Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Lesley Lokko’s sprawling, dense Biennale asks us to engage different representational languages. It’s a slow burn, but finding new legibility takes a moment.

“Zt. Zzt. ZZZzzzZZZzzzzZZZzzzzzzZZZZzzzzzzzzZZZzzzzzZZZzzzzo’ona,” begins The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell’s 2019 novel set in Zambia. The insistent whine of a mosquito. Her pesky, omniscient narrator traverses generations and geographies. It’s a tale of violence and the folly of colonization. That hum, indigenous and persistent, singular and swarm, is the consciousness of the African continent.Those ZZZs droned through the Arsenale and Giardini as participants, journalists, and VIPs gathered to kick off the eighteenth International Venice Architecture Biennale, and echoed across alleys and piazze made damp by unseasonal rain and high tides. Venice, after all, is a reformed swamp with mosquitos of its own.

Buzz grew louder at the opening press conference, where curator Lesley Lokko discussed how a few of the African members of her team in Accra, Ghana, were denied Italian visas. A few days earlier she had shared that the Italian ambassador to the country, Daniela d’Orlandi, had dubbed them “non-essential young men.” The racist categorization swirled around Lokko and the vernissage. She noted the “absurdity and hypocrisy” of a “show about Africa to which Africans have been denied access.” Outrage, however, was relatively localized and the controversy didn’t make connections back to the surge in African refugees migrating by sea to Italy throughout the 2010s and the often-xenophobic treatment of them in cities like Venice. “Some things, it seems, never change,” said Lokko.

Amid the vernissage spritz swilling, the usual cranks grumbled that there wasn’t enough architecture. A dullard’s cry. Given that of the eighty-nine participants, more than half are from Africa or the African diaspora and those included skewed younger and more female than ever before, the complaint carried the sour grapes of entitled white male architects feeling left out. Exclusion cuts in two, unequal ways.

A Ghanaian-Scottish architect and writer, Lokko is head of the African Futures Institute. She named her Biennale contribution The Laboratory of the Future—a think tank–esque title that suggests a particular kind of forward-looking utopianism. World fairs, those bastions of globalization, capitalism, and extraction, are notorious for conjuring speculative visions: the World of Tomorrow, Futurama, etc. And what is a biennale if not a showcase of the newest and brightest ideas in the field—a predictor of what’s next for design? But Lokko’s exhibition, which fills the Arsenale and Giardini, is not so much about what lies on the disciplinary horizon as it is about architecture’s capacity to reconcile past trauma.

Or, as Serpell writes in the high-pitched voice of her mosquito, “Time, that ancient and endless meander, stretches out and into the distance, but along the way, a cumulative stray swerves it into a lazy, loose curve.” Recentering is not simply geographic, but temporal, moving away from linear history toward circular time. Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus speeds forward while gazing behind, but the Akan symbol of the sankofa bird returns to the past and brings it into the future. Indeed, to make the biennale a futurity test bed, we must travel backwards.

It’s not an easy trip. Lokko is captain of this time machine but not a guide. Her curatorial framing is murky, caught in the meta structural questions of representation and funding. She writes in her statement, “The balance has shifted. Things fall apart. The centre can no longer hold.” Her italics.

The Laboratory of the Future is broken into several parts, but clear distinctions are elusive both in written collateral and in the galleries. Works by participants included in Force Majeure, Dangerous Liaisons, Curator’s Special Projects, Special Participants, and Guest from the Future seem to intermingle, with the most noticeable difference being scale of installation. The wall texts aren’t so obvious to find, and when discovered they are thickly worded in Italian and English. (Some things, it seems, never change.) Didactics are accompanied by participant headshots, a new addition that doubles down on the importance of representation.

How should we build on and through this old minefield? Architects as “problem solvers” is a well-worn trope. This is what architecture does, its purpose, function, program, whatnot.

Because of the frustration identifying the variances between sections, it’s better to drift. The galleries, especially in the Arsenale’s long Corderie, are atmospheric. A film by Rhael “LionHeart” Cape, included in the Special Projects section, greets visitors with a salvo. Poet, artist, honorary RIBA fellow, he’s an oracle for what is to come. Those with Walls for Windows is the sole piece in an otherwise empty room. The large, vertical projection cuts between LionHeart, blindfolded, performing spoken word with black-and-white images of people moving together in protest and in dance.

A phrase jumps out from layered the soundtrack: triggers of history.

It’s a reminder, a warning, that this is no blithe journey, that there are wounds and consequences. The three-part installation Aequare: The Future That Never Was by Twenty Nine Studio and Sammy Baloji makes visible architectures of extraction. It includes a film that juxtaposes footage of pre- and postcolonial Democratic Republic of Congo, materials drawn from the archive of early twentieth-century Belgium architect Henry Lacoste (whose design for the Belgian pavilion at the 1931 International Colonial Exposition in Paris drew directly from the exotification of Congolese architecture) and a large model made from copper and brass entitled The Extracted Pavilion. Text-based ornament decorates the facade, wrapping the model in art deco capital letters. The words spell out minerals and other commodities wrung from the Congo. Lithium. Cobalt. Cacao. Memory.

How should we build on and through this old minefield? Architects as “problem solvers” is a well-worn trope. This is what architecture does, its purpose, function, program, whatnot. Previous Biennales have made much of this mission, in particular Alejandro Aravena’s 2016 outing Reporting from the Front, where architecture was put in service of those most in need. There was a certain expectation that by focusing on Africa, the display would follow this kind of NGO performativity. But the bulk of Lokko’s designers are disinclined to problem solve. That’s not to say they don’t address issues (community-building, labor, climate crisis), but they do so in ways that skirt the fix-it bromides inherited from Enlightenment and modernist thought. Germane Barnes’s Griot, like several other pieces on view, is corrective. He traces the story of the classical column and its North African roots, but where in conventional architectural history the Egyptian abstraction of a papyrus evolves into Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, Barnes introduces three new orders: Identity, Labor, and Migration. While drawings suggest the timeline of his alternative history, it is three tons of sculpted black Spanish Marquina marble placed on-axis in the Corderie that land, indisputably, in our own moment as original form. The Identity column made material. “[The design] embeds issues of identity, of hair, of blackness, cornrows, dreadlocks, you see faces, you see figures,” said Barnes in an interviewwith MAS Context.

Similarly, over in the Central Pavilion, Olalekan Jeyifous rewinds history to the years after the Pan-African movement, and it is from here in the early 1970s that he begins his speculative deflection. ACE/AAP, was awarded the Silver Lion and is a fully fleshed vision of an All-Africa Protoport (AAP) fueled by the renewable energy under the African Conservation Effort (ACE). It is an evolution from Jeyifous’s well-known Shanty Megastructures (2015), which established him as an Afrofuturist seer but was often read as dystopian. Years later, there’s no mistaking the utopian impulse. Yet his is not simply a sci-fi view of the future. It’s reparative—an ecological undoing of the scars of colonization. (A rhythmic cycle through The Laboratory for the Future.) As an expression of renewed, rethought infrastructure Jeyifous’s worldbuilding is compelling, but what resonates about ACE/AAP is its depiction of Black pleasure.

Of the many photorealist renderings included in his immersive waiting room–like installation, my favorite is of three people—a mother and her two sons, perhaps—seated on their luggage, which is piled atop what one might call a “hover trolley.” They are dressed in chic, lightweight clothing and possibly headed to LA in one of the AAP pods. All are wearing sunglasses, and with lensed eyes they stare confidently at the viewer. “That’s right,” they seem to say to Venice, to architecture. “We’re here.”

There is a lot to parse in The Laboratory for the Future. Critics have expressed exhaustion from the countless films presented and tales to unravel. A fair assessment, to a point. Weariness set in about halfway through the Arsenale before my mind snapped to attention in a gallery overflowing with gorgeous plans, sketches, and models by Spanish architects Flores & Prats. Emotional Heritage focuses on the firm’s adaptive reuse projects and looks as if the contents of their Barcelona studio had spilled open, like an overturned box of Trump’s mishandled documents. There’s a relief in seeing this familiar abundance. This stuff we’ve been trained to read just as the faithful once could easily decipher lessons in the frescos of Basilica di San Marco.

But the text is changing, has changed.

Outside of Lokko’s curation, several national pavilions reflect such advancement by interrogating and shaking off inherited architectures. Expressions lean into material culture: roughhewn logs and reindeer pelts in the ad hoc Girjegumpi: Sámi Architectural Library by artist-architect Joar Nango in the Nordic Pavilion, earthen floors in Brazil’s Terra offering on land and identity, and hoop dreams in Mexico’s Utopian Infrastructure: The peasant basketball court.

One of the challenges of this Biennale is that it asks us to engage different representational languages. The decolonization of the discipline—which is the major subtext of almost every contribution—requires questioning the old mores that privilege certain techniques as the purest signifiers of architecture. Finding new legibility takes a moment. Many of the films require durational attention not possible in an exhibition this large and dense; they ask that we slow down our consumption for a spell. To pause at Origins by Johannesburg-based MMA Design Studio is to understand the limitations of past forms of representation. The panoramic film documents a major Twana settlement that was once on the land that is now part of the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve in South Africa. It’s also contested territory in a post-apartheid restitution claim. Rather than illustrating these layers of the site in a combination of cartographic mapping and pedagogic language as would be the go-to for many research-based practices, MMA collaborated with local troupe Moving into Dance Mophatong to choreograph a piece for several dancers whose collective movement could best be described as an “embodied drawing” based on the LiDAR scans that first observed the fifteenth-century settlement.

LiDAR is used as a tool of repatriation of stolen art in the film and installation (SA “EY’’ AMA: To Commemorate) by Looty, a multidisciplined collective of African architects, designers, and creatives headquartered in London. Made surreptitiously, the film depicts masked Looty members entering major British museums to make 3D scans of African art artifacts. These twice-stolen objects are then minted as NFTs. While the gleam of crypto-blockchain dalliances has generally dulled, the larger goal here is to use techno-tools to work around the slow-moving politics of returning artifacts to homelands. The group calls this process “digital restitution”—loot is made democratically available for research and study—and suggests ways in which the Metaverse can be part of the conversation on cultural heritage and preservation.

An interesting consequence of Lokko’s recentering and subsequent methodological recalibration is that there seems to be a weighting of surface over space. There are a notable number of textile-based installations; AD–WO’s duo in the Arsenale are standouts. The title, Ghebbi, comes from an Amharic word for a fenced place of refuge. Framing two sides of a doorway, the monumental textiles are what the architects call a “time-scape”; abstract scenes of daily life are intricately woven into fabrics rich in saturated color and lushly textured, almost to the point of bas-relief.

Amid the vernissage spritz swilling, the usual cranks grumbled that there wasn’t enough architecture. A dullard’s cry.

Another stunning installation is Debris of History, Matters of Memory by Gloria Cabral and Baloji, with Cécile Fromont. Fabricated from Belgium mining waste and Venetian glass, it features a tessellated masonry wall that addresses the toxic landscapes produced by colonialist legacies. It is a beautiful study in how materiality communicates narrative. Patterns reference Congolese architectural textiles and Indigenous Brazilian forms of ornament—a rare case in the exhibition where Latin American and African heritages are in dialogue. One side effect of critiquing globalism is the risk of falling into provinciality.

Shifting relationships between surface and space are more clearly illustrated in two large, site-specific pieces that sit at the far, shipyard end of the Arsenale, one by artist Serge Attukwei Clottey and another Adjaye Associates. Kwaee, Adjaye’s installation, is a black timber structure with a pointed roof. The title means “forest” in Twi (a Ghanian dialect of Akan) and the reference is seen in the hundreds of wooden boards that shape a strong, triangular geometry on the outside and phenomenological, understory spatial effects on the interior. A bit of a shape shifter, the chapel-like pavilion is an experiment in thick, even fuzzy surface while still meeting the formal expectations of global architecture—conceptually comprehensible with an eye-catching figure for garnering likes on Instagram.

Nearby, Clottey’s quilt of thousands of ochre-yellow plastic squares is reflected in the gray-green lagoon. The plastic comes from recycled jerrycans, also known as Kufuor Gallons, a name that references the water crisis in Accra during the tenure of President John Kufuor in the early 2000s. Clottey calls his approach “Afrogallonism” but points out that the ingredients are “not inherently African.” The jugs are a product of a global system of material flows dependent on petroleum extraction and cheap labor. They are imported into the country, used, and discarded.

In contrast to Adjaye’s installation, Clottey’s is all thin surface and weak form. Suspended in over the water in the covered Gaggiandre, it sags under its own weight. Steel cables wrapped around the columns of the fourteenth-century dock are required to keep it from sinking. But this droopy artwork offers soft lessons about circular histories and our precarious future. It’s titled Time and Chance. Time. Chance. Once again, we are sent around the loop. ZZZZ.

NB: This review appeared in print before The Financial Times published its investigation of David Adjaye’s alleged sexual misconduct and abuses of power. It is now impossible to view Kwaee outside the pall of an architectural context that grants carte blanche to singular genius and labor practices drenched in the very types of exploitation this Biennale would like to critique.

In the aftermath of revelations, scandal, and cancelation, there is also heartbreak. As Zadie Smith writes in her New York Review of Books review of the film Tár, “Every generation makes new rules. Every generation comes up against the persistent ethical failures of the human animal. But though there may be no permanent transformations in our emotional lives, there can be genuine reframings and new language and laws created to name and/or penalize the ways we tend to hurt each other, and this is a service each generation can perform for the one before.”

Adjaye’s work remains on view, conflated with its author. I’m loathe to cast the installation with anthropomorphic traits—manipulative, predatory, etc.—as if to understand the architecture is to understand the man. If anything, stripped of a signature aura, the black triangle reads hollow: a temporary pile of lumber assembled for an elite exhibition.