A review of the exhibition ” All the World’s Futures ” curated by Okwui Enwezor for the 56th Venice Biennale.
Time is forever fleeting, chase it, it will outrun you; grasp it, it will escape you. We chased it nonetheless, as we bustled between pavilions, the dry grey dust staining our shoes and feet as we trekked tirelessly. The mind too engulfed to realise the body hadn’t drunk or eaten for hours, too submersed in cultural stimulation in sight, in sound.
This was our time during those five fulfilling days in Venice. The sun above us, the sea around us, the art surrounding us, we allowed our thoughts to travel from the consciousness of one artist to the other, one curator to the other. We were like a ball in a children’s game of catch, exchanged between hands and never dropped, for risk of losing. Losing that precious train of thought as we examined trials and tribulations of a globalised contemporary society in the works of Barthélémy Toguo, Tetsuya Ishida, Rirkvit Tiravanija and Karo Akpokiere. As we admired feminine joy and beauty in the works of Lorna Simpson, the frightful gruesomeness that intrudes life in Christian Boltanski’s short film and the power of art in Fatou Kandé Senghor’s touching visual story.
We cautiously manoeuvred from room to room in Giardini and in Arsenal, admiring the careful quilting of curator Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition, “All the World’s Futures”, showing at the 56th Venice Biennale. We slowed at each installation, illustration, film, photograph, for fear of missing something precociously profound –over 130 artists were exposed. Despite our dedication to see absolutely everything, it was simply impossible. Of what we did see, behold a few of our favourites.
Barthélémy Toguo’s installation “Urban Requiem” stands potently within the walls of Arsenale. A mixed media installation fusing print, sculpture, engraving and even poetry. Entering his world is like wandering through a forest or maze rather of massive human like stamps echoing a poem of lost and tormented souls of our time, remembering their turmoil. We read the moving phrases stamped onto the wall and carved into the stamps that too perfectly embody the frightening existence that we find ourselves living in. “I am Nigeria.” “Je suis Charlie.” “End police brutality.” “Boko Haram, Ebola.” “A death in Congo.” Though his verses do not solely summon hardship they arouse positivity. Phrases echo desire and optimism surging through society and how now more than ever we are connected. Travelling through his maze we read “Citizen of the World.” “Kiss of love.” “Hope.” “Yes we can.”
As the engraved words and phrases are stamped onto the white paper hanging on the walls, the ideas they represent resonate in our consciousness. The human like, faceless stamps symbolize that borders are barriers in our mind. Travelling across borders our passports are stamped at man made barriers that place certain nationalities at a disadvantage or further ostracize ‘the other’. “We are all in exile,” another stamped phrase hanging on the wall that epitomizes the effects of globalization all to well. Some of us are welcomed with respect and free to roam, others harshly halted with rude tongue and heavy stamps in our passports. Some of us who have roamed for so long still love and respect our origins but in an uncomfortable way do not truly belong anywhere. Each time the stamp pounds into the paper he embeds his ideologies in history and dictates the contemporary characterisation of the medium.
Toguo’s “Urban Requiem” displayed at the 56th Venice Biennale like many of his other projects is heavily political, provocative and human.
Tetsuya Ishida channels the distress heavily present in Japan during the economic crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s. His surreal paintings divulge into the hopelessness that plagued many homes.
His painting “Untitled 2” vividly depicts desperation as legless young boys wearing uniform plastic carrier bags, sit and lay helplessly in one small room. Their facial expressions intricately painted to emit their emotional despair. They are surrounded by things you would expect young boys to own, stereos, VCR players, books, audio Walkmen, alcohol, cigarettes but all around them is dishevelled and filthy like their faces, stained with junk food. One hides his face in the corner as he defecates, soiling the floor beneath him, the shape painstakingly real. The colours dull and melancholy, greys, beiges, dusty blues juxtaposed against the bright yellow on their shopping bag clothes, their junk food -perhaps alluding to the dangers of fast food culture- and the skimpily dressed woman in the magazine.
His works examines issues still relevant today like capitalism and consumerism, in a disturbing and at times darkly humorous way. Other artists also wilfully wielded humour, though perhaps more evidently.
Like Karo Akpokiere who illustrates motivation, social injustice, border politics and urbanism in extremely thoughtful and daring drawings. Text plays a powerful role in Akpokiere’s work, a tool he uses to spark reflection in his admirer, as he delicately presses on the seams of our comforts. Questioning the common beliefs we use to console ourselves, like hard work equals a plentiful word. He uses text, design and illustration to expose these common beliefs for their unfortunate nonsensicalness. Like in works that reads “No food for lazy man, no food for hardworking man, alles kummt gut an.”
Other times humour is his tool, we found ourselves bursting out in laughter as we absorbed each of his pieces, mounted on a wooden frame. He explores and plays with everyday happenings in an urban setting, specifically in Berlin, where he is currently based and in Lagos, his hometown. Walking through Enwezor’s exhibition we dabble in and out of humour, beauty and despair.
Christian Boltanski evokes shock and horror in his film “L’Homme Qui Tousse” (The Man Who Coughs). The projection abruptly halts visitors, walking past the small second hall to the left upon entering the central pavilion at Giardini,
Straying from traditional forms of art like painting and sculpture at the time, Boltanski explores the realms of avant-garde film.
The film begins with a long shot, where we barely see the man sitting in the corner, as the darkness blurs any definite features. Though we hear him violently coughing, each cough seemingly derives from deep in the throat, rigorous and painful.
The film produced in 1969 maintains a gripping horror as blood floods out of the coughing man’s throat –played by Boltanski’s brother Jean Eli- as he writhes in agony on the floor, barely propped up against the wall.
The 3-minute film playing on loop, resonates the timelessness of terror.
Enwezor immediately confronts us with human suffering. In the first room before turning into Boltanski’s coughing corner we witness a mighty four metre high wall built with suitcases, a conceptual sculpture titled “II Muro Occidentale o del Pianto” by Fabio Mauri. Each suitcase represents the personal memorabilia lost by those forced into Auschwitz during WWII and any other soul who ventures on a journey with no return.
Immediately Enzewor immerses us in a state of deep reflection as we question the purpose of this overpowering tower of vintage suitcases. Understanding that each case represents loss leads us to ponder over society’s strive for superiority and disregard for human life. We first consider the detrimental effects actions have on society through the eyes of Mauri and then on our bodies through the eyes of Boltanski.
Though sorrow is not the sole motif of “All the World’s Futures,” as works such as the one found in the room to the right of the coughing corner re-instils hope in humanity.
Fatou Kandé Senghor illustrates the story of a resilient woman, Seni Awa Camara, touched with the gift of sculpture. Senghor travels us to a small town in Senegal where a quaint concrete house stands on the dirt road. The film begins as the solemn mama tells the story of her childhood, her life, unknowingly hooking the audience as each by passer lingers in the small room. Leaning into the projection, the silent crowd intrigued by the story of a magnetic stranger, hurdles between the four walls, some resting as they sit in awe of her story.
Curious to understand where the director intends to lead us, we wait patiently as she shares her personal adversities. She tells us of her young marriage to an older man, her demoralising sickness, those close to her who passed away. Senghor cuts from intimate medium frames of her seated speaking of her turbulent youth to her capable present, to sturdy men rhythmically pounding into a massive mortar like when making yam foufou, but instead they pounded stones, demolishing it as if to make concrete.
Watching them tirelessly working away, my sister whispers into my ear and says “And they say black people are lazy.” We laugh because we see the nonsensicalness in this frequently repeated statement that any reasonable person will deem ludicrous.
Senghor builds mystery and tension each time she cuts from one scene to the other: from the men working under the sun to the mama dressed in her military jacket and matching hat recounting her life, “I don’t envy anyone, I don’t hurt anyone, I have work to do,” she says. All her words etch into the consciousness as they drift from her mouth—her smile penetrating, her eyes resilient.
At last the two stories merge and mama joins her men tirelessly working to make her concrete? I find myself asking all these questions. Is she in the military? Is she in construction? Did she invent some sort of new building material? My mind was itching with theories of who this magnetic woman was. Finally the mystery was unveiled. She takes the powdered stones that have been mixed with water and begins sculpting under the low roof of the barely furnished concrete house. Mama is an artist.
Her artistry is “a gift of god, I didn’t learn from anyone God just chose me,” she says. In sculpture she found refuge, purpose, peace, which she hopes to share with others. She describes the story of a western couple that came to visit her and buy her work. They had no child. She moulded them what looked like a fertility sculpture. Soon after the wife gave birth. She tells us her sculpture contributed to the new life.
“Foreigners come here looking for me, the foreigners feed me.” She says locals do not take interest in her work. Though more and more Africans are slowly realising the value and importance of the continents art, a generalisation yes, but in many ways true.
Senghor’s film “Giving Birth” (2015) documents the artistic process of sculpting with clay, addresses the African need to cherish and expose its art, touches on the spiritual culture vivid in western Africa, and recounts the hardships and achievements of a universally relatable person who finds solace in passion.
Other female artists featured riveting works at the exhibition. We trek from Giardini to Arsenale to admire them.
Lorna Simpson deconstructs racial stereotypes in her large-scale paintings displayed magnificently on the walls of Arsenale. Her visual language demonstrates the diversity and complexity of black women in a given social context.
The physical morphology of black women has been a topic of discussion for centuries, her over sexuality, her cotton like hair, her so-called predisposition to anger. Through the decades how much has this discussion evolved, how has it impacted identity and culture?
Simpson’s work draws from history, like the 40s inspired hairstyles found in her photographs. She delicately confronts it though tells a different story as she strategically examines gender and racial boundaries through photography, collage and at “All the World’s Futures” through paintings of graphite and ink on gessoed wood panel.
The most mesmerising, “Three Figures” depicts three women holding hands, running through fields, liberated from stereotypes and prejudice. It takes a different perspective from the other paintings, we only see the girls’ backs but can imagine their smiles and hear their laughter.
By the time the five dream like days drew to an end we had laughed, we had cried, we had debated all possible solutions to remedy disasters and properly celebrate beauty, but at the end all came to the same conclusion, our world needs change. Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” elucidates that art exists not solely as beauty and stimulation but as action and progression.
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Photographs by Orianne Lopes