Under the curation of decorated architect and academic Lesley Lokko, this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale seeks to highlight Africa’s outsize impact on the global architecture stage through a slate of emerging firms with fresh ideas.
For the first time since the Venice Biennale established an architecture event in 1980, its main exhibitions will focus on Africa and the African Diaspora. That’s largely thanks to Ghanaian-Scottish architect and academic Lesley Lokko, who was tapped to curate this year’s edition. Much like the Diaspora, which she describes in her curatorial statement as “that fluid and enmeshed culture of people of African descent that now straddles the globe,” Lokko’s freewheeling career has been defined by inhabiting—and navigating—many different worlds.
Primarily raised in Accra, Lokko attended boarding school in coastal Dundee. An alumnus of London’s Bartlett School of Architecture who jokes that she “can’t even change a light bulb,” she stepped away from the profession to write romantic fiction imbued with questions about race for more than a decade before returning to teach at the University of Johannesburg in 2014. There, she noticed a “hunger for change” rocking campuses across South Africa, with students protesting unjust education disparities and calling for decolonization. She also noticed there were no Black architecture students, prompting her to found the university’s influential graduate school of architecture and, back in Accra, the African Futures Institute.
These achievements laid the groundwork for this year’s Venice Biennale, fittingly titled “The Laboratory of the Future.” Eighty-nine participants—more than half hailing from Africa, and averaging an age of 43—will explore the continent’s impact on the global architecture stage through a “shape-shifting” approach that stretches to encompass film, journalism, adaptive reuse, land reclamation, and grassroots practice. Among them are bold names like Diébédo Francis Kéré and David Adjaye; they’re in dialogue with emerging practitioners like Sumayya Vally of Counterspace, poet Rhael “Lionheart” Cape, and visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous.
Details are largely under wraps until the press opening on May 18, but expect programming that highlights Africa’s “ability to be several things at once—traditional and modern, African and global, colonized and independent,” Lokko tells the New York Times. “We’re used to having to think about resources, about switching on a light with no guarantee of electricity. We’re able to grapple with change.” (To that end, she called out the Italian government for refusing entry to three of her team members a mere weeks before the exhibition opening.)
As opposed to Biennales that sought to bring people together in the face of environmental calamity, public health crises, and rapid urbanization, Lokko posits the global South as a harbinger of innovation—an intentionally open-ended approach that also aims to expand hackneyed notions of African architecture. Wakanda, the fictional utopian city in the Black Panther movies, might come to mind. Lokko wants to dig deeper and find out “what Wakanda would look like after 10 years of thinking about the relationship between the future and technology, or between sustainability and social justice or public health, so it doesn’t look like Dubai on steroids.” This Biennale may not have all the answers—but perhaps that’s the point.