‘Embrace the unexpected’: African art boosts its presence at Venice Biennale

<span>Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA</span>
Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Few countries in Africa have been leading the charge in the contemporary art scene like Nigeria. In 2024, as Africa aims to buck the decades-long trend of under-representation at the Venice Biennale, all eyes will be on the west African country for its ambitious second-ever national pavilion, along with first-time participants Benin and Morocco, whose presence has been hailed as “a milestone for the continent”.

Aindrea Emelife, the 29-year-old curator of the Nigerian pavilion, doesn’t take the responsibility lightly. “It is extremely important – for Nigeria, for Africa. I feel like we are at the cusp of something – politically and culturally,” Emelife says, promising that the pavilion will “embrace the unexpected”, “show who we are”, and “shake off narrow stereotypes”.

Sunshine Alaibe, creative director of Art Report Africa, a hub for visual arts and culture in Nigeria, says artists, designers and film-makers from the continent are “bulldozing” their way on to the global stage. Events such as Art X Lagos (Nigeria), Dak’art (Senegal), 1-54 Marrakesh (Morocco), and Investec Cape Town Art Fair (South Africa), she says, “are broadening the minds of those that participate in the art market”.

Azu Nwagbogu, the Nigerian curator of the Benin pavilion, says: “The simultaneous participation of Benin and Morocco, two nations with rich artistic histories, marks a milestone for the continent.

“Benin’s distinctive visa-free, open-border policy, a rarity on the continent, has birthed a cultural renaissance for Africa,” he adds. “The nation, under President [Patrice] Talon’s leadership, is at the forefront of the ambitious restitution movement, assuming a leadership role in shaping the arts and culture landscape across the continent.”

We are refuting what the colonial project tried to do – disconnect us from our culture. Instead, we embrace it

Aindrea Emelife, art curator

Emelife has assembled an impressive lineup for Nigeria’s pavilion, including British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare and Nigerian-American visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, as well as “rising art world star” Precious Okoyomon, though only one – London-born Ndidi Dike – is based in Nigeria.

“In all corners of culture, from film’s Nollywood boom, to the global dominance of Afrobeats, from our sweep of Nigerian authors, to our culinary experiments internationally and, of course, an international focus and fervour for contemporary art, Nigeria is booming because in these many ways, creatives are looking back and within themselves and imagining a future,” says Emelife. “We are refuting what the colonial project tried to do – disconnect us from our culture. Instead, we embrace it, we reimagine it, and we bring it to the world.”

The theme of the pavilion is Nigeria Imaginary because, Emelife says, “imagination is the most fertile and powerful tool of liberation that we possess”.

“How do you imagine a nation? Can we make a contemporary parable? These are some of the questions that arose when I sat down to ponder how to articulate such a diverse nation,” she says, adding that “optimism and belief in the future is embedded in the Nigerian psyche”.

“The Nigerian Pavilion hurls the viewer towards an optimistic future by the wind of history – an optimistic past, a disquiet present and an imagining of a Nigeria that could have been and many Nigerias that live within us.”

Related: Nollywood moment: African film industries ‘could create 20m jobs’

Emelife is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the highly anticipated Museum of West African Art (Mowaa), based in Benin City, Nigeria, which will open in stages from late 2024. Christie’s and the Mowaa collaborated last year to raise funds for the Nigerian pavilion, with the likes of Shonibare and British-born Tunji Adeniyi-Jones donating works.

The 60th edition of the Venice Biennale, which will run from 20 April to 24 November, is being led by Adriano Pedrosa, the Brazilian curator and director of the São Paulo Museum of Art, and explores the idea of Stranieri Ovunque, or Foreigners Everywhere, evoking the concept of no boundaries, “a world rife with multiple crises concerning the movement and existence of people across countries”. The UK will be represented by the Ghana-born artist and film-maker John Akomfrah, who moved to England when he was four years old.

The Benin pavilion will feature four artists – Mofouli Bello, Chloé Quenum, Ishola Akpo and Romuald Hazoumé, who will address the theme of Everything Precious Is Fragile. “This theme provides a lens through which we can navigate tragic historical events, such as the transatlantic slave trade and resistance to it through the bravery of Agojie, Dahomey Amazons,” says Nwagbogu, citing Benin’s elite female warriors.

Nwagbogu, who founded the African Artists’ Foundation in 2007 and is director of the LagosPhoto Festival, recently visited the high priest of Vodoun at his palace in Ouidah. “He had a memorial wall with portraits of past ancestors [and] in the middle of that memorial wall was a framed picture of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor,” he says.

“It was a moving moment. He was visibly emotional when we spoke about the violence meted out to African Americans in the United States.”

The theme of the pavilion “involves grappling with the urgent issues of our time: ecology, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the wisdom of learning from nature and our ancestors to navigate the challenges of the 21st century,” says Nwagbogu.

Four arts events not to miss in Africa in 2024

1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair (8-11 February): The fair will showcase contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora in Marrakech, Morocco. Touria El Glaoui, the founding director, says her goal is “to contribute to a global narrative that recognises Africa’s pivotal role in the contemporary art landscape”.

Investec Cape Town Art Fair (16-18 February): The curatorial theme for the 2024 edition of Africa’s largest art fair is Unbound, and will focus on emerging and “unbound” voices. “Art becomes a compelling catalyst amid global challenges. It offers individuals a platform for expression, a space where diverse voices can be heard,” the organisers say. The 2024 show features 112 exhibitors represented by 24 countries, with more than 400 exhibiting artists made up of 54 different nationalities from across the globe.

The Dakar Biennale (16 May to 16 June): Known as Dak’Art, the biennale is a major contemporary arts exhibition that debuted in 1996 and opened to non-African nationals in 2014. It includes painting, graffiti, photography and textiles. This year’s biennale is being curated by the art critic and composer Salimata Diop.

ART X Lagos (31 October to 3 November): The leading international art fair in west Africa will include film, music, talks, and the ART X prize, a leading pan-African art award for emerging artists. Tokini Peterside-Schwebig, ART X Lagos’s founder, said: “ART X Lagos remains a cornerstone of the African art industry. Our uniqueness and strength lies in our ability to gather a wide spectrum of artistic voices on one stage, ranging from a revered nonagenarian artist and prominent collectors, to the hottest new musical talents in Africa.”