For its first time Ghana is making its mark at the Venice Art Biennale, which opened on May 11, with an impressive exhibition of six artists. Much of the excitement will swirl around a pavilion designed by Tanzanian-born and U.K.-based architect David Adjaye. On the occasion of its inauguration, AD met with Adjaye in Venice and spoke with him about the origins of the pavilion, his approach to designing it, and where he plans to go next with the idea.
With curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim and strategic adviser Okwui Enwezor, Adjaye (who was born in Tanzania as the son of a Ghanaian diplomat) first proposed the concept of a pavilion to Ghana’s national government, knowing, as he puts it, “there are so many Ghanian artists, both in Ghana and in the diaspora,” but that, as he warns, “they were at risk of being missed.” When the team pitched the idea to the government, the response was immediate: “They were shocked — this was something they didn’t know was happening.”
The pavilion, “Ghana Freedom,” sets out to tell that story, drawing attention to the depth and range of Ghana’s contemporary art by bringing together six artists: Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Ibrahim Mahama, and Selasi Awusi Sosu.
Conceding that most national pavilions tend to present the work of a single artist, Adjaye explained the curatorial decision to include a cohort of six: “This is a onetime opportunity that might not happen again, so we needed to come in with the best show — basically a museum show — to show the range not just to the international world but also to the Ghanian world and to other African nations.”
Located in the Arsenale, the pavilion is a series of connected rooms shaped by curved walls, wending around the structure’s historic columns. The form — what Adjaye calls a “parametric elliptoid” — is familiar in Ghana. As he explains, “it is based on a West African vernacular, the classical earth architecture of the Sahel.” To create spaces that would foreground the art, Adjaye wanted to establish a sense of enclosure and interiority. “Most people know these forms as ruins, seen as photography from overhead. You never see these interiors.”
He made the walls with mud, using soil shipped from Ghana to Venice. “It’s real Ghanian earth,” Adjaye says. “We brought the bags and we mixed it here.” Working with local Venetian plasterists, he used a rough mortar, creating a textured surface. “Here’s a moment,” he says, “where we don’t have to make boxes, the white cube, but to make spaces that create a way to understand the roots, the DNA, of this community.”
Speaking even before the pavilion formally opened to the public, Adjaye already had his sights set on the future. “This is not just a pavilion in Venice,” he says. “It’s a prototype for a potential national museum in Ghana. It’s a fragment, a test, and Venice is the experiment ground.” Adjaye is presently working with the government of Ghana on a design for a new National Cathedral, so with that direct line of communication, he says, “we are talking to the government about doing a national contemporary art museum.”
He is encouraged by the results of this experiment. Gesturing to the standing-room-only crowd filling the pavilion’s spaces, he says, “It seems to be a hit.”