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Ghana Plans Venice Biennale Debut, with among others El Anatsui

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Ghana will participate this year in the Venice Biennale for the first time, and it is doing so in high style with a national pavilion featuring a multigenerational cast of six artists who range from esteemed veterans to closely watched emerging figures. They are, in alphabetical order: Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Titled “Ghana Freedom,” after a 1957 song penned by E.T. Mensah before the nation’s independence that same year, the show will be housed in the Artiglierie section of the Arsenale in Venice. It will open in conjunction with the 58th Biennale, which is slated to run May 11 through November, with preview days beginning on May 8.

Efforts to create a Ghanaian pavilion were started by Nana Oforiatta Ayim, who’s serving as curator on the show (and recently authored a “Perspectives” column for ARTnews), and David Adjaye, who will be its architect. Curator Okwui Enwezor, who organized the 2015 Venice Biennale, has been tapped as strategic adviser for the show, and the commissioner is Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture.

“This is a historic moment for us in Ghana,” Catherine Afeku, who heads the ministry, said in a statement. “Arts and culture are the very soul of a nation, and with our maiden entry to the Venice Biennale, under the leadership of His Excellency, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, I can say, we have arrived.”

Anatsui is renowned for shimmering tapestries he fashions from bottle tops and other bits of detritus. He received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2015 Biennale organized by Enwezor.

Abban, who is regularly referred to as Ghana’s first female photographer, began shooting portraits in the 1950s, and continued to work for more than half a century. Her work had its first museum showcase in 2017, at Oforiatta Ayim’s ANO art space in Accra.

Multichannel video installations are medium of choice for Akomfrah, who take up themes like colonization, empire, and history across the African diaspora. He’s another alum of Enwezor’s 2015 Biennale, and had a superb survey at the New Museum in New York last year.

Also a vet of that 2015 Biennale is Mahama, who’s best known for sprawling installations made of stitched-together of jute sacks used to move coal in Ghana. At Documenta 14 (2017) in Kassel, Germany, he covered buildings with these huge quilts.

Sosu, for her part, builds sculptures and installations from video and sound, and last year appeared in “Tracing Obsolescence,” a group show at Apexart in New York that was organized by Evelyn Owen.

Finally, Yiadom-Boakye paints subtly colored portraits of fictional characters that typically pose in spare spaces. Like Anatsui, she’s currently featured in the 2018 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh; she won that exhibition’s Carnegie Prize. Her two-venue show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York just closed, and the New Museum gave her a solo outing in 2017.

“Being able to show the diversity and creativity of Ghana on an international scale is an incredible achievement,” Adjaye said in a statement, “and one which showcases the talent that we have to offer.”

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  • A sketch for Ghana’s pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale by David Adjaye.