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BI.MA 1 - 2006

1st Edition Art Biennale in Malindi

1st Edition Art Biennale in Malindi - MALINDI BIENNALE
Or How to Approach Malindi
It’s raining. A fine, dull rain that sticks to the windows. The bar near the station in this town in central France, where I am waiting for my connection, weeps boredom, the boredom of stable and regular lives, of sunless lives entrusted, from the very beginning, to savings books and pension schemes. My luggage consists of very few things so I can be presentable for a couple of days and also have to read something. Sarenco has just called and is waiting my text for the biennale: he has just come back from Malindi and HE’S WAITING FOR MY TEXT! I’m late, I suspected that but now it really is true. I should have kept my cell phone turned off. Malindi! I hadn’t dared ask him what the weather was like down there as I knew the answer: hot with a breeze that fills the sails of the dhows on the ocean and the veils of the women along the streets… It’s not very original but what wouldn’t I give to be once more in mid-ocean, a few hours away from Malindi, at the exact point in which you begin to make out the first birds that tell you that land is near. I close my eyes, snap my fingers but – nothing, no good genie answers my wish! Aladdin, Aladdin, where are you?
Malindi? But where is Malindi? How do you get there? What do you do there? None of the French friends I talk to have ever been interested in East Africa. The French have preferred the west coast for the past two centuries. Malindi, my dear friends, is in Kenya, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, to the north of Mombassa, and can be reached on a flying carpet or otherwise by plane. It is the ancient coast of the Zenj, the country of Swahili, the people of the shores because, yes, this is their name, derived from the Arabic word sahel. A long time ago, wafted onwards by the winds, Indian, Persian, Omanese and Chinese merchants arrived here, followed by Vasco da Gama who was then guided to the Indies by a sailor from Malindi (it’s a pity history hasn’t recorded the name of the sailor), and then others. When Europe set out for the crusades across the Mediterranean, another, equatorial Mediterranean was trading and being enriched with gold, ivory, spices, and slaves. So this, then, is a brief historical and geographical guide to this coast where Africa and the East tranquilly mix, completely hybrid and, because of this, completely original and enchanting.
I am still hesitating, dreaming; I am as slow and as a languid as taarab music at eventide. So let’s get down to facts, to this, at first sight, quite strange tale of a biennale of contemporary art in Malindi. But first (and I promise it will be the last) quick digression about biennales.
When we talk about biennales we think at once of Venice (and rightly so, at least for Venice) but in the past years in the wake of Beautiful Venice a number of other biennales (and triennials) of contemporary art have multiplied almost everywhere in the world: Havana, Shanghai, San Paulo, Valenza, Istanbul, Cuenca, Lyon, Tirana, Singapore, Krakow, Bucharest, Sydney, Santa Fé, and Yokohama to mention just a few.
Contemporary art biennales have by now become a worldwide and worldly phenomenon, an obligatory step for all those cities or nations that want to create an event or to give themselves a modern and dynamic image with an indispensable touch of glamour. At times created in countries that never previously had the slightest interest in today’s art, biennales are the result above all of political will.
Even though such events have the merit of existing, we can only deplore the fact that deep down they all resemble each other: the same curators and the same artists are shown in successive biennales because we are dealing with, not so much as questioning and renewing, as expanding the so-called international art system by closely following market trends.
Only the content of Africa remains an out-sider regarding these great contemporary art circuses, with the exception of the biennales of Dakar and Cairo. Other attempts (Cape Town, Harare) have been unsuccessful. The biennale of Johannesburg is said to be about to restart (though under what conditions?) after the second of its two editions in 1997. The Cairo biennale, chaotic in its presentation of the works, without any kind of communications, and under the threat of censorship, ignores whatever is happening below the Sahara and is nothing more than another political and client-orientated event (above all with respect to certain European countries and the USA). So there remains Dakar, Dak’Art (just as we say Paris-Dakar), but this biennale, despite its stated aim of representing the whole African continent ( in fact the show is open to all those artists with an African passport) is too concentrated on Senegal and the countries of West Africa. Even though it is beginning to attract Western dealers, collectors, and other operators in the art field, the fact remains that this biennale is still largely unknown in Africa, something which greatly weakens its original aim. It is difficult to imagine how a single biennale, one on the extreme western edge of an immense continent, difficult to arrive at even by plane, might have the pretence of effectively representing Africa.
So now I’ll return to Malindi (and this time I’ll stay there, at least on paper). The idea had been running through Sarenco’s mind for some time. We often spoke about it as it seemed to us indispensable and extremely exciting to create an event devoted to contemporary art in this part of Africa, one, however, not intended to be the eastern pendant of the Dakar biennale: no, an event, rather, that would itself discover its own needs and that would sink its roots into creative life and activity itself.
For over twenty-five years now Sarenco has been travelling throughout Africa and, for over twenty years, has lived and worked in Malindi. His work, his thoughts, and his life are intimately tied to the Swahili coast, so there was nothing more natural than his wish to start this event there, as a continuation of his experiences with Malindi Artist’s Proof. So this first edition of the Malindi biennale will, then, be the visible part of a kind of crystallisation of time, emerging from the lengthy work undertaken by Sarenco and the artists who have stayed in Malindi over the past twenty years.
Malindi Artist’s Proof was founded by Sarenco in 1986 (and should have been inaugurated by Joseph Beuys but he died shortly before) welcomed, and still welcomes, many African and European artists. It is not an art movement and even less is it a school; instead, it is a free community of artists and friends who have come to Malindi to work, fish, love, eat, laugh, and talk. Above all life was not ever to be lost sight of. It is enough to listen to certain of the protagonists or read through their writings (for example Eugenio Miccini’s Opere africane) in order to understand that these visits were very similar to periods of initiation into happiness, in other words into another and new way of working. Of course, in all of this – on the beach or in bed, eating or working – there is to be found the best way of knowing Sarenco the African and his most important lessons.
We should not forget that some of these artists (Mondino, Williams, Miccini, Blaine, Sarenco, Clavin, Bory, Noel, Fontana, Innocente, Desiato, etc.) were part of avant-garde movements and groups such as Body Art, Neo-Futurism, Fluxus, Visual Poetry, and the magazine Doc(k)s… without wishing here to investigate the history of these movements it is, however, necessary to underline the fact that the freedom of expression and the political involvement that characterised the sixties and seventies forced artists to leave their ivory towers behind in order to face up to daily life (and, what’s more, rediscover a Dadaist attitude). What’s more, this mixture of disciplines and group work (magazines, performances, film) activity anchored art to an infinite network of friendships. Collective meetings, arguments, and creation were an integral part of art projects. According to me, this aspect, this ethical involvement of avant-garde work, has never been under-lined sufficiently: it is a dimension that has often taken precedence over aesthetic formalisation. Friendship ( and together with it a certain kind of humanism, resistance, and survival) therefore often functioned as the principle of synthesis between art and life which was aimed at by such groups as Fluxus. This was a question, not only of creating in a different way, but of living in a different way, and the two became joined in a global outlook. Strengthened by their common experiences and friendships, these artists met up together in Malindi and continued with their AIMS ON THE COAST OF THE Indian Ocean, beginning a new phase of their work. The very structure of Malindi Artist’s proof reminds us of La Cédille qui sourit, a place for permanent creation opened in 1965 by Robert Filliou and George Brecht in Villefranche-sur-Mer.
All this is to say that this biennale reveals itself more as an artistic gesture, one that is autonomous, risky, and perhaps even chancy, but happy. In order to get it started an injection of energy was needed, a dose of the kind that reawakens Utopias. It is necessary to believe in fairytales. It is necessary to believe in Ali Baba’s cave full of gold (full of art) and in the forty artists, poets, thieves of time, of words, and of images.
In fact it might seem strange to come across, in a small city on the Swahili coast, European and American artists who have left their mark on the history of the avant-gardes. This is one of the reasons I speak about Utopias, in the sense of an imaginary and happy land. In this land there coexist all the methods and techniques of this generation of artists as weapons to be used in the service of freedom and the overturning of codes: humour, difference, digressions, the immediacy of ideas, visual efficiency, the transformation of any kind of material into a work of art, the mixing of genres, the juxtaposition of disparate elements, things borrowed from bad taste, actuality, the media, the overturning of aesthetic categories and finally, works considered as an action. [...]


Claudio Costa saw the map of Africa as a prehistoric cranium, Sarenco and Blaine the wings of a butterfly, Rodney Place the traces of migratory flows, and we can also see the imprint of a revolver. Africa is multiple, mobile, mythical, mystical, and post-modern at the same time. Dhows pass by motorboats, the tree of spirits grows beside the churc and the mosque, machetes challenge machineguns. It is in the continent that there is already prefigured the next kind of temporality, a further phase of generalized recycling: a radical, ferocious, yet joyous mixture of epochs, of beliefs, of pulsations, of language, of ways of life, of religious dogmas, and of political systems (an African Fluxus!). This is why Africa seems to me today to be the best observation point for trying to make out what awaits us (but what we can never understand before it happens: like miracles, in other words). It is this map we must use in order to invent new paths and new stops along the journey, a long way from conventional itineraries. And I repeat: apart from art I see no other way to menage.

I am searching for a conclusion. The final words are often more difficult to find than the first and so it's best to start with them. Sarenco is still there waiting for my essay even though he's probably given up hope (but I hope he'll wait as I've almost finished). At first I thought of concluding by stealing from his TO KILL THE END, but suddenly a painting by Mondino came to mind (but then I could have begun like this). On a large sand-coloured piece of linoleum a man wearing a djellaba walks behind a mule carrying a richly decorated trunk. The painting, halfway between oriental painting and an illustration for a child's fable, is titled Il trasportatore di opere d'arte, The Artwork Carrier. The man walks quickly and the mule is almost outside the painting, and we think at once of some Sheherezade. This man walking so fast is on of the forty artists; he has come from a distant oasis and is on his way to Malindi where he has an appointment.
Tomorrow, in front of the entrance to the cave, he has to do nothing other than say the magic words and the door will be open.