Illustration by John Watson

The curator making the Venice Biennale look to Africa

Lesley Lokko on tackling the exhibition’s Eurocentrism and broadening the definition of architecture
May 10, 2023

The 15th-century palatial headquarters of the Venice Biennale is five minutes from the city’s Piazza San Marco, though the throngs of tourists feel far away. It’s early April and very quiet. You would have no clue that, in just over a month’s time, this will be the hub of operations for the world’s largest exhibition of architecture. It’s in one particularly vast marble room that I find the curator of this year’s biennale, Lesley Lokko, in the middle of a photoshoot.

Even with the deadline fast approaching, the 60-year-old former architect Lokko, who has been living in Venice for the past three months, looks as calm as her surroundings. The curating process is typically set up in two distinct halves over 18 months: one for creating, the other for organising. “I’ve never had a child, but the nine-month symmetry of it is not lost on me,” Lokko says. “It makes sense, because you literally do spend nine months birthing an idea.”

Lokko wants this year’s biennale to shift away from its usual Eurocentrism. Over half of the participants are from Africa or the African diaspora; there is an even gender balance; the average age of participants is 43; and the definition of architecture itself will be broadened to include multimedia, poetry and journalism. Also a novelist, Lokko sees architecture as a “narrative form” that can tell stories about identity, race, migration, decarbonisation and decolonisation.

Much of the show’s perspective is shaped by Lokko’s own experience. Born in Dundee to a Scottish mother and a Ghanaian father, she spent her formative years in Ghana before attending boarding school in England; she then studied sociology in Los Angeles, followed by architecture in London. “Questions around identity and belonging and roots were quite complex for me,” she says. “I often think the reason for being so drawn to architecture was that I was looking for a discipline that would ground me.”

That’s also why she was interested in a biennale focused on the African diaspora: the increasing prevalence of identities that straddle national boundaries, or—as Lokko calls them—“the identities of the 22nd century”. But with the biennale’s longstanding—and returning—tradition of dividing everything into national, mostly European pavilions, does she think the format is anachronistic? She agrees the pavilions “represent a 19th-century idea of the nation state”, but that this, paradoxically, is why the biennale is such an ideal backdrop to challenge it: “It’s more productive to push against something than to push into space.”

Ahead of its opening on 20th May, the biennale has thrown up some unexpected challenges: “20 per cent” of her time has been spent just sorting visas for African participants to come to Europe. “On the one hand, we’re culturally and linguistically more mixed and hybrid,” she says. “On the other, you can see that borders are tightening.”

Many of Lokko’s ideas feel very of the moment—especially those around decolonisation—but really she’s been talking about them for 30 years. “The black body was Europe’s first unit of energy,” Lokko says, adding that “it’s odd to think this relationship is only being recognised” in the 2020s. Is she frustrated that it’s taken so long? “I think maybe in my thirties and forties I would’ve said I was frustrated. Now I’m more mature about it… It can sound incredibly fatalistic, but I think things happen at the time they happen for a reason.”

So it’s with optimism, not anger, that Lokko nails her colours to the mast of this year’s biennale—as encapsulated by her memory of arriving in Venice three months ago. “I came up in the water taxi and I remember looking around and thinking, architecture has fought every step of the way to be here. This is a city that has fought against all the odds! For an architect, that’s quite an exhilarating feeling.”