Presented since 1979, La Biennale di Venezia is the most influential architecture fair in the world. For the first time, this year’s edition is curated by an African architect, Leslie Loko. She emphasized that a strong African presence is the central feature of the show. Indeed, the 2023 exhibition is part of an undeniable shift towards fairer representation in global architecture.
The Biennale, a cultural institution founded as early as 1895, is a manifestation of the world order established by European imperialism. It is an international platform for a network of strong academic and professional groups, material producers, construction companies, developers and public authorities. They meet in Venice to present and discuss their work.
The Biennale relies heavily on private sponsors and many countries host their own pavilions in Venice. While the African Curator has no bearing on these pavilions, she does have ample scope to define the shape of the main pavilion and its exhibits, the ‘Force Majeure’ and ‘Dangerous Liaison’ sections.
As a Professor of Architecture with an academic focus on African cities and non-Western architectural forms, I was attending Preview Week in Venice. I believe that the African presence at the event brings a much-needed complex new perspective that needs to shape the future of the Biennale.
Leslie Loko and Dimas Nwoko
In the first hall of this year’s exhibition, at the entrance to the Corderie dell’Arsenale – a delicate 300-meter building where the Venetian navy produced its cords for more than seven centuries – a diffused blue light shines. It invites visitors to reflect on the idea of the blue hour, the time after sunset and before nightfall. For Lokko, light represents a new era: “a moment between dream and awakening…a moment of hope”.
Lokko, a Ghanaian-Scottish architect, educator and novelist, is the first woman of color to curate the show. In its coordinating statement, it highlighted the “Lab of the Future.” Instead of a place for science experiments, a laboratory should be thought of as a workshop. Here different practitioners can collaboratively test new forms of architecture. In the West, says Lokko, one continues to associate architects with the personalities who build buildings. But they do much more than that. They build community, competence and knowledge in a rapidly hybridizing and interconnected world.
Lokko spoils views. She invites visitors to look at Africa not as a place to pass on Western models, but rather as much from which to learn.
The decision to award the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to Dimas Nwoko, a Nigerian architect and artist born in 1935, is significant for Lokko’s perspective.
His relatively few buildings have been cited as “pioneers of the sustainable, resource-conscious, culturally authentic forms of expression now sweeping the African continent – and the world”.
An example of this is the Dominican Institute and Chapel that he completed in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1975. The motifs of a Christian building were reinterpreted through an African sense of place and ornamentation.
Lokko’s approach marks a radical shift in the way the Biennale operates. It is an important contribution to the creation of true ‘zones of contact’: places of fruitful exchange between people who present different points of view. This replaces the old arbitrary hierarchies with a mutual respect for diversity.
This year’s event sparked controversy over the denial of visas to African architects. A good starting point for mutual respect is to truly enable everyone to participate and be present, by breaking down the barriers imposed by systemic inequality and xenophobic immigration policies.
What is shown
Of the 89, mostly young people, invited to this year’s fair, more than half are from Africa or the diaspora. They are carefully organized into the two main show sites, Giardini and Arsenale, and six divisions.
In the main wing, where the Force Major gallery sets the scene, a towering installation by Nigerian visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous captures images of African futurism. His images are powerful spatial metaphors for the relationship between architecture, communities, and the environment. and the need to repair the damage done by the former colonial powers.
In another room, the Nairobi-based Oral Archive by Cave Bureau celebrates the oral tradition of passing knowledge down the generations as a way to keep humans in community with the land. On the multimedia screen, three channels overlap. They feature conversations with cave-dwelling societies, sequences from the Anthropocene Museum, and drawings, maps, and models made across vast geological sites.
Focus on two of Lokko’s overarching biennial themes – decolonization and decarbonization – can also be found in Arsenale’s long, and at times uneven, sequence. Here the Serious Relationships section intertwines with the Coordinator’s special projects titled Food, Agriculture and Climate Change; gender and geography; mnemonic; and future guests.
The artificial landscapes of Nigerian-born film producer and director Michael Oydememo are presented here. A material land made of clay and polluted by global capitalism is being transported from Port Harcourt in Nigeria to Venice. It is a springboard for imagining the future, displayed through AI-generated images on the ceiling.
Congolese artist and photographer Sami Balogi expertly deconstructs the official narrative of colonial occupation, suggesting a vision of architecture and the human body as monuments of social history. This is done by showing an old colonial Belgian documentary that is poetically intertwined with film footage captured today.
What does this all mean
The 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale is an important and complex edition with a necessary message. One can only hope that the event will continue the process of decolonization initiated by Loko after years of non-confrontation, comparison and exchange of different positions.
A radical rethinking of the Biennale and the (architectural) world in general is long overdue. We need a different future. Enter the blue hour. DM
The biennial opened to the public on May 20 and runs until November 26.
It was first published by The Conversation.
Toma Berlanda is Professor of Architecture at the University of Cape Town.
This story first appeared in Our Weekly 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R29.