Wenny Teo: Neocolonialism as multiculturalism at the Kenya pavilion

Several pavilions have chosen to include artists of different nationalities in their exhibitions this year, but none have done so as crudely as the Italian commissioners and curators of the first ever Kenyan pavilion. Mystifyingly entitled "Reflective Nature: a New Primary Enchanting Sensitivity," the exhibition is split over two locations: the space on the island of San Servolo is entirely devoted to a special project by the Italo-Brazilian artist Cesar Meneghetti, while the main site, at the Caserma Cornoldi, has a total of eight Chinese artists, one Italian and just two Kenyans. The catalogue does little to justify this strangely blatant marginalisation of Kenyan artists, opting to wax lyrical about the beauty of "nature" in painfully reductive and primitivist terms instead: "this is Kenya, where Nature IS" declares the commissioner Paola Poponi. We find the Italian artist Armando Tanzini's crass "tribal" artefacts (including a nude, supine sculpture of an African woman, carved out of wood) in one room, while the main courtyard space is dominated by garish flower pieces by Feng Zhengjie and a metallic orb by Chen Wenling.

Feng-Zhengjie,China no62, 2005. Does this represent Kenya?

The rest of the exhibition includes an incoherent assortment of Chinese paintings and an installation or two that have no artistic connection with Kenya whatsoever. Instead we see the same clich├ęd offerings of vacuous post political pop, expressionistic paintings of China's industrial wastelands and Li Wei's cartoonish photographs of himself falling off buildings and monks afloat on clouds of red smoke. The charming, naive pastels of Kivuthi Mbuno and Wangombe Wachira's batik-like floral paintings appear somewhere in the mix as token examples of "authentic" Kenyan art that we are presumably meant to take as representative of the exhibition's shambolic attempt at "eradicating cultural difference."

What the curators and commissioners have achieved instead is a frightening manifestation of neo-colonialism vulgarly presented as multiculturalism. China is of course a main investor in Kenya, and the most interesting thing that unwittingly comes out of this cynical tribute to its art is the increasingly ambivalent relationship between the two countries. On the part of the curators, the exhibition a stunning example of present day Orientalism, and its cursory inclusion of the two Kenyan artists is Primitivism at its very worst. To be avoided like the plague.

Wenny Teo is the Iwan and Manuela Wirth lecturer of modern and contemporary Asian Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Published Tue, 04 Jun 2013 11:41:00 GMT

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