Venice Biennale Curator Series: Nigeria

by | 25. Apr 2016

Article | Interview | Venice Biennale
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Nigerian Pavilion ‘Diminished Capacity

Diminished Capacity is the debut appearance of Nigeria at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The exhibition intends to analyze a historical transition moment in Africa with the ambition to rewrite history, starting from Nigeria. Camilla Boemio, pavilion curator, recently sat down with arcspace editor-in-chief, Robert Martin, to give some insight into her ambitions for this momentous occasion.

Robert Martin: Hi Camilla, thank you for giving up your time to talk to us here at arcspace. From your introduction, I understand that you’re from Italy, not Nigeria. How did you become the curator of their national pavilion?

Camilla Boemio: The global world is in a transformation and the cultural world is creating several unedited connections. Increasingly, intellectual projects are parts of a bigger ecological, economic and technological system in which collaborations are a source of innovation.

My involvement was born out of artistic interest and the ‘urge’ to speak about social architecture: to talk about the difference in cultural and aesthetic canons; why these differences are there; and how we approach them. It’s quite easy to ‘dismiss’ a certain approach as naive, immature or wanting to play hardball with geopolitical issues, without really understanding what’s going on in that nation and why certain tendencies have developed there. The fact that the biennale theme, ‘Reporting from the Front’ is either a political / activist approach incidentally, both very present in the Nigerian architecture scene and in my research – I was the perfect curator for this collaboration with architect and artist Ola-Dele Kuku.

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Perspectives of architectures in Nigeria. Image by: Gabriele Mizzoni

RM: This will be the first time Nigeria will present a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Can you tell me why Nigeria has decided to join this year?

CB: As the saying goes; ‘it is not how long but how well’. Nigeria has been in a continuous socio-cultural development since its independence. Being the most populous nation on the continent and the so called ‘heart beat of Africa’, the priorities of the government might not immediately include a participation at the Venice Biennale.

However, the ability and capacity of Nigerian architects, artists, curators, writers and musicians are world renowned – not to forget that the last artistic director of the Venice Art Biennile, Mr Okwi Enwezor, is Nigerian.

According to the Nigerian commissioner, Mr Nkanta George Ufot (The Director of International Cultural Affairs) of the Ministry of Information and Culture, ‘international cultural exchange development is a major priority of the new government’. I am certain that the ambition of the Ministry of Information and Culture is to establish a solid foundation for the continuous participation of Nigeria at La Biennale.

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‘Agenda Setting’ (neon series) Africa is not a country! © 2016 courtesy ola-dele kuku projects

RM: The overall theme set by the biennale director and 2016 Pritzker Prize Laurette, Alejandro Aravena, is “reporting from the front”. What do you see is the ‘front’ in Nigeria?

CB: The rhetoric of crisis suggests an apocalyptic scene where preventive measures and special interventions are required to ensure the survival of neoliberal forms of governance. Indeed, constant proclamations of crisis merely provide justification for political and economic reforms – reforms that would be otherwise unacceptable in a more empowered society.

The state of a ‘front’ in Nigeria is a really pertinent condition in which population, the rural and urban condition are in an evolution state and the duty of communication is to guarantee a new vision. Every time Africa, and Nigeria, are localized in an inappropriate way; we do not coordinate the right state of future. What does Africa mean? Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It makes up about a fifth of the world’s land. It is surrounded by large areas of water. There are 54 fully recognized and independent countries in Africa, and 14.7% (about a billion) of the world’s population lives there. Speaking of Africa in a general way of this continent is the first mistake.

At the same time Nigeria is not only one of the most important country for it is oil, but for much more as has a long and incredibly rich literary history. The developing architecture and art scene shows a very rich perspective of how some very strong political activities and architecture-as-art-activism initiatives are happening.

It’s a strong common voice that we reaffirm the foundational social justice mission of a continent; challenge racial biases that have excluded innovative artists, and architects of color from the art historical and cultural canons; and advance commitment to research the diverse histories and cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora.

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‘Suspended Animation’ (light box 2) © Ola-Dele Kuku Projects.

RM: How will your exhibition ‘Diminished Capacity’ fit in with Aravena’s theme?

CB: It is an important national pavilion of Alejandro Aravena’s Biennale. The architecture of Aravena as a work that wants to be created with a precariousness of means, in a conscious escape from the opulence of contemporary society which seeks unique works of architects of the media world.

We come from the same line of thinking – we are Diminished Capacity from the system – the feeble voice that wants an opportunity to show social architecture within slow processes, bringing stable solutions in a politically tumultuous territory. We could become a magnet in the preparation of a new platform of talents and ideas.

Regardless, it would be interesting to see a deep commitment from our geographical and political realities, and see what happens now to re-introduce that approach, with visitors well aware about the issues of globalization. This would provide a powerful ‘screen’ against naively representation and interpretation of architecture. It may be that the Biennales of the future will steer more (or back) towards that model, who knows.

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‘Teatro Dell’archivio’ 1996 © Ola-Dele Kuku Projects / courtesy Philippe Laeremans Tribal Art Gallery, Brussels

RM: Can you tell us more about the work of the exhibiting architect, Ola-Dele Kuku?

CB:  His works contributes creative and critical thinking to how we might live otherwise with a different point of view of the African continent. My curatorial approach seeks to examine how Ola Dele Kuku has not only focused on Nigerian history, but also simultaneously investigated the conditions of mobility in relation to the actuality with innovative installation chosen to re-write the diminished capacity of an territory.

Conflict is one of the recurrent themes in the work of Ola-Dele Kuku. As an architect-artist, he sees conflict as one of the driving mechanisms in our world, and as a tool to set change in motion. Conflict has played a crucial role since the dawn of creation. The Diminished Capacity is a part of the mechanism of a state of conflict. The existing hierarchy is at its zenith and is therefore about to fall. And although social media sometimes give the impression that our world is just a village, we are still increasingly concerned with what is happening outside our own front door. How our world will evolve is still unclear, but there is no doubt that conflict stimulates change. It stands the existing order on its head and inspires innovation.

Throughout his practice, Ola-Dele Kuku, has consistently reshaped representation in a timely challenge. In this pavilion he  will be working with drawing, installation, and objects, as well as revisiting, in an unconventional approach, the mainstays of architectural representational methods – plan, elevation and, section – to inject unsettling slippages into their rigorous formalism.

The exhibition will create a stratification of tensions between methods, concepts and the materials used. It’s an unexpected and site-specific use of the space with contemporary art in which the curatorial concept starting from a sentence of an installation: “Africa is not a country!”; In that conflict wants to prospect new methodologies.

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Agenda Setting II, 2008 © Ola-Dele Kuku. Museum Van Elsene

RM: As one of only three African nations presenting at the Biennale, do you think it’s important for continents outside of Europe to be well represent at Venice?

CB: The first International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale was set up during the seventies, at Magazzini del Sale and at Zattere, assembled in the visual arts sector. The first architecture International exhibition curated by Paolo Portoghesi, titled ‘The presence of the past’ (in 1980), was served in the Corderie. It’s an ‘economical romantic time’ of Italy thinking about this era; there are not more any types of condition with this social-culture period.

Beginning with Catherine David’s and Okwui Enwezor Documenta (in 1997 and 2002 respectively), the world of mega-exhibitions has announced a shift toward rethinking the limits of Euro-American internationalism, and granting greater sensitivity to global practices in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South and East Asia, Africa, and Latin America. So It’s a prior evolution for continents outside of Europe to be well represent at La Biennale of Venice.

I think that the rest of the world can learn from Nigeria from our participation at La Biennale. Nigerian curatorial and architectural practices have significantly transformed in the last couple of decades in being much more attentive to contemporary art and architecture in the global field.

Our vision, through the work of Ola-Dele Kuku, is to present an innovative installation, through which Kuku can transmit his personal thought and ethical and artistic message. Nigeria will show a visual-literary pavilion which can be enjoyed by the public, invited to take part not only in the perception of the work but also directly inside, where written communication takes up a role that is active and equal to the one of the forms, affirming itself in the surrounding circular space.

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Venue: Spazio PUNCH – Giudecca

RM: Nigeria currently doesn’t have a permanent pavilion in Venice. Can you tell us a little about where you will be exhibiting?

CB: The development of the curatorial project in an ideal venue was one of the most difficult choice. In a long research around Venice, the Spazio Punch was an interesting discovery. It’s a not-for-profit space on Giudecca island, in an old former warehouse that used to hold spirits and beer.

The shape of the space and its imposing walls adopt a contemporary language that differs from the historical background, thus inviting visitors to discover an increasingly transformed, mysterious and fascinating space. At the same time we are on an island of an island; which creates a stratification of suggestions and otherness.

RM: Thanks Camilla for giving up your time and providing some more insight into your intentions for the Nigerian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016. is run by the Danish Architecture Centre, who is also commissioner for the Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Read more about the Danish pavilion 2016 here