Africa at the Biennials of Architecture: questioning the difficult histories of representation

Africa at the Biennials of Architecture: questioning the difficult histories of representation

From the Tbilisi Architecture Biennale to the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, architectural exhibitions are increasingly present in the cultural calendars of the contemporary world. New editions of architecture exhibitions build on a foundation propagated by exhibitions of the past – and these historical exhibitions, to a large extent, have shaped the architectural discourse we have today. But because these exhibits originated in a Western setting, historical depictions of Africa on the biennial and triennial architectural scene have often been reductive, with an assortment of cultures flattened into one and distinct architectural styles meshed incoherently.

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As ornament was rejected and the architectural style known as modernism entrenched itself in the canon, early 1931 saw what is arguably the most extreme example of oversimplified African architectural representation. during an exhibition – the colonial exhibition in Paris. A six-month exhibition, it was an attempt to demonstrate the strength of European colonial policy, displaying in colonial pavilions supposedly “authentic” colonial environments in addition to indigenous peoples and artifacts from colonial territories.

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The replica of the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat. Image © public domain

Within this device, pavilions “from” the African colonies were designed by architects from the colonial metropolis, in a stylistic mishmash of European and African vernacular architecture. The current Democratic Republic of the Congo, under Belgian rule at the time, had a pavilion designed by Belgian architect Henri Lacoste which was this disorganized attempt to represent the “authenticity” of the Central African colony. Yombe textiles from the Yombe people residing in the settlement were used in the mosaic floor of the main pavilion, but the pavilion saw designs from rock paintings from present-day South Africa and Zimbabwe, and other references to artifacts from Gabon and Ivory Coast. These sources of inspiration were obviously not contextual, and on the contrary, aesthetic choices were made to invent, for the exhibition, a “Congolese” architectural style.


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The Cameroon-Togo pavilion at the same exhibition followed a similar pattern, with colonial boxes stylized by French architects. Here, the architecture was a backdrop for a visitor experience that saw a boat ride on a nearby lake meant to mimic the experience of being rowed down the Wouri River in southwest Cameroon. The pavilions – the main one being a large room 500 square meters in area and 28 meters high, featured wax reproductions of indigenous artworks in addition to dioramas by the painter Joseph de La Nézière – who painted scenes French colonies.

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Congo Pavilion, 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition. Image © public domain

Again, the intention was to ostensibly attempt to present an “accurate” and “realistic” version of the architecture of an African colony, which relied on improvisation aimed at reinforcing the cultural superiority of the metropolises over the settlements.

Adjacent to the architectural sphere, the art world has seen, relatively recently, African pavilions not getting the representation they deserve. While the Angola pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale featured an installation by Angolan photographer Edson Chagas winning the Golden Lion prize, the exhibition was criticized for Kenya’s contribution because it featured only two Kenyan artists out of the twelve invited to participate. Kenyan pavilions at subsequent biennales have rectified this – featuring artists and artworks more representative of the Kenyan art scene.

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Cameroon-Togo Pavilion, Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931. Image © Périgord Digital Library

But African perspectives have sought to pave the way for architectural exhibitions and reverse the legacy of one-dimensional African representation. Kenyan studio Cave Bureau’s Obsidian Rain, for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, features a section of Mbai Cave in Kenya, used as a common space in the mid-20th century by freedom fighters to plan anti-colonial resistance. Such a prospect would have been largely beyond the imagination in the exhibition arena more than ninety years ago, as exhibitions such as the 1924 British Empire Exhibition and the of Paris would have endeavored to dissuade an exhibition truly representative of the colonies. , not to mention the anti-colonial resistance.

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Colonial Museum – Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931. Image © National Museum of Immigration History

As the 18th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect Lesley Lokko, approaches, its theme of viewing Africa as a “laboratory of the future” is timely as practitioners, artists and designers around the world seek to exhibit a multiplicity of African perspectives and reject viewpoints imposed on the continent.

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