By: Kelvin Chiringa
After securing a first of its kind place at a prestigious international art exhibition festival known as the Venice Biennale in Italy, Namibia’s dream of marketing herself to an outside world emerging out of the pandemic is now in shambles.
A host of local artists have now issued a petition in which they decry that the artist representing the country, known only by his pseudonym as RENN, was unknown to the local art world.
There are further allegations that he is a South African from Johannesburg.
The education ministry’s arts director, M’kariko Amagulu, has now also written to the organisers to have Namibia pulled out, at the back of accusations that the Italian curator, Marco Ferrario, is inexperienced.
Ferrario was granted responsibility to run the Namibian pavilion, which is expected to feature an artwork called The Lone Stone Men of the Desert, a depiction of a baboon-like figure, a work by RENN.
The Italian had approached the education ministry to endorse the Namibian pavilion, while the rules are that the curator at the Biennale must speak Italian.
However, the Namibian pavilion’s patroness, Monica Cembrola, has also pulled out ahead of the event amidst the controversy.
“We were told that neither the curator nor the artist is related to the art world, the art scene in Namibia and that the artist is not a professional artist,” she said.
She had roped in a sponsor, a luxury travel company, Abercrombie and Kent.
But they have also pulled out their sponsorship, with calls mounting that a black Namibian artist would have been better suited to stand for Namibia at such a global event.
Cembrola told The Villager that the artist wished to remain anonymous and could not even disclose his name to her, despite being the patroness of the pavilion.
Education minister, Anna Nghipondoka, said she wasn’t aware of the unhappiness amongst the artists, even though this is highlighted in email correspondence between the ministerial arts director and the event organisers.
The director, Amagulu, said, “Sometime later, we were contacted by Namibian artists that were enquiring about Namibia’s participation in the Venice Biennale since they had been approached by Italians requesting for “black Namibians” that would be included in the activity. Since the creator of the sculptures was a sixty-plus years old white male, there was a feeling that it would be odd if there was no black representation.
“However, since the Italians did not have any knowledge of the Namibian art scene, they were willing to get whoever was available to participate to reduce any scrutiny that may arise out of the participation in the Biennale.”
Amagulu admitted that they had not done due diligence before they got fully involved in the Venice Biennale, which has degenerated into a public circus according to some local artists.
Amugulu added, “Immediately after that, Mr Ferrario wanted to find out if there were tax incentives for companies in Namibia sponsoring the event and began requesting assistance from the Embassies. This is despite saying he would take care of the participation costs. This was when things became unclear and that there may be an ulterior motive for the interest.”
She said the ministry requested to see what he envisaged for a budget. He responded that it would be anything between 500 000 Euros to just over 1 million Euros, which seemed highly ambitious.
“This indicated a lack of experience curating for the arts, especially how the art-world functions.”
It has also come out that in January 2022, Ferrario pushed ahead with a media launch of Namibia’s pavilion despite being advised against it by the ministry.
“This is since many questions had begun to arise by then. However, he went ahead to announce without the ministry’s involvement,” said the director.
Ferrario has denied that the artist exhibiting on behalf of Namibia was a South African before he asked for written questions.
He further demanded to know where this publication had gotten his private cell number.
Trevor Nott, another artist who is in Italy representing Namibia, said everything was well, blaming the discord and boycott of the event on racism, jealousy and ego.
“I have an idea that this is coming internally here in Italy with jealousy and ego, and that’s all I can really say, that it ended up being a racial thing. That RENN being white is a problem,” he said.
The Namibian ministerial authorities now want the pavilion to be run by Ferrario and RENN in their private capacity without the official involvement of Namibia.
Italy is home to some of the most iconic works of art that have stood the test of time, while the Biennale itself is not only a melting pot of the world’s collage of art but is a platform for tourism, politics and international relations.