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International guest artists featured in Belgian pavilion
Adam Pendleton, Installation view at Belgian Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia 56th International Art Exhibition. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery, New York & London.

VENICE.- The Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale presents the work of Belgian artist Vincent Meessen together with international guest artists. Meessen’s proposal Personne et les autres breaks with the tradition of Belgium’s representation in Venice to date, which has mostly featured solo or duo exhibitions of Belgian artists. It challenges the notion of national representation by moving away from the traditional format of a solo show and opening up to include multiple positions and viewpoints.

Working in close collaboration, Meessen and Brussels-based curator Katerina Gregos have developed an international, thematic and contemplative group exhibition, which is grounded in research-based practices. The exhibition welcomes ten other artists from four continents and — for the first time in the Pavilion — artists from Africa, all of whose work has explored the question of colonial modernity, and most of whom are producing new work for the exhibition.

The title of the exhibition, Personne et les autres, is borrowed from a lost play by André Frankin, a Belgian art critic affiliated with the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals. The exhibition takes the history of the Pavilion and the international context of the Biennale as its point of departure ; the Belgian Pavilion itself was the first foreign Pavilion to be built in the Giardini in Venice. This was during the reign of King Leopold II, a year before Congo Free State (Leopold II’s private property, claimed during the imperial powers’ ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late nineteenth century) was handed over to the Belgian State.

The exhibition explores the consequences of political, historical, cultural and artistic interactions between Europe and Africa during the time of colonial modernity, and in its aftermath. It probes unknown or overlooked micro-histories, brings into view alternative versions of modernity that emerged as a result of colonial encounters, and recounts stories that unfolded outside of and in reaction to accepted colonial hierarchies. The project aims to provide insight into the diverse forms — whether artistic, cultural, or intellectual – that were produced during this time. It questions the Eurocentric idea of modernity by examining a shared avant-garde heritage, marked by artistic and intellectual cross-pollination between Europe and Africa, which generated pluralist so-called ‘countermodernities’.

Personne et les autres traces, through the work of the artists, a timeline of references that connect the critique of colonial modernity with Dada, CoBrA and the Situationist International (1957-1972) – the last of the international avantgarde revolutionary movements whose final conference took place in Venice in 1969, and the emancipation of black people, Pan-Africanism, African independence movements, and ‘Global 68’ (the lesser known off-shoot of May 1968 in the Global South).

Central to the exhibition concept is a new audio-visual work by Vincent Meessen, which revisits the role of the largely unknown Congolese intellectuals within the Situationist International. The artist unexpectedly discovered an unpublished document: the lyrics of a protest song, signed by a former Situationist, Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku. Written in Kikongo in May 1968, the document revealed a completely unknown episode in the history of the Situationist Internationals. Meessen worked with the author of this song to re-interpret the text in the form of a musical work: a rumba, recorded in Kinshasa in the nightclub Un Deux Trois that was established in 1974 by the legendary Congolese musician and bandleader Franco Luambo (1938-1989), bandleader of the famous orchestra TP OK Jazz.

It is important however to highlight that Personne et les autres does not focus only on the colonial history of Congo and Belgium, but on a broader critique and analysis of colonial modernity, challenging its official histories, addressing its blind spots, and re-inscribing what has been absent, erased or marginalised into the present. By exploring both adverse and positive cultural outcomes of colonial history, the exhibition reveals the fruitful, polyphonic and heterogeneous artistic and intellectual dialogues under colonisation during liberation struggles, most prominently in the aftermath of independence. At the same time, it reflects on the meaning of groundbreaking, emancipatory and oppositional practices (cultural or otherwise) related to that epoch, in light of the present global situation of unrest and crisis, with a view to alluding to potentialities for the future.

Vincent Meessen will be exhibiting alongside: Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (1977, French Guiana; lives and works in Metz); Sammy Baloji (1978, Democratic Republic of Congo; lives and works in Lubumbashi and Brussels); James Beckett (1977, Zimbabwe; lives and works in Amsterdam); Elisabetta Benassi (1966, Italy; lives and works in Rome); Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin (1971, France; 1972, Belgium; live and work in Nantes); Tamar Guimarães & Kasper Akhøj (1967, Brazil; 1976, Denmark; live and work in Copenhagen); Maryam Jafri (1972, Pakistan; lives and works in Copenhagen and New York) and Adam Pendleton (1984, USA ; lives and works in New York).

The official representation of Belgium at the 56th International Art Exhibition — Biennale di Venezia is commissioned by Wallonia-Brussels Federation and Wallonia-Brussels International.

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