The curatorial statement of the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) calls participants and audiences alike to “re-think” and to “re-imagine”. It seems to align itself with a transgressive attitude to instigate political action through art and to shift the siting of art from the autonomous space of the white cube into the theatrical realm of the community.1 The premise for this is based on an artistic investigation into the hopeless conditions of “losers in societies around the world — the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence” 2, in other words, global sufferers in a neoliberal world disproportionately bearing the injustice of policies of privatization and deregulation resulting in wealth concentration, worker insecurity, atomization, invasion of privacy, you name it.
At the risk of falling into conservative traps of regionalism, the statement again calls for a reflexive approach: to consider the city of Lagos and its multicultural dynamics as leitmotif to reflect on conditions that impact this global mass of precariats. This anti-regionalist position seems to invoke, at the very least, the conception of art as an expansive site that has the capacity of inclusivity to be able to address the aforementioned problems from various regions across the world through international participation3. At the end, the artistic director summarizes things in this way: “[A]rt will be put to the ultimate test; can it save the world or at least make an attempt?”.
There is a sense of naive optimism in the rhetorical question which could be problematic as a political basis for the biennial’s engagement of local communities in Lagos. It seems to be taking the redemptive potential of art for granted without critically considering the contradictions of capital and contemporary art. First of all, the traditional postwar large scale international exhibition structure — of which the biennial is one— is itself in crisis and may have run its course and so using it as the platform to speak to issues of poverty may be a contrivance.4 For the simple reasons that it relies on blockbuster budgets and has become excessively commercialized events for cultural tourism, the opposite can be true that contemporary art too is complicit in this socio-economic dynamic of financialization, exploitation and disempowerment that artists and curators often delude themselves about intervening in. And so rather than save the world, art can sometimes create more problems for it. Hito Steyerl summarizes this point more succinctly when she says “[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?”5
To highlight this paradox is neither to take away from the potency nor the legitimacy of art in our time. Artists and curators who take the symbolic freedoms offered within the limits of art for granted may be shocked to learn that there is an outside world often infested with harsh realities to be engaged. There is no reason to overburden mega art events such as the biennial (which has internalized capitalist systems for its operations) with the task of salvation. Even if so, we cannot expect all artists to fulfill this interventionist call; it would be for the politically engaged artists to make that decision. (And within this category of practitioners we can further distinguish between so-called productivists and reformists. The former seek to deracinate the status quo in favor of a new system altogether while the latter are preoccupied with preserving the conventions of the status quo but by changing it at the symbolic level).
When a critical context is not set for such political claims for an exhibition project, it only gives fodder for misinterpretation. The controversy surrounding the biennial and the condition of the squatters at the Old Running Shed provides an insightful example into what I mean here. In an article titled “Life in Lagos imitates art as squatters evicted for biennial exhibition”6 a journalist seems to be attacking this uncritically benevolent position taken by the biennial organizers. For the journalist, “[i]t is not just the fact of the evictions [of the squatters], but the violent manner in which they are often carried out.” The article does three things as I see it:
1. It exposes the flaws in the curatorial claims and raises the corollary that art can exacerbate misery for poor people.
2. The writer conveniently side-steps aesthetic judgments so as to overemphasize political and moral ones in her discussion of an artistic project. At best her description of the few art works mentioned is burlesque and based on a priori judgments. There are equally aesthetic concerns to be raised about the biennial as there are ethical ones. Once equivocated, this imbalance could mar the whole process of criticism.
3. The article sensationalizes as well as mystifies the problem of poverty in Lagos, as if there is something essentially special about poor people in Nigeria. But very little distinguishes poor people in Lagos from those in North Philadelphia or New Delhi, for example, apart from geography. What they have in common is a geopolitical structure that conspires against them to remain in that condition in order for the system to thrive.
It is true that sensationalism in mainstream media is what sells. But beyond this “intensified bottom-line orientation”7 of mass media institutions, I suspect a much deeper reason for this kind of deft primitivism. Mass media has become contemptuously assimilated as a propaganda tool by private corporations — that is, they too have become actively culpable agents of neoliberal capitalism. The journalist betrays this fact by resorting to a simplistic moralist accusation of the biennial organizers rather than performing a systemic analysis of the conditions that manufacture inequality to produce binary oppositions of rich and poor, haves and have-nots in Lagos — such as colonialism, economic globalization, deregulation, Structural Adjustment Policies, and so on. The sanitized judgments passed in the article are no more useful than the naive optimism expressed in the sentiment of art saving the world. Art and media practitioners today ought not be blindly self-righteous in their critique of social injustices. The question is not whether the biennial (or its organizers) can stop or delay the inevitable fate of the precariats at the Old Running Shed (indeed, it seems to have facilitated their eviction). There is a global community of such desperate and disempowered groups and the solution is not only to appeal to them symbolically through art. This tendency merely psychologizes the problem of poverty and ends up with the desire to make poor people ‘happy’ rather than resort to the solution of attacking the root cause of economic disempowerment by redistributing wealth.8
To its credit, the Lagos Biennial functioned in somewhat unorthodox fashion to the traditional biennial system by the fact of it being low-budget and relying primarily on volunteers, goodwill of sponsors, commitment of artists who largely mobilized their own funds and optimizing limited resources in a milieu famished of cultural support. It also enhanced cross-regional collaborations by featuring thirty nine artists from over nineteen countries worldwide. To the extent that it functioned in this way it paradoxically gained something and lost it at the same time: it gained in the sense that its very existence could have been a potent critique of the postwar exhibition model currently in crisis. What it lost is in the way it reneged this vital opportunity from which to intentionally enunciate an anti-biennial politics from the perspective of Lagos. Is it not perilous to be this dispositionally indifferent in such a political arena?
That said, contemporary art is a minefield of contradictions and is often elusive to classical logic. Rather than argue that it will save the world, it may be better to assess that contemporary art is already embedded in the problems of the world (and sometimes culpably so); this permits us to then begin our dialectical expositions. Curatorial work in Africa in the twenty-first century must prove itself rigorous not only to invent new canons but also to come to terms with this unique moment in history that makes it necessary to significantly shape art world polemics. We must seize this opportunity with resolute conviction.
— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is a curator based in Kumasi, Ghana. He participated in the Lagos Biennial 2017 as guest curator.
1. On the question: “What are the results you are expecting from this first edition?” asked by Bisi Silva, Folakunle Oshun, the artistic director begins by responding, “[w]e intend to go beyond the “white cube” and into the community letting the city dictate the pace.” See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Bisi Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.
2. On the question “What is the curatorial premise [of the biennial]?” Oshun responds “[t]he first edition of the Lagos Biennial (www.lagos-biennial.org) hopes to highlight the stories of individuals, groups, and communities in the society who are marginalized from the center. This type of engaged intervention – critiquing the socio-political climate from outside in, is essential in a city like Lagos where the dichotomy of rich and poor prevails. Themed “Living on the Edge” the biennial seeks to explore the experiences of artists living in and around crisis situations across the world”. See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.
3. It is recorded on the Biennial Foundation website that the Lagos Biennial is “not driven by Afrocentric ideologies but rather embraces the unifying simplicity of the human experience”. See http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/lagos-biennial-nigeria/
4. Are we not already in a post-biennial paradigm? What have we learnt from such longstanding curatorial interventions on the African continent such as Dak’Art, Bamako Rencontres, and Marrakech biennials? The ghosts of Johannesburg bienniale, Cape Town biennale and Benin biennale still come back to haunt us. Why could they not go beyond two editions? Documenta in its 14th edition and the Marrakech biennial are amongst prime examples of mega international art events riddled with debts. See the following links for more information: “Documenta rescued from bankruptcy”, https://artreview.com/news/news_13_sept_2017_documenta_rescued_from_bankruptcy/, “Marrakech Biennial cancelled due to lack of funds”: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/marrakech-biennale-cancelled-due-to-lack-of-funds. We must rethink these structures (especially the ones that exist in Africa) if they exist in schizophrenic limbo to serve neocolonialist interests. In response to problems of cultural tourism, exploitation of labor and intellectual property, all of which the traditional biennial format cannot adequately deal with (because it also thrives on it), events such as Arte Nueva InteractivA, inSITE and The Roaming Biennial of Tehran serve as alternative models. Proposing exhibition models that rely on collectivism, low-budget, non-site-specific and nomadic orientations, they also optimize virtual social media platforms. As insufficient as these may seem, they, at least in attitude, remain resolutely intolerable to annexation by governments and commercialized interests.
5. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, e-flux Journal, Sternberg press, 2012, pp. 93. Steyerl goes on to state that“[t]he art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire.”
6. See Ruth Maclean’s article published by The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/26/lagos-biennial-holds-mirror-to-gentrification-as-squatters-evicted. The Lagos Biennial Team responded via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=915341811940512&id=596729820468381&pnref=story
7. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky write about this twentieth-century century phenomenon where they focus on “[t]he growth of media conglomerates that control many different kinds of media (motion picture studios, TV networks, cable channels, magazines, and book publishing houses), and the spread of the media across borders in a globalization process.” See Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, Introduction, 2002
8. Arundhati Roy, in the wake of the Occupy Movement, gave a speech to the People’s University published as the afterword in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014), in which she makes the following demands for the abolishment of capitalism:
“They (the 1%) say that we don’t have demands… they don’t know, perhaps, that our anger alone would be enough to destroy them. But here are some things — a few “pre-revolutionary” thoughts I had— for us to think about together. We want to put a lid on this system that manufactures inequality. We want to put a cap on the unfettered accumulation of wealth and property by individuals as well corporations. As cap-sits and lid-ties, we demand:
One: An end to cross-ownership in businesses. For example: weapons manufacturers cannot own TV stations, mining corporations cannot run newspapers, business houses cannot fund universities, drug companies cannot control public health funds.
Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure — water supply, electricity, health, and education — cannot be privatized.
Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.
Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth.”
See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 95