Anti-colonialism and diversity at Venice Architecture Biennale

Giovanna Dunmall takes a trip through an exciting departure from established norms

The Ireland Pavilion explores the life and material heritage of three of Ireland’s most remote islands. Photo: Andrea Avezzu / La Biennale di Venezia
Powered by automated translation

The 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, which opened a couple of weeks ago, has an undeniable energy, optimism and ambition about it. Geographically, and geopolitically, its gaze is turned towards Africa and African diaspora communities.

And, by the same token, away from an archaic and exclusionary Europe and West associated with the older white male (st)architect, a West that appears to be ever more in crisis, economically, politically, but also in terms of its place in the world.

This is a welcome shift and one whose importance can't be overstated. In the six-part main exhibition, The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Ghanaian-Scottish academic, educator and novelist Lesley Lokko and set in the imposing and beautifully restored complex of Venice’s historic shipyards, the focus is on the social and ecological themes of decarbonisation and decolonisation.

That is to say, ways of building and living that exploit people and nature less; that are less extractive; or that simply hark back to local and ancient knowledge and ways of doing and making things.

The subtext is, of course, terrible and violent histories of racism, brutality, inequality and appropriation of resources and wealth from other communities – yet the tone is intentionally forward-looking and proactive.

A soft blue light and a caption on the wall as you enter the first room of the Corderie, the former rope-making workshops in the Arsenale, sets the scene.

The Blue Hour, Lokko writes, is that “moment between dream and awakening” that is “also considered a moment of hope”. And it’s in that moment of hope that the intent of this exhibition is located.

Africa is, after all, the world’s youngest continent and the average age in this section is, fittingly, 43 (the youngest participant is 24). The gender balance is 50/50, half of the participants are from Africa or the African diaspora and nearly half are from practices with five people or less.

On a different note, this was also the year reuse, recycling and light touch went mainstream, with many pavilions and participants opting to repurpose materials from previous shows, source things hyper-locally or keep things low-key and light touch.

The German pavilion went one step further and transformed itself into a monumental warehouse and workshop for materials recovered from 40 national pavilions and installations at last year’s Art Biennale. These have been collated and will be reused throughout the year to repair or renovate various public spaces and structures around the city.

There was very little real architecture at this Architecture Biennale, which some critics remarked on but didn’t bother me much. Partly this was because smaller practices meant smaller budgets. This was the year of the practitioner (a broader term picked by Lokko due to the “rich, complex conditions of both Africa and a rapidly hybridising world”), those that had been under-represented at previous biennales.

Alongside architects, there were artists, performers, activists and even poets, such as British poet Rhael ‘LionHeart’ Cape, who greets visitors to the Arsenale with a brilliant spoken-word video. One of the most emblematic – and beautiful – pieces in the main exhibition was created, for example, by Congolese photographer and artist Sammy Baloji in collaboration with Brazilian-Paraguayan architect Gloria Cabral and art historian Cecile Fromont.

An undulating tapestry made of construction debris, Venetian glass and mining waste from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s former colonial capital, Brussels, it shines a light on toxic colonial legacies and enclaves of extraction in Brazil and in the DRC.

Another highlight in the Arsenale was an immersive research-based installation called Xholobeni Yards by Andres Jaque’s Office for Political Innovation, who worked in collaboration with a group of activists from Xholobeni in South Africa.

It explored our insatiable need for shininess in architecture in the Global North, through the example of the Hudson Yards megaproject in Manhattan. This project’s glossiness, I discovered, is only possible thanks to titanium coatings.

After the titanium is removed from the sand in places like Xholobeni on the east coast of South Africa, the sand becomes so light and volatile that farming in these areas becomes impossible, human health is adversely affected and communities are forced to move. This is transnational extractivism at its worst and represents a continuation of the ruthless western colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

An exhibition this ambitious and put together in such a short time frame is bound to be patchy in parts. And, unsurprisingly, it was, more in terms of presentation than content.

Some of the exhibits in the Arsenale suffered from inadequate or unclear exhibition captions. Other times I wondered why certain works had been grouped together, or deemed the language of the interpretive texts to be so academic as to be opaque.

Non-specialists will surely take one glance at that jargon and run a mile. Bizarrely there were some important wall texts that were so low contrast in terms of font colour, they were impossible to read. Above all, my main gripe would be that it is not possible to digest a show with so much content and research in two days as the press preview dictates. By the same token, you could argue that few visitors will spend more than a day or two at the biennale.

Finally, some of the national pavilions also engaged with the topic of decolonisation in interesting and layered ways. The Ireland pavilion, for instance, was a personal highlight. An exploration into the life and material heritage of three of Ireland’s most remote islands, its exhibition texts and captions were all in Gaelic and Italian (but not in English).

Yes, it was a provocation, the curators readily admitted, but their point was a valid and nuanced one. Gaelic is the ancient language of Ireland and has been largely lost to English due to colonisation they explained, and many of its most interesting words – and therefore ideas and culture – are also being forgotten.

By reappropriating its indigenous language the pavilion also becomes a statement about shifting geopolitical situations and new world orders. After all, English was not always the global lingua franca, and perhaps won’t be in the future. This is quietly subversive stuff and I loved it.

Over at the Giardini site, the Austrian pavilion too explored colonisation, but from a spatial point of view, namely the growing colonisation of public space in the city of Venice by the biennale (the walled gardens where the international art show is located, for instance, used to be public).

The curators planned to give more than half of the pavilion to the Venetian public and create an access route across the border wall. The biennale authorities rejected the idea for now but eventually, they will have to deal with the charges of exclusion and privatisation of public space that have been levelled at them for years now and look at their own practices and operations.

That future might be yet to come, but, as a result of this exhibition, it might be that little bit closer.

Updated: June 04, 2023, 11:45 AM