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 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 the ‘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 curator Katerina Gregos have developed an international, thematic 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 Belgian Pavilion – artists from Africa, all of whose work has explored the question of colonial modernity, and most of whom have produced 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 (Léopold 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 interaction 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 exhibition questions the Eurocentric idea of a singular modernity by examining a shared avant-garde heritage, one marked by artistic and intellectual cross-pollination between Europe and Africa, which generated pluralist, so-called ‘counter-modernities’. It aims to provide insight into the diverse and often hybrid forms – artistic, cultural and intellectual – that were engendered by colonial encounters.
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 avant-garde 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).
The project engages in 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 marginalized 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 colonization 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.