Angola Bags the Golden Lion in Europe’s Curiosity Shop
Cold War geopolitics, oil, and other natural resources helped ensure that the 27 years long Angolan civil war continued the brutality of the war for independence from Portugal. Since the end of the war in 2002, the Dos Santos regime has sought to consolidate its power nationally and establish a new image internationally. The two goals do not always go hand in hand, but in the case of the 2013 Venice Biennale, they appear to do so.
In June, the Angolan Ministry of Culture proudly announced to residents of Luanda that their debut pavilion had won the prestigious Golden Lion award. The Ministry’s statement foregrounded two things: that the country was undergoing a period of nation building that included both renewal and creation, and that the Biennale’s award honored the work of President José Eduardo dos Santos.
During the same week that the government was celebrating with its artists, it demolished close to five thousand houses in Luanda, using military force to expel unarmed residents. As widely reported attacks on activist and rapper Carbono and journalist Rafael Marques de Morais illustrate, political violence and intimidation await those that criticize the government publicly. Artists who have access to large platforms usually have some social connection to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the ruling political party that has kept Dos Santos in power for more than thirty years.
But inside the Angolan Pavilion, Edson Chagas’s photographic series “Found Not Taken” quietly considers the purging and loss of neighborhoods. He has roamed the streets documenting discarded metal pipes, broken chairs, and other artifacts of everyday life. Though his tight frames defer documentation of the city’s homes and the people who have lived there, Chagas exploits the tension between art and politics in order to represent Luanda through the things it has rejected.
Curation at the Pavilion is equally savvy. Decorated in Portuguese imperial style, and laced with irony, the hall directly reproduces Massimiliano Gioni’s theme of the “Encyclopedic Palace.” In doing so, it foregrounds the theme’s nostalgia for the Age of Discovery, and its compulsive piling of unexamined and misunderstood objects. Ultimately, does Luanda, Encyclopedic City not simply remind us that the Biennale is just another curiosity shop for Europe: an aestheticized “encyclopedic palace” of bad policies, a touristic detour from the continent’s own demise?Megan Eardley