- Ghana Freedom: Ghana Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia (11 May–24 November 2019) by Nana Oforiatta Ayim
For Ghana art specialists and Ghanaians alike, 2019 is a momentous year because it marks Ghana's debut at the Venice Biennale, arguably the world's most important international art exposition. Countless expressions of Ghanaian nationhood and nationality exist simultaneously in media, music, literature, political rhetoric, and even professional academic associations, such as our own, and our scholarly journal. The Ghana Pavilion offers its own rendition of Ghana's history, artistic expression, and contribution to global culture and ideas. As Kwame Anthony Appiah and Taiye Selasi explain in their complementary essays introducing the pavilion's purpose and gestation in the accompanying catalog, Ghana is globally recognizable as a nation and/but because a pavilion has long been considered a mark of modern nationhood, Ghana's first appearance in Venice is an occasion to rejoice. At the same time, as Appiah contends, the competing and evolving Eurocentric meanings of nationhood and nationality sit uncomfortably with Ghanaians' "relaxed and organic" projections of nation. Ghanaian nationhood is an expansive fabric constantly in a state of weaving. And while the interminable debate about the merit of national pavilions is no less prescient for a postcolonial multiethnic nation of the Global South, Selasi reminds us that this first pavilion opportunity provides six "creator-Ghanaians" with the "space to perform their interrogations on the global platform they deserve." Selasi playfully asks us to sidestep what is and is not Ghanaian art. Instead, visitors to the pavilion are encouraged to freely contemplate, celebrate, and meditate on the materiality and consequence of artistic expressions of the place that is, and the multiple experiences that are, Ghana.
The very first Ghana Pavilion in Venice is housed within the long warehouse of pavilions in an L-shaped main building of the Arsenale, sandwiched between Singapore to the north and Malta to the south. For those less familiar with the biennale geography, this is the second, larger location, a short walk from the original primary location in the Giardini, where many of the historically [End Page 223]
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[End Page 224] powerful European and globally influential nations exhibit in purpose-built pavilions. Ghana is one of eight African nations exhibiting in Venice, including some that had not exhibited previously, such as Madagascar, alongside veteran exhibitors, such as South Africa, Côte d'Ivoire, and Egypt. A third massive biennale venue, the Palazzo Mora, often overlooked by new attendees, features Mozambique and the Seychelles, among many others. Operating under the title Ghana Freedom, lifted directly from E. T. Mensah's highlife masterpiece written in 1957 to celebrate independence, the stunning pavilion structure was designed by renowned British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. In the accompanying book,1 an anonymous Adjaye Associates representative explains that the pavilion (see Figure 1), which features "oval-shaped modules to provide a sense of fluid unity," is fabricated from Ghanaian laterite to express "the material, texture, and rusty-red coloration of 'place.' "
Ghana Freedom, the exhibition itself, was curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The Accra-based art historian and filmmaker also edited the book and provides a comprehensive overview of art and nationhood in Ghana from the nineteenth century to the present, dwelling particularly on the "pivotal" legacy of Kwame Nkrumah in cultivating artistic expression promoting "national and Pan-African identities," via the creative collaborative energies of J. H. Kwabena Nketia. The pavilion showcases the work of six living artists, each of whom contributes to a collective conversation about the legacies and trajectories of Ghanaian freedom. The accompanying book, by contrast, opens with an important additional photo essay celebrating the Deo Gratias Photo Studio, founded in Accra in 1922 by Koblah Bruce-Vanderpuije. This collection of ten digital black-and-white reproductions brings a groundedness to the...