Vernissage: Ghana Freedom & Venice Biennale

On the opening day of the 2019 Venice Biennale, I found myself 707 miles away in the heart of London’s financial district in a meeting, distracted, and utterly miserable at the fact that I was missing out on the most anticipated date in the art world’s calendar, due to the palaver that is Brexit. After the meeting finally came to a close after an hour of empty murmurs about big businesses’ concerns and currency devaluations, I escaped to the nearest cafe, coincidently an Italian one, to gather my thoughts and re-evaluate my life choices over a double espresso. Whilst my coffee perked me up a notch, it wasn’t enough to console me over my absence from Venice, where Ghana, my pride and heritage, was participating for the first time in the Venice Biennale since the prestigious art fair first commenced in 1895. However, thanks to the power of social media, chiefly, Instagram, I was able to live vicariously through the live updates of my art contemporaries: Adora Mba of the Afropolitan Collector and Helene Love-Allotey of Bonhams’ Modern and Contemporary African art department. It was almost as though I was there in the flesh. Almost. The significance of Ghana’s debut at Biennale had not been lost on me, nor on the countless art lovers from across the globe who eagerly anticipated the opening. Whilst I could argue that Ghana’s debut should have happened a lot sooner, given the fact that the Biennale has been open to foreign pavilions since 1907, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that for curator extraordinaire and cultural ambassador, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, this has been years in the making. Truth be told, the timing actually couldn’t be more perfect. With 2019 marking the Year of Return, a tribute to the 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were trafficked to the Americas from nations like Ghana, all eyes have been on the small West African country that has garnered a reputation for punching above its weight and being a trailblazer for the African continent. To add further to the feverish anticipation; the nation’s first-ever national pavilion was designed by none other than the globally reputed architect, David Adjaye, and would feature some of the greatest contemporary artists of today – El Anatsui and Lynette Yiadom- Boakye, just to name drop two. As I anxiously scrolled through my phone between sips of coffee, listening to the proud speeches of Adjaye, Ayim, and First Lady of Ghana, Her Excellency Rebecca Akufu-Addo, who was also in attendance, I came to truly appreciate the aptness of the naming of the national pavilion’s theme: Ghana Freedom. A nod to the title of E.T. Mensah’s iconic hit ‘Ghana Freedom,’ composed in the wake of Ghana’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957, the pavilion is indeed a physical manifestation of Ghana’s growing pride and self-confidence. In light of the nation’s increasing global stature as one of the fastest growing economies in the world for the past decade, as well as a top four tourist destination this year, Ghana’s art scene has in recent years embraced an unbridled freedom to express and represent its unapologetically authentic self, which is resonating with collectors, and is reflected in the astronomical prices El Anatsui’s impressive installations are consistently fetching at auction. I feel confident in saying that Ghana’s strong debut at the Venice Biennale is not the pinnacle of its achievements and recognition as a growing force to be reckoned with, but more so an insight into what is to come, as Ghana strategically positions itself as the cultural capital, and gateway to the African continent. Whatever Ghana’s agenda may be, it is a fitting testament to the health and progressive state of the art world, and indeed an undeniable signal that African contemporary art has well and truly arrived, and not only is it here to stay, it might well be poised to soon take over.