Following a one-year postponement of its annual event due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the 17th International Venice Architecture Biennale has returned. This year’s theme asks “How Will We Live Together” and has been curated by Lebanese architect and educator Hashim Sarkis. The titular question is unpacked by dividing it into five scales with topics that explore borders, communities, households, diversity, and the planet. The main exhibition of the biennale is composed of works from 114 participants from 46 countries. Among those, there are a handful of African creatives that give their take on this year’s theme. Additionally, Ghanaian-Scottish architect and educator Lesley Lokko is one of the five members on the international jury.
Here, we highlight 7 African creatives participating in this year’s event and their responses to the questions presented in “How Will We Live Together.”
Nigerian artist Peju Alatise features “Alasiri” as part of the Biennale’s “Among Diverse Beings” category. “Alasiri: Doors for Concealment or Revelation” considers the overall theme and explores how “we”– which Alatise defines as “the human element that we must address in order to live together”– share space in a world with dynamics that draw us together while others aim to push us apart.
According to the artist’s statement, “Alasiri is a sculptural installation of doors and figures that allows both your vulnerability and those behind the doors to come to the fore and gives avenue to explore mutual understanding or misunderstanding.” This installation encourages its audience to consider moral inclusion within the conversation of shared spaces that architecture alone cannot address. It begs us to consider our common humanity and overcome fear of differences based on culture, creed, color, and the like.
“A world so large in contrived differences yet so small in epidemiological vulnerability is in constant tension,” says the artist’s statement. “Cyclic forces vacillate between the common humanity that brings us together and contrived differences that push us apart in a metaphorical space that Alasiri thrusts you the observer into.”
Alasiri is “the secret keeper that allows you to simultaneously experience being an outsider and insider.”
Nairobi-based architecture and design firm Cave_Bureau teamed up with Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia of K63.Studio to create “Keja” under the Biennale’s “As New Households” category. “Keja,” which is slang for “home” in Nairobi, explores what individual expression among African millennials and young creatives in the built environment will look like in the near future. It considers which readily-available materials or repurposed materials will be used and ponders which “pragmatic solutions would factor in principles such as Functionality, Modernity, Cultural awareness, Personal yet inclusive space (fits a communal ecosystem), Interaction with the wider environment and community engagement.”
As part of “Keja,” K63.Studio and Macharia examines the urban setting in Kawangware– a far flung on the western edge of Nairobi where more than 65 percent of the population are millennials– and refers to the region as the “Void” due to its normalcy of both informal planning and informal building. The idea behind “Void” is to propose a new typology of building for the urban millennial in Kawangware.
“Void” is accompanied by “Made,” which represents Nairobi’s Lavington neighborhood, just east of Kawanhware. Lavington is a sprawling suburbia where affluent Nairobians live. Here, you’ll find formal planning and building with amenities like shopping malls, offices, and mansions. “Void” and “Made” is a comparison of these two built environments.
Mariam Kamara: atelier masōmī
Nigerien architect Mariam Kamara of Atelier Masōmī collaborated with the Tuareg Sculptors Collective to create “Making of an Artisan’s Valley,” under the “As Emerging Communities” subcategory. The project will debut at the Venice Biennale in August and it proposes a new social contract for how Niamey’s citizens might experience the valley as a place of unity. It is comprised of “a whimsical promenade peppered with semicircular, perforated shells inspired by Niger’s rural cylindrical clay granary clusters.”
As part of the exhibit, there are wooden benches set against panels clad with embossed leather tiles that invite visitors to sit and watch the stories of the artisans who made them in the video documentaries that appear on screens.
Storia Na Lugar
Storia Na Lugar is a Cape Verdean firm that defines its work as “an experimental, analysis and documentation project on the dynamics of placemaking.” Under the biennale’s “As Emerging Communities” category, the group– comprised of Cape Verdean architect Patti Anahory and photographer and filmmaker César Schofield Cardoso– crafted an exhibit called “Hacking (the resort)” that explores “the blue imaginaries of the all-inclusive resorts that occupy designated Special Tourist Zones in Boa Vista Island, Cabo Verde.”
The project highlights the irony between these massive resorts, equipped with monumental infinity pools “that extend horizons of blue” while Cape Verde remains a country that suffers from extreme scarcity of potable water and suffers from water management issues.
“Hacking (the resort)” advocates for a shift in perspective with regarding to the consumption of water imaginaries and proposes a “tri-dimensional matrix of relationships” that includes a reference to disparities in access to potable water, the production of water, and the ecological imbalance from multiple pressures, including waste.
Per the artist’s statement: “The installation creates an expanded and layered horizon, merging scales and interlacing multimedia imagery with the built form. It makes use of the ubiquitous water bottle (in this case rPET) as a unit of construction, a unit of value (and of disparity) as well as a symbol of ecological pressure.
Olalekan Jeyifous and Mpho Matsipa
Nigerian-born artist Olalekan Jeyifous (currently based in Brooklyn, NY) and South African scholar Mpho Matsipa worked together to create “Liquid Geographies, Liquid Borders.” This exhibit explores “the aural and visual landscape of the lagoon as a spatial metaphor for complex, slippery exchanges that seek to delineate ownership, but also gestures towards a terrain of blending, branching and stratification of aquatic ecologies.”
Matsipa is the curator for African Mobilities and as part of “Liquid Geographies, Liquid Borders,” she and composer Dani Kyengo O’Neill explore the sonic connections among oil-fueled movements. The Nigerian Delta is an extractive landscape that serves as a focal point.
Angolan architects Paula Nascimento and Jaime Mesquita conceptualized “Unfolding Urban Ambiguities: Prédio do Livro” which reflects on the city of Luanda, where “the formal and informal meet in unexpected ways.” In Luanda, both planned city and self-built neighborhoods exist, forming makeshift neighborhood borders, spaces of encounters, and more as architecture manifests itself throughout the city.
“Unfolding Urban Ambiguities” provokes its audience to imagine the future of the site and what it would mean if certain buildings or structures were removed.
Cave_bureau makes another appearance, this time as part of the “As One Planet” category where they created “Obsidian Rain.” The installation is a transposed section of the Mbai cave in Kenya and is a hanging installation, made from obsidian stone, in the central pavilion at Giardini in Venice. Cave_Bureau opted to host a roundtable panel discussion on the biennale’s overall theme, along with a performance by a Mau Mau veteran. Overall, the exhibit highlights the Mbai cave as a commune chamber for 20th century anti-colonial freedom fighters and analyzes the practice of architecture with the African context.
A common characteristic among the many of the projects highlighted above is afrofuturism, or the idea of referencing the past to create better solutions for the future of Africans and those within the diaspora. This ideology examines aspects like technology, inclusivity, and equal access to basic human rights like housing, food, and water. Whether it’s considering the future of the formal and informal environment in African cities, or highlighting the irony of lavish oceanfront resorts with massive infinity pools in a country struggling to provide its citizens with potable water, the question of “How Will We Live Together,” when answered in an African context, requires us to learn from both past and present, while considering dichotomies like prosperity and disparity, inclusion and exclusion, and so much more. Overall, Hashim calls for a “spatial contract” that is universal, inclusive, and allows for people and species to coexist and thrive.
The 17th Venice Architecture Biennale is running until November 21, 2021.