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The counter-gaze of the African diaspora at Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

A look at the impact, and Lesley Lokko's curatorial exploration at the biennale, as it narrates a story of "shape-shifters, material explorers, bound by history and heritage."

by Ayesha AdonaisPublished on : Jun 23, 2023

There was something different about travelling to the 18th Venice Architectural Biennale this year. My existential departure began with embarking on the plane at London’s Heathrow and seeing my fellow Biennale travellers' expectant faces pass me as they took their seats; there was a change. Something had shifted my place in space at this particular moment in time—my sense of being in the world. Initially, having witnessed an increase in passengers from Africa and the African diaspora boarding, I questioned whether I was undertaking an unforeseen pilgrimage with my global majority. Had we transformed into what Lesley Lokko calls shape-shifters, narrators and material explorers, bound by history, heritage and a complex understanding of 'homeland'? Was I witnessing the power and proliferation of greater representation? It was then, and for the next few days, I became one amongst many who looked like me, returning my gaze, an acknowledgement of our place in space at this moment in time. This gaze, an unspoken language, communicates shared experiences based on a mutual recognition and understanding of lived realities, challenges, and triumphs navigating a racialised world. However, I pause and reflect on those missed exchanges due to visa access issues. Lokko has described the architecture exhibition as both a moment and a process—this was one of my many moments.

Lesley Lokko at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
Lesley Lokko at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Adrea Avezzù; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Jamaican-born British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall defined “moments of conjuncture” as an opportunity to intervene, a call to action—the dynamic interplay between intellectual, social, cultural, and political that shape a particular historical moment or situation. They provide a window of opportunity for social actors to challenge and transform the status quo. I would argue that at the intersection of such a conjuncture is ‘agent of change’ Lesley Lokko’s The Laboratory of the Future, 18th International Architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Lokko presents us with a counter-gaze or “oppositional gaze”, as Bell Hooks described in her influential work, Black Looks: Race and Representation. The counter-gaze recognises that the dominant gaze, formed by structures of power and privilege, tends to objectify, deprecate, and distort the representations of those marginalised, shaping our understanding of the world. Hooks discussed challenging and subverting the dominant gaze. With 89 participants, over half representing Africa and the African Diaspora, and an equal gender mix, Lokko presents a vital alternative. An oppositional gaze that empowers individuals to challenge and reclaim their identities, experiences, and histories, disrupting the dominant narratives that perpetuate stereotypes and erasure.

Cartografia Negra, Volta Negra plus Lambe-lambe, 2019 | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
Cartografia Negra, Volta Negra plus Lambe-lambe, 2019 Image: Joao Lopes; Courtesy of Cartografia Negra Collection

Another manifestation of this counter-gaze is how the exhibition intentionally designates participants as ‘practitioners,’ a term that surpasses disciplinary confines and recognises a 360-degree vision, and Africa's diverse culture (that extends thousands of years into the past) and its intricate place and circumstances within an ever-evolving and diverse world. In doing so, the exhibition challenges the conventional narrative of architecture and embraces various skills, perspectives, and disciplines. An illustration of Lokko’s broadening of the architectural field is the recognition bestowed upon Baba Demas Nwoko, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement

Book Pavilion showcasing Demas Nwoko’s work | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | 18 th International   Architecture Exhibition–La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | STIRworld
Book Pavilion showcasing Demas Nwoko’s work Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Central to the essence of The Laboratory of the Future is recognising the primacy and potency of one's imagination. Lokko emphasises that envisioning a better world is an essential prerequisite to building it, starting at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. Here, a thoughtfully curated selection of 16 architectural practices represents a concentrated Force Majeure of African and African Diasporic architectural production. Notable contributors like Adjaye Associates, Kéré Architecture, Thandi Loewenson, Koffi & Diabaté Architectes, atelier masōmī, Olalekan Jeyifous, Cave_bureau, and MASS Design Group converge. Through strategic spatial arrangements, we can reflect on various themes. Kéré Architecture showcases African architectural knowledge, highlighting alternative materials and skills while asking us to consider that Africa is responsible for less than 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Banga Colectivo and Cartografia Negra support the alternative approaches to examining our relation to space in Curator's Special Projects and Guests from the Future. Cartografia Negra presents us with the erased narratives of Black Brazilians who built São Paulo, previously only described officially through the lens of slavery, continuing the exhibition themes that challenge dominant architectural narratives and reframe meanings of spatial practice.

  • MASS Design Group at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
    MASS Design Group at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
  • Banga Colectivo, Soba Eternal at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
    Banga Colectivo, Soba Eternal at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Matteo de Mayda; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The exhibition's spatial interventions continue at the Arsenale, where participants from the Dangerous Liaisons section coexist with the Curator's Special Projects. In this immersive setting, architectural works seamlessly intertwine, inviting visitors to explore profound connections between ecology, AI, identity and climate, gender, geography and social change. Special Participation from Rhael ‘LionHeart’ Cape’s, Those With Walls for Windows, an aural-visual-textual-oral tapestry, looms above to draw you in, reminiscent of the totem-like sculpture of Simone Leigh’s monumental bronze at last year's Venice Art Biennale. On the wall, a low-lit quote from James Baldwin requires the visitor to lean in to read, intimately telling you, “Each of us, each nation, each individual has a role in this history, and we must confront it.” Reminding us in this biennale to discard the status quo and redirect our gaze.

  • Rhael ‘LionHeart’ Cape’s, Those With Walls for Windows at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
    Rhael ‘LionHeart’ Cape’s, Those With Walls for Windows at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Andrea Avezzù; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
  • Gbolade Design Studio, Regenerative Power at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
    Gbolade Design Studio, Regenerative Power at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Marco Zorzanello; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

As I ventured further along, interspersed were the works of young African and Diasporan practitioners—Guests from the Future—whose spatial interventions provide glimpses of future practices imbued with intersectionality, crossing geographies and liberating us from conventional disciplinary silos. Black Females in Architecture (BFA) remind us of the world's eight billion people; 49.58 per cent are women, inviting us to reconsider the term minority. BFA is a group that advocates for gender and race equity across all built environment sectors. These thought-provoking installations disrupt traditional architectural arrangements and challenge visitors to reimagine new possibilities of the built environment.

Black Females in Architecture, A Voice for the 450 Plus at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
Black Females in Architecture, A Voice for the 450 Plus at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Marco Zorzanello; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Carnival, a  six-month public programme of events, will support the exhibition, consisting of panel discussions, films, and performances conceived by Lokko as a space of liberation to exchange a plurality of perspectives and opinions to analyse and reflect on. Through these and other considerations, Lokko transforms the exhibition into spaces that validate, empower, and amplify the voices and experiences of African and African diasporic individuals. Providing a platform for engagement to challenge power dynamics, promote dialogue, and foster a more inclusive and equitable environment for participants and the visiting public. For the first time, the programme proposes a unique month-long collaboration which aims to leave an ambitious legacy, a reimagined curriculum in architectural education based on the exhibition's themes of decolonisation and decarbonisation. Given the power of the counter-gaze to inspire new conversations and possibilities, I hope this is just the beginning of a continued co-existing, collaborative and inclusive exchange.

Black Females in Architecture, A Voice for the 450 Plus at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future | Lesley Lokko | The Laboratory of the Future | 18th Venice Architectural Biennale | STIRworld
(L) Carnival poster; (R) Force Majeure: A Conversation with Sir David Adjaye OM OBE, Issa Diabaté, Mariam Issoufou Kamara, Walter Hood, Christian Benimana, Felecia Davis at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future Image: Ayesha Adonais

The Laboratory of the Future emerges as a trailblazing exhibition representing a pivotal moment in the Venice Biennale's history, foregrounding Africa and the African Diaspora within the architectural discourse. Lokko's curatorial vision establishes a transformative and inclusive environment by merging spatial interventions, diverse voices, and critical themes. It encourages visitors to imagine new possibilities, fostering dialogue, collaboration, and a more equitable presentation of architecture's role in envisioning a more just and sustainable collective future. Agent of change Lesley Lokko provides a courageous example of the possibilities and potential for visitors and participants when offered an alternative architectural gaze. Demonstrating it requires vision, presence and power combined to enact equitable change.

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