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BI.MA 2 - 2008

2nd Edition Art Biennale in Malindi

2nd Edition Art Biennale in Malindi - MALINDI BIENNALE

About Malindi Biennale  - Enrico Mascelloni
 
I
 
What an art biennale might be was fairly clear to everyone, at least as long as the Venice Biennale was virtually the only one existing at an International level or, at least, sharing its own particular aim with other International events with a different name but with the same ambition (Triennial, Quadrennial and, above all, Documenta). Basically, and quite simply, it recommended what seemed at the time to be the most up-to-date and important art on the international scene. A curator, in other words an art historian, and one who was usually at the end of his career, would invite his artist friends and the stars of the moment to stand out against the, not exactly unknown, background of the Laguna. Usually the event was greeted with disappointment by all those who had not been invited and things ended there, only to be repeated more resoundingly the next time, which was inevitably worse than the previous edition, at least for all those who didn’t participate.
 
Today, as is well known, biennales proliferate all over the place but no one knows what they are or what they represent. In fact they have stopped reflecting the taste of the curators and limit or, if you prefer, widen themselves to record openly the system that employs them. The theme-and there’s always one-doesn’t matter much since contemporary works are multi-thematic: in the general eclecticism of themes and languages, any artist whatsoever can equally represent war, ecology, granny or anything else you want. It is sufficient to look at the titles to realise that they are all interchangeable and, therefore, quite useless.
 
Anyway, to criticise biennales is to waste your breath and the comments above are only a record of the general lack of interest that goes far beyond any kind of criticism or even success or failure in terms of visitors, in the sense that Documenta in Kassel is still an event that moves great crowds of people, whereas the Sharja Biennale ( for example) sees either invited guests (flight and accommodation paid) at the opening or a few tourists escaping from the humidity of Dubai.
 
For artists and curators, a biennale is the opportunity for visibility and, at least in theory, for a distribution of means given that the budgets are large; even the artists who have always done their best to limit the costs of their works can finally “do what they want” since their backing galleries, friends or even a banal bank loan do not seem wasted for a perhaps unrepeatable occasion. For everyone a biennale is stressful and does not contribute to the good humour of its protagonists.
 
Is the Malindi Biennale any different from the ones I’ve already mentioned? Certainly at the level of the curators’ mood and their relationship with contemporary art. Its founder, Sarenco, was one of the protagonists of the neo-avant-gardes in the ‘60s and ‘70s and for some time, far more time than any of the others, has been involved with contemporary African art as the collaborating promoter and dealer of its protagonists. I have been travelling around central Asia for a couple of decades and have obviously privileged some of the artists from that area, as well as those from sub-Saharan Africa where I have also travelled widely. But the main title for our authoritativeness lies in the fact that both of us, as well as our friend Eric Girard who curated the earlier edition, are sufficiently relaxed to treat contemporary art on its merits: as one moment out of many for getting to know the world better and to enjoy it.
 
The pleasure of looking at works and wanting them dominates this African biennale, which is inspired and breathed on by the resonant breeze of the Indian Ocean. Light and beautiful, the works arrive on the Kenyan coast without difficulty, without the need to be hung with the help of squads of IT technicians. Each works is itself placed within another colossal work: Sarenco’s huge compound-villa frescoed by Esther Malanghu, the refreshing Ndebele by now known even in Europe for having painted a new FIAT 500 on the occasion of his ambitious show in Turin. Esther, not much interested in cars, gave the best of herself by coming to grips with walls warmed by the carnivorous African sun, the sun that shares with shade the love of light-hearted surfaces and abyssal indolence.
 
I would like to look at this show, that might otherwise be difficult to encompass, by fixing on two women artists from other continents: The Italian Liliana Malta is represented by four pictures that convey to the viewer all the abyssal indolence of another historical sea: the Mediterranean. But Liliana, like Esther and Almagul, besieges the history of our times until it flees from the works which she then fills with bodies covered with a blue that is both diurnal and nocturnal, like that of the long dawns and sunsets which, in fact, are typical of the Mediterranean. In Africa night falls suddenly, and on the steppes of Asia, where Almagul Menlibaeva was born, the light is dense with the distances in which it sinks without hinder (the horizontal abyss of the great central steppes). The photos by this Kazakhstan artist reject the dark history of the Sovietic twilight and keep their distance from the dawn of the new national-Islamic fetishes that aim at taking its place. Even Almagul’s bodies, like those of Liliana Malta, are dressed only in a strange light, distant yet loaded with events that allow the entry through the least guarded door of the current history that both artist, and Esther with them, had abruptly thrown out of the window.
 
Asia and Africa have touched, observed, and pushed against each other for millennia, so much so that no one who has journeyed across their hundred frontiers/scars knows where one begins and another ends.
Anybody who has looked through one of the classics on the subject (from Herodotus to Cacciari) knows that the problem is always open to new interpretations.
Whoever stammers out some post-modern idiocy evoking the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe or wherever, has probably never travelled except in a plane and should at least know that politicians once were at least far more sappy and avoided references to religious distinctions or levels of civilization; they limited themselves to such quips as “Asia begins at the Rhine” (Clemenceau). It comes to mind that places must always begin from their centre. But, differently form bodies, the centre of places does not exist.
 
And Africa? When considering it for what it is and for the way it is formed, no one even knows where Africa begins, but it is there at the Sahara, an ocean no less dangerous than a liquid one.
Like all seas it both unites and divides, but given it is a special sea it has no shore and those who know it well also know that it is a non-boundary by definition; it derides frontiers like no other place in the world. Certainly, the Arabian head has always done its utmost to free itself of its black body, except when it came to some remunerative trade.
Frequently, while feeling its weight, it wasn’t even aware that it existed and for the Phoenicians it seemed logical to colonise the European coasts rather than go further south.
 
African artists are the hosts here 8and not just at home) and they all come from that Africa which, for the lack of an easily identifiable geography, has been called “black Africa” so as not to lose the vice of holding skin colour to be of some importance but also to distinguish it from its trans-Saharan north. Esther Malanghu, the most southern of the artists we are dealing with, shows that basically nothing happens by change. No one asked her to become an artist, above all having been born in a place such as Apartheid South Africa. Nor do I believe that any-one asked the same thing of Almagul who was born during the Soviet period near to Karagand, the largest Stalinist lager in the whole of the USSR. And so, taking my prompt from Central Asia itself, I would like to tell the story of a journey, a story with the aim of being a reminder that the choices made for this biennale (for me as well as for Sarenco) were the outcome of change (or was it destiny?) journeys and meetings.
II
 
Years ago when the USSR had just collapsed and China seemed ready to copy it and multiply the breakdown by ten, I decided to travel from Urumchi in Xingjang to Alma.Ata in Kazakhstan by train. This was not just because of an old decision of mine to travel around Asia only by land (and, in fact, after 1991 everything or almost everything seemed possible) but also because the plane that followed the route had crashed twice in little more than a year and a half. The Chinese had warned me about the rapacity of the post-Soviet Kazakh customs officials, but a frontier guard was less invasive than having your body recomposed, perhaps by the very same frontier guard who would have covered his face with his huge hat that resembled a frying pan. The train was on time, there was the usual concentration of stink-chickens-peasants-soldiers-thieves (basically like many trainsin Italy when I was young); a geological stop at the border to change carriages as the gauges of the rails were different in the two Asiatic empires: By night we had reached Lake Balkash which was blacker than the sky, and then in Balkash City the train died among general indifference. No one says anything; I try to get some little information using my beginner’s Russian which has never improved; I go where the person with the craftiest face goes, and I am right. In fact I get onto another train that has just arrived from Semipalatinsk and is on its way to Almaty, because Alma-Ata, a resonant and musical name, has been shortened telegraphically to Almaty. Only then when it was nearly dawn do I hear from someone that the train in fact comes from Novosibirsk and, what with the sleepiness and tiredness and the stink, I stand up and , by myself and like an idiot, I state in a loud voice that I am on the Turkish-Siberian line and I add that I have dreamt of it since I was a child and that I never would have thought it so much like the Umbrian central line as much for its filth as the bored faces of the passengers (it is not unusual for me talk aloud to myself). The others giggle, pleased by the smile I finish my diatribe, with obviously not having understood a word; but a gentleman with Potgorny’s crafty look and a far less relaxed expression said to me in excellent Italian, “You’re Umbrian?”: I had forgotten that until recently in the ex-Soviet empire it was easier to come across someone who spoke Italian than English. Or rather, I was not half so much surprised as when a few seconds later, after having said I was from Spoleto, to be exact, he added that the problem of the Clitunno Temle ( which is near Spoleto) was a great disappointment: he considered it to be Lombard and not early-Christian as many historians of High Medieval art maintained. I realised that such erudition would have been rare even among the passengers at the Umbrian central line and I began to look again at the man, and he noted my interest with his light yet tired smile: light perhaps due to his character, and tired as a result of his studies rather than his journey, like many other Russians of his generation in fact. I of course knew the temple and even knew of the controversy about its date because, even though for a very short period, I had been mad about High medieval art and went looking for it wherever it could be found. I mentioned this to him and he was in no way surprised as would have been any traveller on the railways in Umbria. It seemed quite natural to him that someone from Spoleto would know everything about the monument and even its critical history. I asked him when he had been to Umbria and he answered that he had taken part in a meeting in Trieste some thirty years before. He only knew Umbria form books and he had found the temple dedicated to the god Clitunno in a number of them. He added that he was going to Tashkent and that he would stop off at Alma-Ata only a few hours. I was convinced I would see him again and I didn’t take too much notice of his surname. I remember Piotr because Piotr is easy to remember. And Piotr that snowy dawn accompanied me by taxi to the old rundown hotel Kazakhstan, which still exists restored to its full potential, he bargained the price with Valentina the concierge whose great friend I would become, he gave me a printed address card as was the custom behind the Iron Curtain, and then walked back to the station as though nothing were more normal than taking a walk under the snow in winter alma-Ata at five in the morning. I told myself I would see him again in Tashkent after a few days, just the amount of time for visiting the capital of Kazakhstan which I had never seen before, search for who-knows-what in some unknown bazaar, have a look at its rough museums and its semi-public gallery of contemporary art where I would see, I foresaw, the usual protagonist of Social-realism renewed by the eclectic fury of the times.
In fact Kazakhstan was forming a generation of surprising artist (amongst whom Almagul) whom I would get to know just a few years later, thanks to Valeria Ibraeva. Deep down I am convinced that the best meetings come about when the time is right.
So I then went on to Tashkent where I never did find Piotr again because I had lost his visiting card.
In the Uzbek capital there was an unexpected show of African art, like a raft of the cultural brotherhood of Soviet times that was still afloat because no one had had the will to dismantle it even two years after the collapse of the Soviet system (the works could be seen through the crack of a door closed with a lock that had already rusted). The closing date, August 18th 1991, was about a month earlier than the fall of the USSR and the start of the reign of Islam Karimov who is still clinging on among one fundamentalist revolt and another and openly pro-American alliances that suddenly stop and are replaced with Russian ones and the menace of unusual Chinese brotherhoods ready to open up another Silk Road between Kashgar and Oz by way of Yurheshtam. That the African exhibition was not an illusion was demonstrated by a worn banner. I had come across a similar one in Damascus some ten years earlier; I still wonder if among the artist from Mozambique, Ethiopia and other Soviet allies in Africa whom I had seen absent-mindedly in Damascus and had not been able to see in Tashkent, because the museum had been closed for a few days and would open again after about twenty years, there might not have been one of those I would get to know soon after in Maputo, Dar Es Salaam and Addis Ababa as I travelled with Sarenco.
I had known Sarenco since my first visit to Verona halfway through the ‘eighties, but I had lost sight of him after he had gone to Africa in order to avoid the problems and, above all, the agonies of the avant-garde as it groped its way towards a postmodernist or, rather, post-mortem reconversion. In Africa Sarenco had found in the still little known contemporary art scene that taste for risk and adventure that had once belonged to our own avant-gardes. Some months later I met him by change in Verona in the printing firm of Adriano Parise (who is the publisher of this catalogue) together with Richard Onyango, and there began an Afro-Asian connection that still last. I was to meet Esther Malanghu and Almagul later in Europe where the artist N’Debele comes every so often in her traditional dress which continues to stop the traffic in Milan; and the artist Kazakha with his easy-going self-confidence, inherited from his Turkish-Mongolian forebears who conquered the world manu militari. I was to meet Liliana Malta some years later, thanks to Graziano Marini who is present in this biennale with lyrical yet scathing pictures where colour and history come together on a slender cups. Downstairs from the house he then lived in, just a few kilometres from Todi, the main Umbrian train line still passes, and in the silent summer afternoons it was possible to hear, in the far distance, the few trains. Or was it perhaps the Turkish-Siberian line ?