In describing the impetus for the convening and symposium in 2007, Bailey highlighted the desire “to take as many people of colour working in the arts as we could on the grand tour of exhibitions 1… the more people we spoke to about our desire to do this, the clearer it became that not only had this form of gathering not been done in these spaces before, but that to hold this space consistently, we needed a strategic approach to this type of collective action.”2 This foresight is of huge importance to understanding the trajectory of the Diaspora Pavilion, because without the formation of ICF as an organisation with a commitment to building spaces and networks for dialogues around diaspora over the next ten years, the foundation and wider body of work underpinning the project would not exist.
The Artistic Director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, Robert Storr, promoted ICF’s symposium as a collateral event and even participated in the symposium, including a potent exchange with curator of the African Pavilion, Simon Njami. Between 2007 and 2017 ICF created regular opportunities for artists and curators to gather and be dialogue within Biennales and Triennials around the world, including Istanbul, Gwangju, Sharjah, Alexandria, Liverpool, Berlin, Yokohama and Prospect New Orleans. Returning to Venice regularly, ICF presented talks at the British Pavilion to mark the occasions of Steve McQueen representing Britain in 2009 and Okwui Enwezor acting as Biennale Artistic Director in 2015. It was Enwezor’s 2015 Biennale, ‘All the World’s Futures’, which reinforced for Bailey the urgency of fostering a space for a Diaspora Pavilion in 2017. And for myself, having not witnessed Enwezor’s 1997 Johannesburg Biennial or 2002 documenta in person, experiencing his Venice Biennale was illuminating, sparking practical considerations of the curatorial capacity to nurture multiplicity as a strategy against unitary visions or systems of power.
In a 2018-9 interview with myself and Bailey, Venice to Wolverhampton and Beyond: Contextualising the Diaspora Pavilion, Catherine Spencer and Kate Keohane trace the critical discourse upon which the Diaspora Pavilion sits – Enwezor’s “attentiveness to myriad diasporic histories and their differential relations”, Édouard Glissant’s framing of diaspora as “the passage from unity to multiplicity”, and Kobena Mercer’s examination of the emergence of the term in art history and visual production, through the works of Stuart Hall and others. They also situate the Diaspora Pavilion’s concertation on diaspora as it relates to Britain within a larger history of exhibition practice, which demanded more complex engagements with the relationships between current narratives on globalisation and the history of empire.3 Central to ICF’s interrogation of these histories and forces, was the responsibility to create career pathways for emerging practitioners to gain knowledge around and advance these critical movements.
ICF facilitated a research and development trip for eight emerging artists and curators to attend the vernissage of the 2015 Venice Biennale and the following Spring submitted funding applications to Arts Council England for major grants to realise two multi-year professional development programmes for emerging UK-based artists and curators from diasporic backgrounds – Diaspora Pavilion and Beyond the Frame. Eleven artists were selected to participate in the Diaspora Pavilion programme as part of a nationwide open call – Larry Achiampong, susan pui san lok, Barby Asante, Abbas Zahedi, Khadija Saye, Erika Tan, Libita Clayton, Michael Forbes, Paul Maheke, Kimathi Donkor and Barbara Walker.
Bailey’s aim back in 2007 was to create “a more formal, physical pavilion that functioned not just as a gathering and discursive space, but also as a physical space”.4 In 2017 that aspiration manifested as two floors of a large, ornate residential palazzo a short distance from Rialto Bridge, which we inhabited entirely, activating every inch of space available. Each artist was invited to create new work for the exhibition, which was shown alongside new and existing work by a group of artist ‘mentors’, including Ellen Gallagher, Isaac Julien, Hew Locke, Joy Gregory, Yinka Shonibare and others. The artists “were not burdened by the responsibility of national representation and instead were encouraged to participate in an open, communal dialogue with each other, with the landscape of Venice, the structure of the Biennale, the context of the exhibition and the palazzo that housed it.”5 We transformed the building through a live, site-specific and multi-media exhibition that sought to refuse a singular view on contemporary diasporic experience.