Diaspora Pavilion 2017: Reflections of Venice Through my Lens

In May 2017 I was selected for an amazing opportunity – to work in Venice, Italy during the Venice Biennale! Home for the duration of my stay was a surreal historic setting of an actual palace; Palazzo Pisani S. Marina. This article first published on Diversity Matters shares my experience… 

The Diaspora Pavilion run from May 13th – 26th November 2017 at the Palazzo Pisani S. Marina during the 57th Venice Biennale, offering an alternative perspective to the conventional contemporary art discourse. As the exhibition drew to a close this week on the 26th November, I took the opportunity to reflect on my experience at the Diaspora Pavilion earlier this year.

I was fortunate to work in the home of the exhibition for two and half weeks in May as an invigilator; a tough yet rewarding experience where I gained an in-depth understanding of the artwork and also an opportunity to capture some highlights of this dynamic exhibition surrounded by the charm of Venice.

The Diaspora Pavilion showcased the work of 19 artists: Larry Achiampong, Barby Asante, Sokari Douglas Camp, Libita Clayton Kimathi Donkor, Michael Forbes, Ellen Gallagher, Nicola Green, Joy Gregory, Isaac Julien, Dave Lewis, Hew Locke, susan pui san lok, Paul Maheke, Khadija Saye, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Erika Tan, Barbara Walker and Abbas Zahedi whose wide-ranging practices variously expand, complicate and destabilise diaspora as an enduring critical concept. The project’s curators David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor of ICF (International Curators Forum) sought to provoke discussions around sites of contact and the significance of movement beyond the national frame of contemporary art.


During my stay in Venice, I often reflected on my own self-identity amongst pieces of art which mirrored themes of the African diaspora. On other occasions my identity would be questioned through demands – ‘interrogativo’ by Italian visitors as though I too were one of Michael Forbes’ African statues exhibited. I remember taking to Facebook on one of the occasions;

“Where are you from?” She asked curiously
“London” I responded
“Ma, oriiiiginally?!” She demands sarcastically, her hands gesturing all over the place.
With that attitude you don’t deserve to know where this skin is from (!) I thought. #Golden #NotGonnaFeedYourCuriousity

There were also situations where I felt particularly fetishised as a black woman. As an avid travel blogger, I’d developed coping mechanisms to deal with the unwanted preying eyes of white men who feel their open expressions of curiosity validates my existence. Lingering eyes on my dark chocolate skin didn’t deter me from making the most of my time in Venice. Despite the long and tiresome hours of invigilating, my days and evenings off were filled with social events; meeting up with locals and travellers alike, a dinner party invite, and eating good food off the tourist track!  I’m part of a thriving travellers community called ‘CouchSurfing’, so I wasn’t short of a social life outside the pavilion. On one occasion returning ‘home’ after a night of cheap (but wonderful) pizza and beers in Campo Santa Margherita with CSers, I realised I was lost after I’d passed by the same restaurant at least twice, yet I knew I was close! I went against my natural instinct to ask for directions – it felt like all of a sudden every waiter was standing outside willing me to reveal my vulnerability and frustration of being lost.

Again I took to Facebook when I eventually arrived indoors;
Kai Venice“Getting lost in Venice is usually part of the fun for me, but not tonight. It was in fact very frustrating realising I was actually – actually lost! And I refused to ask for help from any of the wondering eyes watching in amusement another ‘prey’ come their way, for my innocent ask to be interpreted as; “hello, I’m lost… Can you give me directions to; your lips, your house, your penis!” So did what I had to do and followed Siri’s GPS instructions on full volume echoing down alleyways until I reached my destination… #TheTourist#SiriToTheRescue #VictorySelfie #IWillBeatDyslexiaAndLearnToReadAMap”

Despite a rant every now and again, at no point in Venice did I ever feel unsafe. ‘Unwanted’ attention I received yes, but nothing that my extensive travels around the world, and visits to Italy on more than a handful of occasions, hasn’t allowed me to witness before.

Much of my highlights of Venice, as side from the Diaspora Pavilion, actually has little to do with art. In fact, I stayed away from the main Biennale in order to spend my free time exploring the real Venice. Bumping into my friend Fred Kuwornu, Italian-Ghanaian filmmaker and producer during one of my days off was particularly surreal especially as he’s based in New York City! That was the evening I ended up overlooking the Venice skyline thanks to a dinner party invite from Fred hosted by curator Valentina Levy. Speaking of surreal, what about the evening when there was silent disco in the middle Campo Santa Margherita and I danced (and sang) the night away with new friends from the USA, Germany and Sweden?…

Venice silent disco pic

However the most rewarding highlight of my time in Venice outside the Diaspora Pavilion, was meeting Luca, an actual Venetian (a rare find I might add!) whom I warmed to for his genuine enthusiasm to share ‘the real Venice’ with travellers through the walking tours he offers.

On my last night in Venice, I was treated to the most surreal experience – a tour of Venice on a banana split canoe! I took to instagram;“Perfect way to end my stay in Venice – a surprise night cruise along the canals in an inflatable banana split canoe… Try something once right? ! Check out my insta stories for more! #ThatWasFun #FriendShip #Canoe#PricelessMoments #JustBeforeMyBatteryDied”

Luca taught me a local saying upon hearing the experience of my stay; “Venezia è bellissima ma non ci vivrei” – Venice is beautiful, but I wouldn’t live here… However I will visit again without a doubt!


Have you visited Venice before? Is it on your to-visit list? Share your thoughts in the comment box below!


Previously published on Diversity Matters

More about ICF please visit: www.internationalcuratorsforum.org

Our thoughts and prayers go out to family and friends of Khadija Saye, and all those affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy of June 2017

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