ART AND CORRUPTION IN VENICE
The 52nd Venice Biennale, June 10-Nov. 21, 2007, makes a historic gesture towards Africa by including a substantial exhibition drawn from the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art in the impressive spaces of the Arsenale. But now, the unsavory political and business activities of the people behind the collection are raising questions that could well prove an embarrassment to the venerable art fest.
Selected to represent Africa by a panel of international experts appointed by Biennale curator Robert Storr [see Artnet News, Feb. 13, 2007], the collection, based in Luanda, Angola, is explicitly being presented not just for the quality of its 600 works -- which include pieces by artists from 21 African nations -- but "to draw attention to the Sindika Dokolo initiative as a signal undertaking within the context of art patronage in Africa generally." In other words, it is explicitly presented as a feather in the cap for Congolese collector Sindika Dokolo.
But who is Sindika Dokolo? An internet search turns up few references, the most informative being a 1999 Common Ground radio interview about the economic situation in the Congo, in which Dokolo is cited as representing Congolese business interests ("dressed impeccably in a double-breasted suit") blaming the collapse of the country’s banking system on then-leader Laurent Kabila, who had recently toppled the 32-year regime of Joseph Mobutu-Sese Seko.
Further research reveals an alternative story, however. A July 2006 article in the French-language newspaper La Conscience titled "The Dokolo Affair" alleges that under the Mobutu regime, Sindika Dokolo’s father, Sanu, created the Bank of Kinshasa, which channeled money to members of his own family -- including his son Sindika, then still a minor -- bilking the state and normal depositors of more than $80 million dollars when it imploded in 1986. Given the scope of the economic devastation left behind by the Bank of Kinshasa, the issue is apparently still very much alive -- the article cites Mupepe Lebo, an independent auditor investigating the Dokolos’ legal maneuverings to keep the money, who accuses Sanu Dokolo’s heirs of "mafia-like" activity.
In 2002, in what might be called a classic marriage of state, Sindika Dokolo married Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled neighboring Angola since his disputed 1979 election sparked the bloody Angolan civil war (a long-awaited new round of elections was once again postponed this year). Noted for her lavish lifestyle, Isabel is often described as a shrewd businesswoman with controlling interests in dozens of prominent companies -- though news articles in the Lisbon newspaper Expresso and the Africa Monitor suggest that her endeavors have been heavily backed and subsidized by the state. One of the richest people in Angola, Isabel dos Santos is identified as a prominent member of Futungo, a patronage network of about 200 well-placed individuals and families close to President dos Santos, supposedly responsible for siphoning off some $2 billion in state revenues for personal gain (Angola became the second African member of OPEC this year), in what the U.K. group Global Witness has described as "wholesale state robbery."
The lavish lifestyle of Angola’s ruling elite contrasts dramatically with the living conditions of most of Angola’s 13 million people. "A typical Angolan has slim hopes of getting a job, an education or even staying alive for very long," wrote Declan Walsh in the Independent in 2002. "Average life expectancy is 45, unemployment is 80 per cent and three out of 10 children do not even see their fifth birthday." The state of affairs is much the same today, with a tiny Angolan elite segregated from their countrymen, often literally, by armed guards and fences.
Sindika Dokolo’s wife’s reported business interests include major stakes in the government’s diamond monopolies. A 2005 article in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, for instance, details her machinations to control the trade through alliances with various Israeli diamond dealers (her marriage to Dokolo is mentioned in passing as greasing the wheels of business between the Congo and Angola). An extensive 2005 report by journalist Rafael Marques -- himself imprisoned by the Angolan government in 1999 after a newspaper published remarks he made that were critical of president dos Santos -- details a staggering list of human rights violations committed under the auspices of these companies in Angola’s diamond-rich Lundas region, including murders, tortures and rapes by security forces. Marques also reports that the dos Santos government has passed laws making it illegal to travel in the Lundas except in association with the diamond trade, "creating a situation tantamount to forced labor" for the more than one million inhabitants of the province.
Of course, even in the United States, institutions of high art can be synonymous with robber barons, from the Rockefeller Family and the Museum of Modern Art to Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges museum today. What seems different in the case of Sindika Dokolo Collection is not just the scale of the alleged plunder behind the art, but the fact that numerous NGOs and human rights organizations have called attention to the depredations.
This unsavory background is also sure to add to the controversy already surrounding the selection process for the African pavilion at Venice, which has apparently triggered objections from African curators Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor and a defense of Storr’s plan from artist and curator Olu Oguibe (for details, see the Africa South Art Initiative website).
At any rate, it seems that Africa’s most substantial participation yet in the Venice Biennale, intended to present "an informed and distinctive perspective" on a population often overlooked or misunderstood by the art world, may instead drag to light bitter questions about the relation between African elites and the vast majority of Africans.
See also: "Update on Dokolo in Venice," Artnet News, May 18, 2007