Setting the stage for Africa at the Venice Architecture Biennale

David Adjaye, lead architect of the National Museum of African American History in Washington, Sept. 8, 2016. (Photos: NYTimes)
For most of her life, Ghanaian Scottish architect and educator Lesley Lokko, curator of the forthcoming Venice Architecture Biennale, has moved between worlds. She grew up in both Accra, the capital, with its two seasons and hot steady climate, and cool coastal Dundee. “Scotland was shiver,” she recalled. “Ghana was sweat”.اضافة اعلان

Her ability to inhabit and interpret multiple worlds is a talent that Lokko, 59, the Architecture Biennale’s first curator of African descent, is bringing to “The Laboratory of the Future,” an ambitious exploration of Africa’s impact on the globe — and vice versa. More than half the Biennale’s 89 participants are from Africa or the African diaspora — many of them “shape-shifters,” as Lokko calls them, whose work transcends traditional definitions of architecture as well as geography.

Among the Venetian Who’s Who is Pritzker Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré (Burkina Faso and Berlin); Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi (Johannesburg, London, Tripoli, New York); and Cave_Bureau (Nairobi, Kenya), a firm that has 3D-mapped Shimoni slave caves on the Kenyan coast. Brooklyn-based Nigerian visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous and the noted British Ghanaian architect David Adjaye (Accra, London and New York), a close friend and collaborator best known in the UK for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

“It is an opportunity to talk to the rest of the world about Africa, and also to talk to Africa from here,” Lokko said in a series of email and video interviews from Venice, keeping the details under wraps until the press opening May 18. Sub-Saharan Africa is often regarded as the most rapidly urbanizing and youthful population on the planet, she points out, with most people speaking more than one language. “The ability to be several things at once — traditional and modern, African and global, colonized and independent — is a strong thread running through the continent and the Diaspora,” she said. “We’re used to having to think about resources, about switching on a light with no guarantee of electricity. We’re able to grapple with change. That capacity to overcome, to negotiate, to navigate ones’ surroundings is going to take center stage.”

On the eve of the Biennale, Lokko was busy negotiating a small crisis of her own: Last week she criticized Italy for denying entry visas for three members of her curatorial team from Ghana, and said that one additional member was still awaiting a response.

Daniela d’Orlandi, the Italian ambassador in Ghana, said that while Italy considered “the focus on Africa of this year’s edition of La Biennale in Venice very valuable,” it had a responsibility to enact the EU’s visa code, which, she wrote in a statement to The New York Times, “imposes an assessment not of the purpose of the trip or the reliability of the invitees, but the possession of the requirements envisaged by each applicant.”

She said she was not at liberty to reveal the details of the individual cases, but “that if these are not satisfied we are unable to issue the related visa.”

Lokko has long been immersed in issues of race, space, and architecture — the subject of a pathbreaking book she wrote and edited while still a graduate student at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, from which she earned a doctorate. Earlier this year, King Charles III named Lokko an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to architecture and education. In 2015, she founded an influential graduate school of architecture at the University of Johannesburg. A mere four months before the Biennale came calling, she opened the African Futures Institute in Accra, a postgraduate “Pan-African think tank” with public programs and an international reach that seeks to fill in sorely needed gaps in existing architectural education.

Lesley Lokko, the first curator from Africa to lead the Venice Architecture Biennale, in Venice, April 2023. 

Those considered “minorities” in the West are actually the global majority, she observes. “When you are African, you speak to a world that has an existing view of who and what you are,” she said. “You walk with this kind of label. So for me, the Biennale was an opportunity to both talk about the label, to confront it in a way, but to also show underneath how similar we are.”

Although the Biennale is hardly the first major exhibition to focus on Black and diasporic practitioners, the cascading crises of climate change, rapid urbanization, migration, global health emergencies, and a deep imperative to decolonize institutions and spaces — starting with the historically Eurocentric Biennale itself — arguably make Lokko’s focus on hybrid forms of practice timely, be it planners as policy experts or artist-environmentalists.

Walter Hood, a landscape designer and artist in Oakland, California, will offer an installation at the Biennale titled “Native(s)” with his design for a set of public buildings for a South Carolina Gullah Community, inspired by a locally native landscape in which the community conserves sweetgrass for basket making.

The ability to “make do” and creatively improvise with existing resources can also offer a template for a sustainable future. “She has been saying for a while that it’s ‘our time,” Akosua Obeng Mensah, an architect practicing in Accra, said of Lokko, noting that roughly 80% of development in sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be built.

Anonymous International style skyscrapers still dominate many African cities. “A certain generation of architects have seen ‘the other’ — Europe or America — as the model to aspire to, and unscrambling that to interpret your own modernity is very hard,” said Adjaye, who expanded his practice in Ghana and has collaborated on the African Futures Institute. “In spotting Lesley,” he added, “what the Biennale is getting is a real on-the-pulse desire of the continent to re-imagine itself.”

The Biennale remains a “very exclusive European event for Western audiences,” noted Livingstone Mukasa, a Ugandan architect and researcher in upstate New York and co-editor of the seven-volume “Architectural Guide: Sub-Saharan Africa”. “The question is whether this seasonal curiosity is the right platform to try to make seismic shifts”

In a sense, the Biennale is the African Futures Institute writ large: the Venetian extravaganza even includes a monthlong, first-ever “Biennale College Architettura” in which career practitioners and students will work on design projects with high-profile masters.

“She is using the Biennale as a platform to extend the work she has been doing for decades,” said Toni L. Griffin, a New York-based planner and urban designer whose outdoor installation will be featured in Venice. In graduate school, Griffin never had a professor of color and women were few. “Lesley is able to set the stage for others,” she said, “and expose the network that for some of us has always been there.”

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