September 25, 2023

The woman behind the whirlwind festival

Lesley Lokko has spent the past two years planning the world’s largest and most celebrated architecture festival – the Venice Biennale.

“This has been a whirlwind,” says the Dundee-born architect, writer and academic who is the event’s director.

“The past six months have been particularly intense. I’m sure every curator says this, but you lose perspective, not just what’s happening in the world, but how what you’ve done will interact with the world.

“You make a statement, but you have no idea how people will react.”

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

Lesley Lokko was born in Dundee in 1964. Her father was a surgeon from Ghana who studied medicine at St Andrews University, and her mother was from Newport-on-Tay.

She lived in Scotland as a child, but when her parents divorced, she moved to Ghana with her father. There she spent her teenage years.

She studied Hebrew, Arabic and sociology before deciding on architecture at UCL in London.

But working as an architect, designing homes, turned out not to be for her. What she wanted was to teach and encourage new architects.

In addition to teaching around the world, she founded the African Futures Institute, an architecture school and events platform in Accra.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

Africa takes center stage in her first biennale.

The event will showcase 64 countries in historic pavilions. Another 89 countries, including Scotland, appear in independent locations in the Italian city.

The art version of the festival has been held here every two years since 1895. The architectural version has been held in the intervening years since 1975.

More than half of the exhibitors this year come from the African continent or from the diaspora. There is also gender parity and an average age of 43, in contrast to an industry dominated by older, white, male voices.

Lesley says she doesn’t just want to tell a different story, she wants to change who’s telling it.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

“I hope people come through and realize we have as much in common as we divide,” she says.

“I think there are people who come to this exhibition expecting a completely different world. And of course the 54 countries of Africa are not ‘another world’, they are really part of this world.”

But Scotland remains an important part of its heritage and returns regularly.

“Scotland has always been quite emotional for me,” she says.

“I remember one of my first book trips was in Edinburgh and as soon as I got off the plane I suddenly felt I knew the light.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

“It was the first insight I had that places stay in you. Not only through language, but also through temperature, light and sound.

“I felt incredibly at home there, so I go back to Edinburgh regularly and I go back there to write.”

Her first novel, Sundowners, was published in 2004 and became a bestseller.

She screams with shame – or with joy? – if I describe it as grown-up Enid Blyton, with four girls in a posh English boarding school.

She has since published 11 more novels and is writing a 12th.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

Lesley says writing isn’t that different from architecture because it requires imagination and the ability to see things in 3D.

And as the world descends on Venice, she says she finds inspiration everywhere.

“Writers are always working and the novel I have planned next is set at an art biennale somewhere in the world.

“It probably won’t be Venice, but the conversations I’m having capture the imagination. You never switch off.”

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

She is determined to make the biennale more accessible.

She calls it “the exhibition” rather than the biennale, and “practitioners” rather than architects – and while there are plenty of African delegates at the opening, it’s unlikely there will be large numbers of visitors from Africa.

Even getting artists to Venice was a challenge, as several of her team were denied visas in time for the opening.

“The world of art and culture is often way ahead of the world of politics,” she says.

“Unfortunately, at a time like this, the two worlds collide.”

She said it was disturbing that some members of her team, including people who had contributed to the exhibition, were denied visas.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

“But you also hope that these kinds of exhibitions and these kinds of conversations are the start of change,” she says.

“It takes a long time for policy to catch up.

“People have said the controversy has soured the exhibit, but that’s not true. I think for me it sharpened the exhibit.”

I tell her about the Ethiopian architect I met at the gate, who told me she had worked in Glasgow over 30 years ago and loved to travel to Skye in her spare time.

The fleeting connection makes Lesley Lokko laugh. On the island, she first came into contact with the Hebridean design agency Dualchas and invited them to exhibit in Venice.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

“The personal connections and histories and threads have been very important to me. I met Dualchas on Skye through a very good friend,” she says.

And their work around questions of identity and heritage and language definitely resonates with the exhibition as a whole.

“So I very much hope that people will make these connections across geography so that we understand that the nation-state is not the thing that defines us — there are things that are much deeper and older than your passport.”

Their installation – also called Dualchas, meaning cultural heritage – is a personal reflection on the roots of their practice and a celebration of the architecture of the Highlands and Islands.

Part of the assignment was that their involvement should be as light as possible.

In the end, the group brought back only a violin case containing a violin and a Gaelic bible, artifacts that linked the families of directors Rory Flyn and Neil Stephen.

The installation of the four part film was done using local resources and can be toured around Scotland afterwards.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

Scotland is represented on the fringe of the main festival with an exhibition on land issues around Loch Ness, Orkney and Ravenscraig.

The themes of climate change and sustainability are omnipresent throughout the festival, befitting a city where mass tourism continues to wreak havoc.

The Scotland-Venice partnership announced earlier this year that it intended to pause involvement in the event and will hold a consultation to decide on future involvement.

Lesley Lokko recognizes the challenges of organizing a festival in such a fragile environment.

Lesley Loko

Lesley Loko

“The issues of resources, of the carbon footprint, of flights that bring all these people here… I had to think hard about the impact.

“For me, the impact here outweighed the cost, because it’s one of the few opportunities you get to engage with your colleagues in this way.”

And she says the opportunity to showcase
African architects and architecture was too important to pass up.

“Maybe now is the perfect time for this kind of exhibition,” she adds.

“I hope the next time a meeting like this takes place, it won’t be labeled Africa. It won’t be ‘different.’

“I happen to be in the right place at the right time to break the door open, but people always want the door to stay firmly open.”

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

The Biennale Architettura 2023 runs until Sunday 26 November.

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