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David Adjaye on Ghana in Venice / Interview Lisa C Soto

SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

“The Ghana Pavilion in Venice is a way to signal to the world that something is happening in Ghana, not just in the art world but in building an image of a nation.”

– David Adjaye

Lisa C Soto: How did the Ghana Pavilion come about?

David Adjaye: The Ghana Pavilion has been a discussion in the art circles in Ghana for a very long time. Several people including El Anatsui and other prominent artists have asked why we have not been represented at the Venice Biennial. Conversations were starting to be had about the outreach and the soft power agenda of Ghana, in terms of what the cultural ministry does outside of the country to promote the country, and about the country’s capabilities outside of commodities and resource. That dovetailed very beautifully with a conversation that was being had with Nana Offoriatta-Ayim and myself about building cultural infrastructure in the country, looking at that as an important part of that patrimony and export. We then made a proposal to the ministry of culture, who I am working for right now, and the idea was received well.

What is the format of the Ghana Pavilion? How will this and future pavilions be managed and funded? This is really a test. The government is committed to do this first pavilion. Everything is going to depend after that on the success and the repercussions of this first event. It is an experiment to see what the ramifications are or how it will work. It is about seeing whether the capabilities and the impact are justified. What is great is that we have been given a chance to open the conversation, whereas in previous years it wasn’t even a conversation.

What is the current model of how Pavilions are supported in the Venice Biennial? I don’t think there is a blue print in any country about how this works. Some countries such as more developed countries with more robust economies have this as part of their foreign policy soft power discussion. The whole biennial is a kind of display of the soft power of nations. It’s a 19th century idea, through cultural providence, and cultural power. It really is something that comes under either the ministry of tourism or ministry of foreign affairs. But most of them have always had private sector support as some kind of vessel in the mix and that is the same agenda that is happening with the Ghana pavilion.

So the Ghana Pavilion will be a mix of the minister of culture and private funding? Yes, the government has provided seed funding to allow it to be a commission that can go formally to the biennial. It is a national pavilion because it is coming from the ministry of culture and tourism. It is a ministerial request, which is why it’s significant. If it doesn’t come from the national pavilions through the Venice organization it is not technically a pavilion. For it to formally be acknowledged, it has to come from the state.

In your opinion what does it mean for Ghana to now have a Pavilion in the biennale? The new president of Ghana (Nana Akufo-Addo) is very much interested in this idea of the country as being beyond aid. His manifesto statement is ‘Ghana Beyond Aid’, which is the rapid economic development of the nation culturally, industrially, fiscally. He is interested in an acceleration, and a move away from a dependency which he believes will hamper the development of the country for another hundred years if it keeps at its current pace. This is all part of a kick-starting of the reimagining of an African nation being able to hold its own. An easy win for us was that if you already have artists working at the international stage without the help of the state, you have achieved incredible significance. The very minimum the state can do is to acknowledge their ability in spite of the hardship, to be able to rise to a global stage and command on that global stage an audience. It seems to make sense that at the very minimum, if this is a government that is interested in the soft power of the country, that it would acknowledge this incredible produce of its own nation.

Can you share your architectural vision of the Ghana Pavilion with us?Once it was settled that we would get this, a critical person that we brought in was Okwui Enwezor as a very special advisor for us. I insisted Okwui joining the team not only because of my experience with Okwui developing his biennial when he was the director of the entire Venice Biennial three years ago, but his expertise to navigate the biennial landscape, which is not an easy landscape, and because we were coming to the table quite late. We needed an interlocutor that could actually allow us to navigate and buy us providence with the biennial in terms of credibility, to allow us to be able to deliver this vision in half the time that other nations have had to put this together. Okwui was brought in to help us think, and strategize, and to help us make sure this is a success.

Following from that and looking at what kind of show we wanted to make, it became very clear that this was an incredibly opportune moment. There were discussions about having one artist, but it was a thought that was not sustainable because it would have been too specialized. To open the gate for the opportunity for it to become more precise in the future, we have to start with the biggest bang in terms of its relationship not to the world but to Ghana.

It is also about educating the nationals in Ghana about the extraordinary artists who are their incredible patrimony now, because they all identify as Ghanaian. Some have dual passports but it is always Ghana and something else. So the impact of the show is also to try and talk back to the nationals that there is another field that Ghanaians are excelling in, which can be something that can be celebrated and also be a device for helping to think on the development of the educational sector, etc,. etc.

The thinking [behind the Ghana Pavilion] was to see if one could look at a new narrative of space-making, which would not follow a kind of Yves Klein 1970’s contemporary art world reading of the white box, because this was not a celebration of the commodification of works in a neutral space. This is a coming together of a cluster of different age groups. It is a multigenerational curatorial agenda and a gender curatorial agenda. It’s almost equal in gender and with an entire spectrum from people in their 20’s to their 70’s.

One wanted to find a device that was not part of that Klein landscape but one that made reference to what we are calling the classical language of West Africa. The vernacular of the landscape, which you can see from Dakar to Cameroon, this kind of cellular agglomeration of compressed mud architecture. It is a kind of interlocking through courtyards which is to do with not boundaries as in huts or fences but the interlocking of the network through the agglomeration that makes them a village, or a tribe, or a community or a clan. It is the removal of the interstitial space — the corridor is a typical produce of Western architecture — into a more labyrinthine-like way through space, which we are calling a more West African typology of urbanism. You can even see it in shanty towns when they are being done incidentally. We wanted to acknowledge the architecture of those settlements, what we are calling the classical settlements and communities, which is this kind of ovoid architecture, which is to basically make an architecture without corners. This is the systemic premise of the entire thing.

There are a series of ovoids that all interlock, so you move through one space to another, almost in a labyrinthine manner, but you move through ovoids, and as they collide with the existing structure of the Arsenale, the Arsenale dissects it so that the ovoids sometimes become half ovoids, almost implying that it is an endless system, of which you just happen to be a fragment at Venice. We wanted to reinforce that by not painting. We wanted to apply a material abstraction to codify the union of all the artists being shown. So we are bringing iron rich soil from Ghana to Venice, which is being mixed in with a bit of concrete, and plastering all of the ovoids in the soil of the country. It is also speaking about this idea of transplanting Ghana into Venice, almost like an embassy, a piece of Ghana now arriving in Venice, and these artists are being brought together from their range into this more singular situation.

in SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
Lisa C Soto
April 2019