PHOTO: El Anatsui, Fresh and Fading Memories , 2007. Site-specific Installation, Fortuny Museum, Venice, 2007. Liquor Bottle Caps, Roofing Strips and Copper Wire. 39 ft. 4 in. x 65 ft. 6 in. (12 x 18 m). Courtesy El Anatsui & Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY, U. S. A.

By Rikki Wemega-Kwawu

The announcement yesterday, January 25, 2022, of Ghana’s participation in the Venice Biennale 2022 was received in the Ghanaian art world with mixed feelings. Generally, people are not so enthused about it.

It is no secret that Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, who has just been re-named as the curator for the Ghana Pavilion in the upcoming 2022 Venice Biennale, belongs to the political elite class in Ghana. She is the first cousin of our President, His Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. Her immediate blood brother is Mr. Gabby Otchere Darko, an astute journalist, and lawyer, who is a special assistant to the President.

Gabby, as he is popularly called, wields enormous political power and influence, although he is not officially holding any ministerial or political office. He is described informally in many circles as the Prime Minister of Ghana. Nana Oforiatta-Ayim obviously leverages well her political connections to power to get the government to sponsor Ghana’s stand at the Venice Biennale, which, indeed, is a laudable gesture, I must say, and I commend her for that.

The staggering amounts involved for countries taking up a stand at the Venice Biennale has been the bane of most African countries, restricting Africa’s active participation at the Venice Biennale. Apart from a few sporadic appearances, African countries have been largely missing at the Venice Biennale. So, for Ghana to be returning to Venice, back to back, is a big plus for the country. However, I am appalled by the names of artists emerging as representing Ghana and Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, being renamed as the curator for the Ghana Pavillion.

Nana Oforiatta-Ayim curated Ghana’s debut appearance at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the 58th edition of this Art Olympiad, which featured compatriots El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, the British-Ghanaians John Akomfrah and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Selassie Sosu and Felicia Abban. Nobody in the Ghanaian art world was privy to how this selection of artists was done.

In interviews with the international press, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim admitted with candor, that it was upon the late Okwui Enwezor’s counsel to go for the kill as it was Ghana’s first outing, that three Venice veterans, El Anatsui, John Akomfrah, and Ibrahim Mahama, were re-featured at the Venice, together with the internationally renowned British painter, born to a Ghanaian immigrant parentage, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The bemused international press unanimously and elatedly described the high-powered Ghanaian contingent as “star-studded.”

Nana Oforiatta-Ayim said, but for Okwui Enwezor’s suggestions, she would have preferably gone ahead with some home-based artists. Meanwhile, the Ghanaian art world was disgusted and disgruntled by this lopsided selection, which sort to marginalize other actively practicing and highly talented home-based Ghanaian artists, some in the dottage of their lives, who also deserved exposure on the global stage.

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Ghana abounds in highly talented artists, so for artists who were already well-exposed globally to be re-featured in the country’s debut appearance at the Venice Biennale, many thought was distasteful and only betrayed curatorial laziness and a paucity of original thought on the part of the curator.

The ace-photographer, Felicia Abban, was already in the stable of Nana Oforiatta-Ayim’s Ano Gallery in Accra, which belied a conflict of interest. Venice Biennale was supposed to have a national character devoid of any efforts towards the commercial interest of featured artists; it is not an outlet for the promotion of one’s personal and individual commercial interest. As important as Felicia Abban’s work is (she is one of the first photographers to attain national prominence in the post-Independence years, becoming one of the special photographers for Ghana’s first President, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah), it was totally wrong for Nana Oforiatta-Ayim to be representing Felicia Abban and featuring her work at the Venice Biennale Ghana Pavilion, which she was curating. It was ethically wrong and even goes against the strict rules of the Venice Biennale.

The Venice Biennale of International Art is the oldest and most prestigious art fair in the world. It is akin to the Olympic Games or Cannes, where countries showcase their best athletes and movies, except this time, it is visual art. Being featured at the Venice Biennale is the ultimate an artist could aspire to in his or her career. In fact, I know it to be the ultimate platform where an artist who had made a significant mark with his/ her work in their home country is given the opportunity to exhibit their work to the world.

With some of the most advanced countries with permanent pavilions at the Venice Biennale, like the U. S. and Great Britain, for their participation in the Biennale, except in very rare instances, they would present only one artist. This artist is chosen through a very rigorous but an open and complex process, devoid of any partiality, to represent the country. Venice Biennale Selection Committees operate at regional, state and national levels. Recommendations are made to these committees by art institutions and art personalities, which are then subjected to further critical appraisal and scrutiny, and names short-listed till they eventually settle on one person, as is usually the case.

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So, it is an extraordinary achievement for an artist to be selected out of hundreds of thousands of artists in those countries to represent the country at the Venice Biennale. Artists selected in successive years to represent these countries, to the best of my knowledge, are all very accomplished artists, often already renowned beyond the borders of their countries.

If Ghana has decided to be participating in the Venice Biennale, why do we not adopt and embrace the best practices of selection of participating artists from these advanced countries, than rather resort to nebulous and surreptitious selection procedures?

I get the impression Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, who curated the Ghana debut pavilion in 2019, and has just been re-named as curator for the Ghana Pavilion in 2022, is unduly using her political clout to constitute herself into a one-man/ one-woman selection committee, taking unilateral decisions the larger Ghanaian art world is oblivious to, and having an unfair monopoly of Ghana’s participation at the Venice Biennale. She is, I am afraid, unabashedly abusing her privilege to power for her personal aggrandizement and selfish ends, and much to the detriment of art in Ghana.

The artists Oforiatta-Ayim has put forth as going to represent Ghana at the 2022 Venice Biennale are complete nonentities in the Ghanaian art world. At best, they are neophytes, now cutting their teeth as artists. Nobody knows them and nobody knows how they got to be selected. It is grossly deceptive from the impression created by the announcement of Ghana’s participation at the upcoming Venice, that the Ghanaian art world collectively selected these artists to represent the country.

They did not! I reiterate, THEY DID NOT!!! These are artists Oforiatta-Ayim herself selected for Venice without the knowledge of the larger Ghanaian art world. I would not be surprised if they are artists Oforiatta-Ayim is already working with or nurturing, and trying to promote their careers by putting them in a Venice Biennale, creating the erroneous impression that they have been selected to represent Ghana at the upcoming Venice Biennale. Who selected them?

I have a lot of respect for Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, but I feel such obnoxious deception and injustice should not be allowed to prevail, no matter what. The truth has to be upheld all the time and diabolical and inimical strategies would have to be exposed to the world for redress. They have to be eschewed from our body politic. If such injustices are allowed a field day and they thrive, they become the norm for further exploitation in the future by perpetrators and their cronies.

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The governing Venice Biennale authority demands strictly of committees for selection participation in the Biennale in the various countries meet high ethical standards and conduct an open and transparent selection process. The selection process in Ghana leaves very much to be desired. It stinks!… In fact, it stinks obstreperously to the high heavens!!!

Ghana’s participation in the Venice Biennale does not belong to Nana Yaa Oforiatta-Ayim. It is not her bonafide property, in fact, nor her sole preserve for her monopoly. The art world in Ghana deserves better and has to be collectively involved in any future decisions concerning Ghana’s participation in the Venice Biennale.

Thank you!

RIKKI WEMEGA-KWAWU
EFFIAKUMA
TAKORADI
GHANA

January 25, 2022

ABOUT THE WRITER

Rikki Wemega-Kwawu is an internationally renowned Ghanaian artist, with over 40 yrs. active, full-time studio practise. Although, celebrated as a painter, his work is multi-disciplinary in dimension and scope, and encompasses painting, sculpture, installation art, photography, and writing.

A largely self-taught artist, he is an alumnus of the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine, U. S. A. Rikki has had numerous exhibitions in Europe, U. S. A., and Africa; notable among them are, The Poetics of Cloth: African Textiles/ Recent Art, 2008, Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York, NY, U. S. A.; World in Hand, 2010, Kunsthaus Dresden, Dresden, Germany, and Interwoven Dialogues: Contemporary Art from Africa and South Asia, 2017, Aicon Gallery, New York, N. Y., U. S. A. His work is characterized by a synthesis of the past and the present, often incorporating a plethora of ancient African symbols and graphic iconography, especially, into his large-scale paintings. He aims to recapture the lost power of traditional African art. Rikki’s works are in many important private and public collections across the world.

As a published author, Rikki writes about the politics of cultural dictatorship in the commercialization and evaluation of contemporary African art. His projects grapple with the effects of globalization and the African Diaspora on African art.

Rikki lives and works in Takoradi, Ghana. He directs and is an artist-in-residence at the El Anatsui Experimental Studios, an eponymous residency space, established and funded by the globally renowned Ghanaian Master Sculptor Extraordinaire, El Anatsui.

AMA GHANA is not responsible for the reportage or opinions of contributors published on the website.

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