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Controversy rages as Kenyan stand is dominated by Chinese artistes in Italy

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Chinese piece

It is said that lightning does not strike twice, but sadly for Kenyan art, it just did. For the second consecutive season, the Kenyan pavilion at the Venice Biennale is being occupied by Chinese artists. When a similar thing happened in 2013, it generated a lot of noise and the government, through the culture ministry, promised action. It appears nothing was done.

It is now emerging that the man running the show at the Kenyan pavilion is Armando Tanzini, a hotelier of Italian origins, who has reportedly lived at the Kenyan coast for 45 years. He was again at the centre of things in 2013. Questions are now being raised about how a private individual, who has no ties with the Kenyan government or the culture ministry has the authority to run a pavilion on behalf of Kenya.

Michael Soi, a visual artist based at The Go Down Arts Centre reads mischief in the whole issue. “For a country to participate at the Biennale, the relevant government arm, in our case, the culture ministry, has to write to the Mayor of Venice, where the exhibition is taking place, requesting for space,” he explains.

“It is after the request has been vetted and accepted that the country is invited to show commitment by putting in some money. This is followed by giving out the names of artists who will exhibit at the event and who must attend,” he adds.

Soi and other artists are concerned that someone from the ministry must have written the letter giving the blessings of the ministry for the pavilion. “The word we are getting from the ministry is that they have no idea who did the letter. This is too embarrassing for us as Kenyan artists and the country as a whole,” he says.

On March 20, a group of artists, who, among others, included, Soi, author Binyavanga Wainaina, Justus Kyalo, Maggie Otieno, Jimmy Ogonga and James Muriuki, apparently at the invitation of CS Hassan Wario, went to his offices to try and ‘sort out the issue’. “When we got there, we were told the CS, being a Muslim, had gone for Friday prayers. We waited up to 5 pm but he did not show up,” says Soi.

While there, an official at the ministry showed them a letter that ‘promised’ to halt the operations of the said pavilion, promising to make better preparations for the 2017 edition of the event. However, the letter was not signed. “We could not recognise an unsigned letter. We were promised that it would be signed and issued on March 23. We are still waiting,” says Soi.

The Nairobian spoke to Eddie Nyoro Mwangi, Wario’s PA, who said they were preparing ‘something’ (a statement), which would be issued to the media later.’

The Kenyan pavilion at the Biennale, and whose theme is Creating Identities, has the following listed as the country’s representatives: Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo, Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Armando Tanzini, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang, and Double Fly Art Center. If the names are anything to go by, Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo could be the only Kenyan in the group of listed artists. None of the people in the local art industry we spoke to seem to know who Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo is.

The curator of the Kenyan pavilion is listed as Sandro Orlandi Stagl. A Google search reveals that most entries about him are written in Italian. The only English posts have to do with the present controversy.

Apparently, US-based Kenyan visual artist, Wangechi Mutu, is among the big-name artists whose art will be gracing the Venice Biennale. Our enquiries revealed that Wangechi will be exhibiting at the main pavilion - unlike the country pavilions - which will be curated by the Biennale itself.

Wangechi, through a post on Facebook, had this to say about the saga: “The reason why this hotelier (Tanzini) has gotten away with this for so long is because those who should care didn’t seem to know it was happening, and those who were aware that it was happening don’t actually care how Kenya is represented abroad or at home!”

Binyavanga made the following post on Facebook. “Let me be clear that none of this could have happened without clear collusion. Somebody in our government, every two years, has signed off on this. It is possible that the Kenyan Embassy in Rome knows or is involved in this. In 2013, we were promised this would be dealt with. It has not.”

Meanwhile, Kenyans are signing an online petition on change.org, addressed to the ministry urging it to bring an end to the controversy.

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