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A work by RENN titled Far Gone. Photo © RENN.
A work by RENN titled Far Gone. Photo © RENN.

Namibian Pavilion at Venice Biennale Imperiled as Underwriters Withdraw

The inaugural Namibian pavilion at the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale, whose opening is just scant days away, is in dire straits following the pullout of its lead sponsor, the luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent, as well as the departure of its art patron, Monica Cembrola. Additionally, the Namibian government waffled in its support of the pavilion, first asking Biennale officials to be disaffiliated from the effort and then rescinding that request.

At issue is the pavilion’s focus on the work of RENN, a sixty-four-year-old white man working under a pseudonym. The Johannesburg native is a member of the tourism industry who in 2013 began creating large figures from rusted metal and placing them in the desert. Despite RENN’s being unknown in the Namibian contemporary art scene, and regardless of the lack of writing on his work, which cannot be ascertained to have been shown in any gallery or museum, these sculptures caught the eye of Marco Furio Ferrario, since 2014 a consultant on the construction of travel lodges in Namibia, who is serving as curator of the Namibian pavilion.

The decision to put forth RENN as representative of the Namibian contemporary art scene did not sit well with the country’s artists, who, having publicly voiced their dissent over several months, early last month posted an online petition titled “Not Our Namibian Pavilion,” which decried  the “poorly conceptualized and inappropriate debut that takes an antiquated and problematic view of Namibia and Namibian art.” The protesting artists pointed to the inappropriate centering of the work of a single white man, contending that RENN’s sculptures engage in the “historically racist premise that indigenous peoples are perceived to be closer to nature than to humankind.” They noted that such a characterization has historically been “used to justify oppression of indigenous peoples by labeling them as naive and subhuman.”

Following the publication of the petition, which has to date garnered 392 signatures, Cembrola, who runs a foundation devoted to African art, defected, saying that Ferrario had not been transparent regarding his curatorial plans and asserting that the “Namibian art scene deserves better,” according to Artnet News. Abercrombie and Kent, whom Cembrola had brought on board, cited possible “harm” to their brand as the reason for their withdrawal. Whether the pavilion, which was to have been held on the island of Certosa, will go forward is uncertain. Ferrario, for his part, was defiant regarding his choice. “The point of this exhibition is that art comes before the artist,” he said. “I did not choose an artist; I chose artworks.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Marco Furio Ferrario sought at one point to recruit artists other than RENN to the Namibian pavilion.