Natalie Göltenboth

Sir David Adjaye (architect), 2019, Venice, Italy. © Natalie Göltenboth

Some Reflections on the Making of Ghana at the 58th Biennale di Venezia

The opening of the Ghana Pavilion is a sensation. Ghana is celebrating what only a few countries on the African continent have managed to do so far: to position themselves with their own National Pavilion on one of the main venues of the Biennale. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that the participation of an African country at the Venice Biennale will never be an “innocent” affair. The Ghana Pavilion raises questions about the expectations, intentions and power relations in which all actors are as much involved as the artworks and gallery space.


(Image above: Sergio Linhares, student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, LMU Munich while conducting research on the perception of the Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, June 2019)

  • Natalie Göltenboth
    Natalie Göltenboth


    Sir David Adjaye puts his hands on the ochre-coloured earth walls of the pavilion while speaking into the microphone: “We have brought that earth here. This is West Africa, this is Ghanaian soil that was applied by Venetian plasterers." 1


    Sir David Adjaye, the renowned British architect with Ghanaian roots, based the design of the Ghana Pavilion on the traditional earth buildings of the Gurunsi from Eastern Ghana. The organically merging ochre room sequences evoke a rural Ghana in which the works of the six artists are presented. All of them have Ghanaian roots, but some live and work in England. In an interview, he describes his understanding of architecture as follows: “Art and Architecture create powerful narratives about our lives. Architecture is a story, it’s a way of marking and talking about our aspirations and hopes. So, in what I do, the methodology to every project I make, is to find a narrative [...].”2


    This raises the question of the possible interpretations of the pavilion. Out of a multitude of possible architectural quotations and structures that could represent Ghana, it is rural Ghana that was chosen as the structure and backdrop for the artworks. But it is precisely the Gurunsi and their country that were worn down by the European colonial powers in the course of the conquest of West Africa and were finally divided in two at the end of the 19th century by their geographical affiliation to the French and British administrative districts. In this respect, a connection can be drawn to the all-encompassing motto of the exhibition – dealing with the colonial period that ends with the final cry of triumph “Ghana Freedom”.


    In addition to this critical, post-colonial discourse, the pavilion also invites an interpretation in which “Africa” is staged as an earthy, dark and rural-tribal space: as much as you feel comfortable inside, the bright light makes you blink when you step out. The odour design by Ibrahim Mahama from the first honeycomb of the pavilion offers a further sensory component to this impression.

    While the conscious use of white cube gallery spaces was a struggle for contemporaneity and belonging to the global art discourse,3 Adjaye has decided on a placemaking, in which “Ghanaian identity” is presented as an imaginary picture of origin and authenticity or a rural cut-out reality. In addition, the multiple experiences of London-based artists, such as Akomfrah and Yiadom Boakye, are, thus, transferred back to their native Ghanaian earthworks.


    This raises the question of how much of Ghana’s aesthetic construction is to be seen as a concession to the expectations that the global art world places on the artists of African countries. Just as Edward Said has described this for the Orient4, it remains to be examined whether an imagined “Africa” has not just been created in the global art world, whose multiple requirements put artists from the African continent under pressure to master the balancing act between postmodern, conceptual approaches and African side-specificity or even ethnicity in the form of an aesthetic Africa-specific local flavour. Here in the national pavilion of Ghana, the artists are released from this pressure insofar as the pavilion already provides the aesthetic headline or frame which harmonises all the works exhibited there under the imaginary of Ghana/Africa.


    While experiencing the pavilion, it becomes clear how difficult it might be for artists from an African country and its diaspora to position themselves within the global art discourse without falling into one of the numerous traps that lurk there, starting with the simplest chain of associations of clichéd fantasies. Close your eyes for a moment and tell me how you imagine the national pavilion of a West African country: earth, elephants, desert, migrants, sunsets, recycling art and a strong smell of spoiled fish?


    That the expectancy of local flavour can also be handled quite differently becomes evident if we consider a young generation of Cuban artists, such as Alejandro Campins, who ask provocatively: “Cuban art, what’s that?”5


    Expectations can also be met with confrontation in other respects. As a response to the demand for the adjustment to concepts of art influenced by Europe and North America, the artist collective Atis Rezistans from Haiti launched their own biennial with the programmatic title: "What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?"6 With this idea of a clash of art cultures, they are more radical in asserting their own (bloody) concept of art. However, this kind of confrontation is not for everyone. (Link)


    Enwezor sums up these expectations clearly when he says that artists of African origin, whose contemporaneity he appreciates, must, in any case, comply “to be deeply located within conceptual and postmodernist matrices”.7 As understandable as this may seem from the perspective of Euro-American contemporary art concepts, it is, nevertheless, clear that it is precisely these “matrices” mentioned by Enwezor that exclude other ways of making and understanding art. That they are able to do so is due to their position of power.


    The social anthropologist Thomas Fillitz speaks of the contemporary global art world as a world culture, ultimately a global transnational culture, only to conclude that “this global art world continues to be determined by the discourses of Occidental art history and its affiliated ordering systems of classification”.8 We should ask to what extent the concept of art is one of the last (so far only weakly attacked) bastions of an Eurocentric view of the definition of contemporary art and, thus, a kind of colonial survival. The increasing networking of individual art worlds does not necessarily bring about an equal reciprocal exchange.


    In this respect, the Venice Biennale could be understood as the palace of this concept of art – a place where its “Urmeter” (standard) of the art is measured and conveyed in a constantly redefined way by mostly European-North American curators and art theorists.


    Now the question is how exactly at this place, the Venice Biennale, as a classical place of westernness and whiteness in Ghana’s National Pavilion (even if it comes along in the manner of the buildings of the Gurunsi corrupted by the colonial system), can a confrontation with Ghana’s colonial past succeed, which in the end would have to be continued as a confrontation with existing power structures. But this does not seem to be the intention. It is too much of a joy to finally get the desired recognition from exactly this system and yet, there remains the stale taste of a paternalistic hierarchy in which Ghana is proud to finally present itself to the art world represented in Venice.


    Nevertheless, the debut of the Ghana Pavilion is still a real success story, especially when one considers the representation of other African countries at the Biennale di Venezia. Only four countries of the African continent were represented with a national pavilion in the main exhibitions at the 58th Biennial, the others had to be sought out in sometimes often arduous exploratory walks in the urban area. This shows that participation and the positioning at the Biennial is linked to the political structures in the country, with contacts to European decision makers with financial resources but also with clear goals.


    From the outset, Ghana’s national pavilion had a clearly defined mission, which, in turn, is inextricably linked to the nation state and its representation. Taiye Selasi9 in his article “Who is afraid of a National Pavilion?”, after critically reviewing the structure of the Venice Biennial, asks: “Is there any good reason […] to exhibit theses six wildly different artists as Ghanaian?” “Yes there is”, we hear the tourism manager Barbara Oteng Gyasi, the curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim, the Ghanaian Ministry of Tourism Art and Culture and the architect David Adjaye calling. They are all working together on the script of a “bigger book” – the positioning of Ghana on the global stage as one of the African countries that can promote itself with its art and culture,10 in short, as a country to be proud of. And so we are not claiming too much when we state that one of the greatest successes of the Ghana Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale was that it became a place of pride and identification for its many visitors with African decent.


    ghanapavilion intro

    Sergio Linhares, student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, LMU Munich while conducting research on the perception of the Ghana Pavillon at the Venice Biennale, June 2019. Foto: Natalie Göltenboth





    1            Sir David Adjaye in an Interview with Al Jazeera Journalist Charlie Angela (www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PM5e8NhGFk)

    2            Sir David Adjaye – Building Transformative Narratives www.thehourglass.com/video/david-adjaye/

    3            “For Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou, the gallery walls remain white and the art works are evenly spaced and lit – as is customary in exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. By sticking to type we sought to minimize the distance between Kafou and more mainstream contemporary art, hoping to create the conditions for fresh encounters between the two” (Farquharson 2013: 10).

    4            See Edward Said, Deconstruction of Orientalism.

    5            Alejandro Campins in an interview with Natalie Göltenboth in Havana 2018, stressed that he doesn’t want to be seen as a Cuban artist, but as a contemporary artist.  

    6            Leah Gordon. 2017. Ghetto Biennale – Geto Byenal 2009-2015. Port au Prince.  See also: www.ghettobiennale.org

    7            Enwezor 1998: 34

    8            Flillitz 2007: 116

    9            Selasi 2019:40

    10          See Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s statement during the opening of the Ghana Pavilion  www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PM5e8NhGFk






    • D. Building Transformative Narratives.
    • Retreived 15.10.2020 https://www.thehourglass.com/video/david-adjaye/
    • C. (2019). Ghana makes Pavilion debut at 2019 Venice Biennale Art Show. Al Jazeera. Retreived 22.7.2020 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PM5e8NhGFk
    • Enwezor, O. (1998). Between Localism and Wordliness. Art Journal. Vol 57, No 4. Liminalities: Discussions on the Global and the Local. Pp 32-36.
    • Farquharson, A. (Ed.). (2013). Kafou – At the Crossroads. IN: Kafou. Hait, Art and Vodou, pp 8-19. Nottingham Contemporary (catalogue).
    • Flillitz, T. (2007). Contemporary Art in Africa. Coevalness in the Global World. IN: Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg (Eds.) The Gobal Art World. Audiences, Markets and Museums. Ostfildern. Hatje Cantz. Pp 116-134
    • Gordon,L. (2017). Ghetto Biennale – Geto Byenal 2009-2015. (catalogue). No Eraser Publishing
    • Said, E. (1978/2003). Orientalism. New York: Penguin Books
    • Selasi, T. (2019). Who is afraid of a National Pavilion? IN: Ayim. N.O. (Ed.) Ghana Freedom: Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Biennale di Venezia 2019 (catalogue). Koenig Books. Pp:38-43.



    published November 2020