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The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and most important exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. This year Kenya will be a part of the exhibition for only the second time. And NPR's Gregory Warner reports that there's something odd about the artists who have been chosen to represent that country - almost none of them are Kenyan.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Let me just start by reading some of the names of the artists representing Kenya in the Biennale this year: Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang - successful Chinese artists who've apparently never been to Africa nor engage it in their network. So what most of the 350,000 visitors to the Venice Biennale will never realize is that the Kenyan art scene is hot. Kenyan artists are gaining traction with international buyers and auction houses.
SYLVIA GICHIA: So for this to happen, it's just kind of a kick in the stomach.
WARNER: Sylvia Gichia is the director of an artist collective and residency program in Nairobi called Kuona Trust. She says the same thing happened with the Venice Biennale in 2013, where Kenya's first-ever pavilion was also overwhelmingly Chinese artists.
GICHIA: What does the Chinese have to do with the visual arts in Kenya?
WARNER: Nobody in Kenya's government will answer that question. In most countries, the government either makes selections or signs the job to a private gallery. In this case, the most active Kenyan citizen involved in the planning seems to have been an Italian-born painter who has lived half a century in the Kenyan coastal town of Malindi.
AMANDO TANZINI: Yes, I have - I think I have the best land that is in Malindi.
WARNER: But 72-year-old Armando Tanzini is studiously vague about what he actually does for a living, other than paint and sculpt and run a B&B.
TANZINI: I believe that things come from the sky, do you know? If I need money, the money come.
WARNER: And in 2013 a lot of money did come. With the government's approval, he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Kenya a pavilion and organize the show. This year he's again in the show, though he says it wasn't solely his money. He says he had other private sponsors. But again, no funding from Kenya's government.
TANZINI: Unfortunately, if I want to bring Africa or Kenya, I must compromise in some way.
WARNER: What do you mean?
TANZINI: Compromise because we have no the money.
WARNER: Tanzini would not say what this compromise was or where the additional money came from or if the successful Chinese artists in the pavilion were invited because they also could pay their own way. But if you did want to find artists with the money and with the incentive to pay for a spot in Venice, you would probably look to the Chinese.
DAVIDE QUADRIO: There are many artists I know that they buy their introduction to Venice.
WARNER: Davide Quadrio is a curator of Chinese contemporary art at Arthub Asia in Shanghai.
QUADRIO: And they don't even care about the venue anymore or the credibility of the show.
WARNER: He says the Venice label is revered by Chinese collectors, and so Chinese artists can sell their work for more if they say they've shown there.
QUADRIO: And here I'm saying something a bit risky, but I don't care. The value that Venice represent in contemporary art for the China is actually the China market.
WARNER: Now, this does not make Kenyan artists feel any better. And even Armando Tanzini, the Italian living in Malindi, says he feels guilty that he's the only artist traveling from Kenya. The one other non-Chinese artist in the show was a Kenyan-born filmmaker living in Switzerland.
TANZINI: And I'm really sad - sad because I would like to bring somebody else than me.
WARNER: So here's this petition that's going around. I don't know if you've seen it.
Sadness switched to anger when I showed him a petition circulating on change.org.
But it says (reading) a group of well-connected people who lack neither intellectual or creative capacity to represent Kenya's contemporary art. They are posturing to the world as the Kenyan pavilion.
TANZINI: OK. Those stupid people, they speak about colors. We are speaking about that?
WARNER: I see. You think it's racist.
WARNER: The Biennale would not respond to requests for comment. And in their defense, the Kenya pavilion is not the only one to feature artists who are non-nationals. But when the exhibition opens there will be Kenyan protesters in Venice who say they'd rather have no pavilion at all than one that so flagrantly does not represent their country. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
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