56th Venice Art Olympic set to open on May 9, 2015.
This follows non-stop protest from fine artists in Nairobi that pushed the Minister for Culture to call a Press Conference on April 14, 2015 at which he dissociated Kenya from the 56th edition of what is touted as the world’s leading platform for contemporary art.
Hassan Wario Arero, the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts, termed nine individuals who were said to be exhibiting in the ‘Kenyan Pavilion’ as impostors and “strongly condemn[ed] their act of impersonation.”
“Our investigation on this issue shows that this has happened at least twice in 2003 and 2013 through the involvement of Armando Tanzini who resides in Malindi. Tanzini and his team have presented themselves wrongfully and repeatedly as Kenya’s official representatives,” the Minister said in a hard-hitting but mildly (almost diplomatically)-worded statement from what the artists who pushed the government to act had prepared.
Saying he was consulting relevant government departments “to understand how this has happened repeatedly and to permanently prevent this from happening again,” Dr Arero stressed, “Our intention is to ensure that no such misrepresentation of Kenyan artists occurs in the future.”
Though Kenya had been listed as one of the 90 countries represented in Venice, the number of participating countries had dropped to 89 countries on April 23, 2015 when we checked it. Not even the names of the nine individuals—Armando Tanzini, Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang, Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo–whose work was to be exhibited in the ‘Kenyan Pavilion’ were showing; they all returned an ‘error’ or ‘wrong command’.
A group of Kenyan fine artists had demanded that the government stops the largely non-Kenyan citizen exhibitors from using the Kenyan name and flag on their pavilion at the event that is said to have been inaugurated in 1895 and whose 56th edition is scheduled to run May 9-November 22, 2015. The incensed artists had questioned who had given Italian and Chinese nationals the mandate to represent Kenya.
Having begun with an online petition while pushing the government to act against people whose presence in Italy they termed as ‘an insult to Kenyan artistic excellence’, the artists finally met minister Hassan Wario Arero.
In the meeting with artists Justus Kyalo, Paul Onditi and Wambui Kamiru and art managers Judy Ogana (The GoDown Arts Centre), Sylvia Gichia (Kuona Art Trust), Lydia Gatundu-Galavu (Curator of Contemporary Art at National Museums of Kenya), the minister promised to send letters of protest from the government of Kenya to the Italian Embassy in Nairobi and to the organisers of Venice Biennale informing them that Kenya had no official representation at the 56th Venice Biennale. He also committed to write to the Italian Armando Tanzini who had represented Kenya in the event in 2013 to remove the Kenyan name and flag from the pavilion, as he does not represent the interests of Kenya.
And perhaps to show how serious the government he represents is on this issue, the minister assigned curator Lydia Gatundu-Galavu the responsibility of keeping his office abreast of Venice Biennale developments.
“My ministry undertakes to make official contact with the organisers of the Venice Biennale in order to place Kenya’s official bid for participation in the next Biennale in 2017,” the minister said. “I shall convene a meeting of stakeholders to discuss the way forward for a truly representative Kenyan Pavilion in 2017.”
Noting that it takes at least a year “to prepare for an event of this scale and importance”, Dr Arero said, “I will be working closely with the relevant professional art organisations and artists, to carefully select a committee and curator who will work with my ministry to select the finest Kenyan artists to represent our nation at the 2017 Biennale.”
Apart from selecting “the finest Kenyan artists to represent our nation at the 2017 Biennale”, does Dr Arero know how much it costs to participate in the Venice Biennale?
Although the Constitution of Kenya has a provision for the promotion of culture and the arts, the country lacks any official policy articulating how this is to be done.
Now that the ‘ insult to Kenyan artistic excellence’ shall not be flaunted in the 2015 edition of the art Olympics in Venice, the question that should be giving Kenyan artists sleepless nights is whether they—and their government—have the capacity to raise the money required for a fully functioning pavilion in Italy in 2017. Or could they be turning themselves into the 2017 contemporary art spectacle?
While Zimbabbwe is spending ZAR4.5 Million (about Sh40.5 Million) on the 56th Venice Biennale, Seychelles spent 50,000 Euros (Sh5.2 Million) to participate in a previous Venice Biennale show!