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Venice art show mirrors life in Africa

By Sylvia Smith for CNN
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(CNN) -- As the first African pavilion opens at the Venice Biennale, art experts are viewing this unique and unparalleled collection as an historic moment for African art in general. They hope that this debut will help struggling African artists and create much-needed artistic infrastructure on the continent.

The aim of exhibiting these outstanding pieces of contemporary African art works is to reveal an informed perspective on art from the continent and its diaspora.

Although the art world in Africa is small, some of its relatively unknown artists believe that the exhibition will mirror -- not a lack of talent -- but a dearth of places to exhibit, art schools and institutions, and even basic materials in most African countries.

According to Meskerem Assegued, a well known Ethiopian curator and member of a panel of five experts who selected the winning "Check List Luanda Pop," the process was made simple because of the outstanding nature of one of the entries.

"A lot of thought went into this and we made a choice based on artistic merits," she explains. "From the 20-odd applications one stood out as representing Africa in an impressive way. Having an African collector with such a huge number of works is unusual."

Despite these assurances, a handful of curators whose proposals were turned down, question whether showing just one collection really fulfills the criterion that the work be Africa-wide.

Abdellah Karroum, a Moroccan curator, believes that the collection is merely regional and was chosen on the basis of the owner's ability to pay the high cost of putting on such an exhibition.

But Cameroonian curator Simon Njami, best known for "Africa Remix," says that the choice of 30 works will provoke a strong public reaction.

"There's a Warhol and a Basquiat as well as Khada Amer from Egypt and Bili Bidjocka from Cameroon plus a piece by Kiluanje Kia Henda from Angola," he said. "We are redefining what it means to be African. In the past I wouldn't be African enough to qualify as I was born in Switzerland."

Co-curator Fernando Alvim, who has been involved with the works of art since the time they were owned by German collector Hans Bogatzke, confirms that the boundaries of African art will be thrown wide open with the Venice exhibition.

"From 2003 when Sindika Dokolo bought the collection we have said that this is an art collection that will overturn pre-conceptions about African art," he said. "We are concerned that Africa defines its own aesthetic and doesn't have it imposed from the outside."

Over the last four years since it was bought by Congolese businessman Sindika Dokola, the collection has been housed in Luanda, Angola's capital, and was shown in the country's first triennial, staged in two phases over the last 18 months.

In Venice it is anticipated that the exhibition will attract a lot of foreign curators who are aware of the Pigozzi collection but unfamiliar with many of contemporary works of art from the Sindika Dokolo Collection which are produced and collected in Africa itself and have never left the continent.

"Since 2003 we've been acquiring additional works from African countries where there is artistic activity of high quality such as Egypt and Cameroon", says Fernando Alvim.

But the curators deny that the aim is to profit from the biennial by increasing the value of the art by putting it on show at the world's greatest art event.

"It is really an open question. We don't know the results of having a collection owned by an African. It's a new collection. Whether it will have an impact on the value of the work we don't yet know," claims Simon Njami. "Nobody has done this before and we are taking a step towards controlling the continent's art from the inside. It's an exciting moment."

The excitement is not just that art patronage is no longer exclusively in Western hands, but that the world's attention will focus on contemporary African art of the highest caliber.

It is hoped that success in Venice will put Angola on the international art circuit and awaken a large number of Africans to the importance of their own contemporary creativity and thereby indirectly compel governments to sponsor or subsidize artists in their countries.


The collection of 30 artworks represents a range of African art.

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