John Akomfrah will work with the UK curator Tarini Malik on the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the British Council has announced.
Malik, a former curator at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Hayward Gallery, both in London, will work with the British-Ghanian artist for the 60th edition of La Biennale di Venezia, which will take place in the Italian city from 20 April to 24 November 2024.
Akomfrah was announced as the UK’s representative in January, shortly before he was knighted in the King’s New Year UK Honours List for 2023.
In a statement, Miranda Stacey, the director of visual arts for the British Council, described Malik as “an exciting and dynamic curator.”
“This is life-changing for me,” Malik tells The Art Newspaper. “John is an instrumental, pioneering, genre-defining artist. I’m incredibly excited to work with him on this global stage.”
The pavilion, Malik says, will “draw on the legacies of the work John has made over the past 40 years”.
“We want to create an exhibition that feels connected to the city of Venice, but also looks at the institution of the British Pavilion,” Malik says. “We want to talk about urgent and necessary issues around our time and place and context.”
John’s appointment as the representative of the UK’s art scene comes at a “critical, transitional moment" for the UK’s cultural scene, Malik says.
“The visual arts sector in the UK is recovering from—and responding to— an immense period of upheaval,” she says. “That impact is really beginning to bleed down into our institutions in terms of the ambitions of their programme and the size of their teams. But there’s also really necessary demands on our cultural institutions to broaden their understanding of systemic injustice and other forms of inequality.”
Malik aspires to “extend the reach” of Akomfrah’s work through her curatorship of the pavilion.
“We’re thinking about the different ways we can extend the pavilion’s public programme,” Malik says. “We want to help the work to travel and reach wider and more diverse audiences.”
To achieve this, Malik wants to develop “generative tools” around the exhibition. “We want to ensure the work in the pavilion is accessible to many different kinds of people, not just those who have the privilege of being able to visit Venice,” she says.
Akomfrah was born in 1957 in Accra, Ghana, the year the West African country gained independence. He is the son of a revolutionary politician who sat in the cabinet of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana after independence.
Akomfrah moved to London as a child and came to prominence in the early 1980s as part of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), an artist collective founded in 1982 and based out of Hackney, east London. He won a number of art-world awards in 1986 for his debut film Handsworth Songs (1986), which examined the impact of the Handsworth race riots which erupted in the UK city of Birmingham, causing a number of deaths.
Through his work with BAFC, Akomfrah helped to pioneer a form of multi-channel video installation media, through which he has long explored social issues in the UK, ranging from racial injustice, colonialist legacies, migration and climate change. Akomfrah's use of video has become widely influential across the art world.
Malik was born in India and raised in Zambia, Africa, before moving to London to pursue a career in art curatorship. She first studied Akomfrah’s work as a student at the Royal College of Art. "In my formative years as a student of art history, I spent a lot of time at the British Film Institute, trawling through the archive of the Black Audio Film Collective,” she says. “So, as a diasporic person who was trying to understand my role, his art was incredibly formative for me.”
Malik describes the past few months as a “whirlwind”. She was one of six full-time members of staff—including three curators—to be made redundant at the Whitechapel Gallery in London as part of a restructure under the gallery’s new director, Gilane Tawadros. Malik left the gallery in March. She was working on an exhibition of South African contemporary art when the redundancy was announced; the exhibition has since been cancelled.
She formerly worked on the curatorial team at the Hayward Gallery on London’s Southbank and as part of the artist Isaac Julien’s in-house team.
“I have an interest in works from the Global South, in works that are politically motivated and talk about the different permutations of identity,” she says. “And I’m specifically interested in looking at African and South Asian diasporas here in the UK.”
Malik and Akomfrah will follow in the wake of artist Sonia Boyce and curator Emma Ridgway, now the director of the Foundling Museum. Boyce won the Golden Lion for her installation titled Feeling Her Way. The curatorship position has been sponsored, for the second time, by Shane Akeroyd, the Hong Kong-based UK art collector and philanthropist. Akeroyd will support the position until 2030.