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The 2019 Venice Art Biennale, which opened formally on Saturday in the historic Arsenale, is host this year to Ghana’s first national pavilion. The event in Italy is one of the top events in the global fine art calendar every other year.

The 2019 Venice Art Biennale, which opened formally on Saturday in the historic Arsenale, is host this year to Ghana’s first national pavilion. The event in Italy is one of the top events in the global fine art calendar every other year.

Ghana’s exhibition space in the Artiglierie was designed by the UK-based architect Sir David Adjaye, who designed the Oslo Peace Centre and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Ghanaian artists have shown at past Biennales ‒ El Anatsui won a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2015 show ‒ but this is the first time Ghana has participated in the event as a country.

“Ghana Freedom”, the Ghana Pavilion exhibition, takes its name from E T Mensah’s song to mark independence in 1957.

The display itself is rooted both in Ghanaian culture and Ghana’s life in the diaspora. Six artists of Ghanaian descent introduce Ghana as a cultural powerhouse with large-scale installation, film and video work, painting, sculpture and photography.

Ghanaian officials from the Ministry of Tourism who have championed the project are very direct about their objective: “to enhance Ghana’s position on the global stage and to increase tourism”. The launch on May 8 at the Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal was graced by the First Lady, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, who expressed great pleasure at being able to lend her support.

Ghana’s debut in Venice also coincides with the Year of Return, a landmark series of cultural events across Ghana, starting in Jamestown, Accra, to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in the United States.

Big Six

The six artists on show at Venice were selected by the young Ghanaian curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim, founder of the Ano contemporary art gallery and information centre in Osu. She had guidance in steering the idea to success from the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, director of the groundbreaking 2005 Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany.

Enwezor, a distinguished figure in contemporary art, served as a strategic advisor on Ghana’s bid until his untimely death in March. Three of the artists chosen for the 2019 exhibition ‒ John Akomfrah, El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama ‒ showed at the 2015 Biennale, co-ordinated by Enwezor.

John Akomfrah, OBE, a celebrated London-based artist with multiple international exhibitions and awards under his belt, has worked in film for the past three decades, launching his career and the pioneering Black Audio/Film Collective with highly politicised art documentaries such as 1987s Handsworth Songs.

The renowned Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui trained in Ghana but has had much of his working life in Nigeria; his studio is in Nsukka. This is his third outing to Venice; he first showed at the 2007 Biennale. His work – both conventional sculptures and light-catching wall hangings fashioned from thousands of flattened bottle tops ‒ fetches top prices on the art market. New World Map set the tone, selling at Bonhams, the London auctioneer, for $850,000 in 2012. Other work since has fetched up to $2 million. The wall hangings are particularly sought after by leading institutions: Sasa (2004) is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the British Museum owns various works by him.

The work of Ibrahim Mahama, who also previously showed at the 2015 Biennale, and who has been making waves on the global art scene for the past ten years, informs the feel of Adjaye’s pavilion design. The brown, curved walls of the space, coated with a render made with soil from Ghana, nicely complement Mahama’s works made from wood and jute sacks.

The Carnegie Prize-winning painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye produces fictional portraits from her base in London. She was shortlisted for the British Turner Prize in 2013 and Tate Britain is planning a major retrospective of her work for next year. Her paintings also go on display this year at the National Museum in Accra.

Felicia Abban, now 83, is a cultural legend. She was Ghana’s first female professional photographer, setting up her first studio in 1956 in Accra, and worked in the 1960s as Kwame Nkrumah’s personal photographer. Ano hosted the first public exhibition of her work in 2017. The sixth artist, Selasi Awusi Sosu, teaches fine art at the University of Education in Winneba, and uses video and sound in his own work to create suggestive, holograph-type installations.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper described “Ghana Freedom” as “shaking up the sea of whiteness’” that is Venice’s usual hallmark. Gallerists have welcomed it, anticipating that it will have a marked impact on foreign interest in Ghanaian fine art and Ghanaian culture in general.

* The Venice Biennale runs until 24 November 2019. The Ghana National Pavilion is in Section 73 of Arsenale-Artiglierie, Giardino delle Vergini, Venice. Details: labiennale.org

* “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale”, curated by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, is at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 28 July 2019 and then tours to Doha, Bern and Bilbao. Details: https://hausderkunst.de