Painting Over Ugly Politics
To the left is a painting by Qin Feng, a Chinese artist whose work will be on display in the Kenya pavilion. Below is a piece by Peterson Kamwathi, a Kenyan artist passed up for the exhibition
Art knows no boundaries or borders. It was born alongside the human race. At its best, art appeals to something fundamental in our shared humanity. At its worst, it's just something to look at. Art can be experienced equally by all, and it holds no judgements against those who view it. It can be an expression of culture, history, individualism, or community, and it can be created by anyone.
But whose art is allowed to be seen?
Art may not be prejudiced, but the ‘art world’ is. The Venice Biennial is a prestigious art exhibition that brings members of the international art community together to represent their nations. Thirty countries in the Italian exhibition have permanent displays, dubbed pavilions,This year, 50 impermanent countries applied for pavilions of their own. Among them is Kenya, which hosted a display in 2013 and will again this year.
The event hardly sounds like anything but a beautiful, multicultural experience. It’s the chance for artists to share their own cultures and influences across international lines and to gain recognition, even if they come from struggling, developing nations.
That is, until you read the roster of artists who will represent Kenya: Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, and Li Gang, to name a few.
As in 2013, Kenya’s pavilion will be filled predominantly with the work of Chinese artists who have never been to Kenya, let alone are influenced by Africa in their work, but are easily able to pay an entrance fee that makes the showcase out of reach for many Kenyan artists.
Of the seven artists representing Kenya, two are citizens of the East African nation. Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo was born in Kenya but now lives in Switzerland and does not contribute to the Kenyan modern art scene. Armando Tanzini, a Kenyan real estate mogul, has lived in Kenya for more than 40 years but was born and raised in Italy.
Much of this misrepresentation of Kenyan art can be explained away by ignorance on the part of the Italian commissioners, indifference from the Kenyan government, and Chinese artists with the funds to pay their way into an exhibition.
It can also be seen as an example of unforeseen consequences. As often happens in our rapidly modernizing world, what may seem like a platform for unbiased opportunity, a chance for unfettered worldwide competition, is still dominated by those with the economic power to do so. Thus, even something so blind to the stigmas of race, gender, and class as art becomes politicized.
As the saying goes, money talks. Perhaps it paints as well.
Warner, G. (2015, March 13). Why Are Chinese Artists Representing Kenya At The Venice Biennale? Retrieved April 10, 2015.
The Kenyan pavilion at the 55 Venice biennial: What Next After the Disaster? (2013, July 25). Retrieved April 13, 2015.