Founded in 2011, the international organisation Beyond Entropy does not recognise a distinction between art, architecture and politics. Since the civil war ended in 2002, the oil-rich economy of Angola has become the fastest growing in Africa. The Lusophone nation’s influx of wealth has given way to serious urban redevelopment and infrastructural transformation, centered on its capital, Luanda. Acknowledging this, Beyond Entropy put forward a rigorous argument to encourage economic support to invest in creating a cultural point of view, impacting the reconstruction of Angola’s national identity. The product of this was “BE Angola”, a grassroots initiative that would take up the challenge of developing the inaugural participations of Angolan art and architectural pavilions at the Venice Biennale
The journey saw it win the prestigious Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale earlier this year. In advance of their installation at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Osei Bonsu discusses with Paula Nascimento (PN, director of Beyond Entropy Africa) and Stefano Pansera Rabolli (SPR, director of Beyond Entropy Ltd) the inner nature of Africa’s urban paradigm and the vibrancy of the continent’s contemporary art scene at a time of economic growth and political uncertainty.
OB: Stefano and Paula, what drew you to Africa, and particularly to Angola?
SRP: Beyond Entropy Africa is a collaboration between Paula Nascimento and myself. Paula and I met in 2004 while studying at the Architectural Association. In every context we operate in, we define a specific territorial condition from the point of view of Beyond Entropy. Any territory is interesting as long as there is something that doesn’t work; when there is a problem my curiosity is triggered. I am interested in the African cities like Luanda, where there are incredible paradoxes. For example, there are enormous African cities lacking in basic infrastructures, you have high-density yet no high-rise, among other conflicts and contradictions that a normal architectural model wouldn’t fully explain. Africa is a privileged context for Beyond Entropy, because the transformation, the growing population and the speed of development is mind-blowing.
PN: This is also an important moment for some African countries and I would dare to say for the continent as a whole. We are in a process of re-structuring, re-construction and re-building not just infrastructure (that has long been destroyed or neglected due to long wars in some places) but also, re-constructing our nation’s identity.
OB: We have come to know the Biennale as a compendium of ideas and trends in the contemporary art world. From your perspective, what does national participation and visibility at the event mean for Africa?
SRP: Participating in the Venice Biennale is significant because it triggers internal debates, conversation and activities within each country. The fact that we are still talking about the work of Edson Chagas, whose ‘Found not Taken’ series was presented at our exhibition, Luanda – Encyclopedic City, is already a success of the [Angolan] pavilion. The possibility that young Angolan artists might present their works abroad or a young person, inspired by Edson, decides to become an artist – it is part of the chain reaction a national pavilion can trigger.
PN: In the last years there has been a growing interest in the contemporary arts produced in Africa. However, it is important not to view this as a trend but to understand that there has been a long tradition of art production, not just crafts, and [that it needs to] retrieve its place in the history of the arts. For that to happen, Africans themselves also have to take a standpoint.
OB: But there is still a discrepancy between the considerable wealth and the indifference of African states to contemporary creation. There are still only five states hosting national pavilions. What is preventing more African countries from participating?
SRP: Last year, when Paula and I decided to develop the project of the arts pavilion, we asked the Angolan Minister of Culture for economic support. It was Beyond Entropy’s initiative to ask the government to participate – we formed a proposal for a pavilion and the minister accepted. I think that the reason why there are so few African pavilions in participation is not because of the lack of artists, but because of some sort of lack of political will to participate. Sometimes the political vision is missing and sometimes it is about financial means.
PN: I agree with Stefano. One can add, perhaps, the fact that sometimes governments and institutions fail to understand the benefits of participating in such events.
OB: It could be said that Angola and other African governments have a primary responsibility to commit to infrastructural developments to support local cultural production. Considering this, and the instability of the global economic situation, why is cultural exportation even important?
SRP: The countries should do everything possible to participate, and there has been an incredible initiative by the Venice Biennale to invite as many countries as possible. It is important to participate in the Biennale as it provides an opportunity to activate debate within each country as well as to expose artists to the international audience. The national pavilion may be considered an old-fashioned model, in an era where national states are collapsing. Still, I believe that national participations are important because of the geopolitical encounter where different countries express a position on a shared theme. I think it is healthy for a country to take such an opportunity.
OB: But still there is the situation of a dominant Western system through which, it would seem, artists from Africa await an international visibility and legitimacy. How will Beyond Entropy respond to the geopolitical conditions of globalisation?
SRP: Firstly, I do not think that the Venice Biennale is a form of Western legitimisation. An artist should not have to go outside of Africa to achieve success, but I think this issue of migration derives from the market and artists go where there is money. Now there is incredible economic movement on the continent, and I’m sure that African artists will have the chance to remain in Africa.
The more active the African audience will be in collecting and promoting artworks, the more interesting it will be for artists to show their work in Africa. Soon the phenomenon will be symmetrical: one of the most interesting migrations will be artists from Europe and America going to work in Africa. This is something we are promoting through an ambitious residency programme, involving the invitation of contemporary African artists to Sardinia, as part of “Beyond Entropy Mediterranean”, to the open-air gallery of Mangiabarche and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Calasetta.
From our perspective there is no fixed entity but a constant transformation – every migration is welcomed. One of the consequences of the Biennale has been exposing many Angolan or African artists to new environments, artists desperately need to go away to explore the novelty and the differences of these contexts.
OB: Hopefully this work will strengthen cultural exchange and the consistent development of artistic production on the ground and will encourage an internal dialogue. Is Beyond Entropy Africa interested in building transnational bridges?
SRP: Our aim is to create an epicentre for cultural exchange. The art world is so frantic today, probably because the audience and the markets are becoming global. I believe that in a few years you will not have the usual group of American and European collectors buying art internationally, but symmetrically, you will have collectors from Africa buying international art. We are going to have a mix of everything everywhere; this will also be reflected in the art collected by the continent’s national museums.
Today you may find the most glamorous parties in Luanda or witness one of the fastest growing economies in Ghana. I have the impression that many of the preconceived notions about Africa are totally out of place. The world is developing much faster than we would have expected and today artists from Africa have incredible perspectives to form new discourses and fresh positions. Changes in art are always triggered by social and political transformations. African artists will develop new aesthetics to make sense of the dramatic and radical changes that are happening in African cities.
PN: There is a lot to be done (at times from scratch) and there is a chance to avoid certain mistakes that have been made in other regions. It is a challenge to stop and reflect on the models that are being implemented based on either European, American or Asian ones and on the other hand, look without prejudice or preconceptions at what exists, at the potential of what is characteristic of the African cities and acknowledge there is a need for a paradigm shift.