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More than half of the participants at the Architecture Biennale’s main exhibition are from the continent and its diaspora.
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The Venice Architecture Biennale is historically where designers from around the world critique and propose new directions for our built environment. But until now, the presence of African practitioners has been the exception, not the rule.
That has changed profoundly. Of the 89 participants in the 2023 Biennale’s main exhibition, “The Laboratory of the Future,” on view at multiple locations through Nov. 26, more than half are from Africa or the African Diaspora. Half are female, and the average age — fitting for a continent with the youngest median population in the world — is 43.
This radical reapportionment was a priority of the exhibition’s Ghanaian-Scottish curator, Lesley Lokko. Her goal, she has written, was to depart from a “singular, exclusive voice, whose reach and power ignores huge swaths of humanity.”
Ms. Lokko’s critical mass of African talent — which includes established architects like the Burkina Faso-born Francis Kéré, the first African to win the Pritzker Prize, but also a large number of emerging practitioners and artists — sheds light on the complexity and richness of ideas emanating from that continent, thefastest-growing by populationin the world, and, to many, a marker of where architecture and development are heading.
“In the Global South, we have great minds, we have great ideas. We compete at the same level. But nobody has listened or bothered to hear from an African perspective. Or it’s been an African perspective with a Western influence,” said Stella Mutegi, a co-founder, with Kabage Karanja, of Cave_bureau, a nine-year-old architecture firm in Nairobi, Kenya.
Cave_bureau’s involvement, like that of other participants, expands the definition of architecture well beyond traditional notions of building. It is about digging deeply and imaginatively into new places and cultures to unearth critiques and prescriptions for the future.
The studio’s installation, which celebrates local traditions of song, dance and poetry, presents conversations with members of several African cave-dwelling communities, like some Maasai who live in caves in Mount Suswa, in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The oral histories are combined with drawings, maps, photos, three-dimensional scans and natural sounds, an immersive experience that illuminates the impact of modernity. The presentation also illustrates the resilience of those who have long managed to live in harmony with the natural world.
“For us to look ahead, we really need to go back,” Mr. Karanja said, proposing a return to “a real, honest state” as a solution to the environmental and social damages inflicted by modern life. “It might sound romantic,” he added, “but we’re really trying to grapple with this kind of crisis.”
Ms. Lokko, who is a respected architectural teacher and critic, but also a best-selling novelist, has helped mentor many of the participants. “The Laboratory of the Future” emphasizes the role of story telling in the creation of architecture, challenging what the discipline is, what it needs to be and how it can transform society through creativity and inclusivity, not violence or disruption.
“The more we can fan out a greater collective of people to get their views on how the world can be, and to think imaginatively, the better,” said Zenna Tavares, a founder, with his brothers, Gaika and Kibwe Tavares, of a creative collaboration called Basis with GKZ. Loosely inspired by traditional West African storytellers, known as jalis, their installation, “Djali,” displays short stories within an imaginary, computer-augmented world set in the future. Viewers can interact with the display, navigating through scenes and exploring different artificial-intelligence and augmented-reality-enhanced stories and settings.
“It’s a tool for exploring how this technology can affect us and define us,” Kibwe Tavares said. “Any time there’s been a shift in technology, you see a shift in how people create buildings. How people draw. How people see and experience the world. How will the world unfold when we’re not the only voice?”
The global impact of young architects of African descent is another theme. The Tavares brothers grew up in South London to parents from Jamaica and Grenada who considered themselves Pan-Africanists. “We were always encouraged to think of ourselves as being from the African Diaspora,” Gaika Tavares said.
Sumayya Vally, the founder of the architecture firm Counterspace, was born in South Africa to Muslim parents from India and lives in London and Johannesburg. Her collaborator, Moad Musbahi, grew up in Libya and Tunisia and is an artist and a graduate student at Princeton University, in New Jersey. Their entry, “African Post Office,” presents literal columns — totems, minarets, instruments, posts embedded with audio speakers — of identical diameters, accompanied by sounds like prayer chants and bird calls recorded around the world.
This play of commonality and difference, Ms. Vally said, shifts and expands how we think about geography, culture and identity. “My own identity involves so many territories and conditions — eastern and western; northern, southern and subcontinental; Islamic and Arabian,” she said. Such crosscurrents are bound to be fruitful in generating ideas about architecture. “I think there’s much more power in being hybrid because we’re able to cross territories,” she said.
The inspirations for projects are equally boundary crossing. Thandi Loewenson, who was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, and lives in London, presents graphite drawings inspired by the Uhuru catalog, X-ray images captured by a little-known satellite launched by the United States and Italy from a platform off the coast of Kenya. The planning for it started shortly before Kenya’s independence in 1963.
Dr. Loewenson explores this obscure episode’s relevance to colonialism, resource extraction, broken promises and much more. “There is a duality within the work about looking out and into the universe but also looking into the earth at the same time,” she said.
Serge Attukwei Clottey, an artist in Accra, Ghana, has stitched together pieces of yellow gallon oil containers — commonly used in Africa to store and transport water — to form a surface undulating from the columns of the 16th-century Gaggiandre shipyards. In and around Accra, Mr. Clottey is collaborating with young architects to upcycle discarded materials into new designs, from chairs to houses. “This is what Africa is now,” Mr. Clottey. said. “It’s about using our own ideas, our own resources, to reshape our own country.”
Christian Benimana, a senior principal at MASS, an architecture firm with offices in the United States and his native Rwanda, centered the studio’s contribution, “Afritect,” on the perspective-shifting nuances of language. In this work, members of MASS’s Africa studio discuss the meaning of various words from Rwanda’s national language, Ikinyarwanda. “Umuganda” roughly translates to “collective action toward a shared goal”; “ubudehe” is a social activity that brings neighbors together; and “ubupfura” represents the highest level of human character.
“Through tradition and meaning, you are able to capture and understand the spirit or essence of my people,” said Symphorien Gasana, a MASS designer in Rwanda. Added Mr. Benimana: “The full story is what we know plus all these other collective viewpoints and perspectives of many people, many cultures.”
Emanuel Admassu and Jen Wood, partners at the New York architecture firm AD–WO, introduce the concept of a ghebbi, a loosely defined zone of respite, which can be a home, a school or an entire city. How does this protected world engage with outer chaos — the push and pull of modernity and tradition, security and exchange? An answer dangles from the ceiling of the Arsenale exhibition site — an installation made from corrugated metal sheets, bamboo scaffolding, tarpaulin, and rope, suggestive of madcap construction in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where Mr. Admassu was born. At the center of the construction are intricate, monumental tapestries that evoke ghebbis.
“I think this Biennale is finally heading in a direction accounting for multiple worlds and multiple ways of understanding value and space making,” Mr. Admassu said. He sees lessons for the wider world, especially now: “We need to double down on the various forms of solidarity, instead of closing further in or retreating.”
Mariam Kamara, a French-born Nigerien architect and founder of Atelier Masomi, lives between New York, Zurich and Niamey, Niger, where her studio is based. Her installation includes massive charcoal representations of a 17th-century Hausa Kingdom mosque, one of many built treasures that inspire pride in her African homeland. “You’re taught architecture by looking at a handful of references, most of them from Europe, which is so limited,” she said.
Today, ideas are among the continent’s natural resources, flourishing out of its challenged economies, she said. The creativity that is born of necessity “has incredible value as we’re grappling with challenges like climate change, seismic economic events, fractured politics,” she said. “We have been a laboratory in every field. I’m very excited we get to share with the rest of the world.”
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