Susan Pui San Lok at the Diaspora Pavilion. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin reports from the 57th Venice International Art Biennale, with a focus on the Diaspora Pavilion curated by David A Bailey MBE. Her visit was funded by an Engine bursary.


Susan Pui San Lok at the Diaspora Pavilion. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

During September, I was selected for the opportunity to attend the 57th Venice Biennale, alongside other artists and curators based around the West Midlands. I was the only applicant accepted that is still undertaking undergraduate studies, which invoked simultaneous pride and immense imposter syndrome.

My main draw to the Biennale, aside from its obvious significance in the fine art world, was the inclusion of the first ever Diaspora Pavilion, conceptualised and curated by Midlands based curator David A Bailey.

The Biennale has come under scrutiny in more recent years for its arguably outdated structure regarding nationality and nationalism. The Diaspora Pavilion entirely questions the organisation of artwork into countries of origin (which is again debatable within the main Biennale event, as an artist does not have to be from a country in order to represent it). The Diaspora Pavilion instead celebrates and discusses the constant merging and shifting definitions of nationality; and gives a platform to the people whose nationality or ethnic identity does not fit concisely into one category (a celebration of people of mixed descent is how I read the Pavilion, which as someone who is mixed, I took to be an incredibly exciting thing).

Walking into the gallery, we were met by a wall of gold tinsel – the work ‘Untitled (Pavilion)’ (2017) by Susan Pui San Lok – which immediately evoked the fear of whether an interactive-looking artwork is actually interactive, and whether the viewer is actually entitled to interact with it. After watching other people wade through it, and pensively observing – once the leap is made into the work, the resulting feeling is incredibly disorienting, and also incredibly beautiful. When reading the accompanying programme notes to the exhibition, ideas of immersiveness, dream-space and ‘a theatre within a theatre’ are discussed in relation to the work. However, what stuck out for me was the incredibly unpretentious nature of the piece. The simplicity and aversion to take itself too seriously – a feature I felt was slightly too prominent in some of the other, larger scale works in the Biennale.

Barbara Walker, Transcended, at the Diaspora Pavilion. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

Other works in the Pavilion that caught my eye, included Barbara Walker’s drawing installation, ‘Transcended’ (2017), depicting soldiers from the Commonwealth, who fought in the First World War. However, due to the fact they were West Indian and not British, the roles they were actually permitted to undertake were the menial, manual tasks assisting the British soldiers. I first saw Walker’s work at mac birmingham, wherein a large part of the exhibition was the artist’s systematic removal of the drawings through the show’s duration; leaving smudged clouds of blurred charcoal. Seeing Walker’s work at the Biennale, and myself hailing from Birmingham, there was a certain sense of pride. The Diaspora Pavilion as a whole felt thoroughly curated. Aside from the placement of a couple of sculptures, that felt almost as though they were an afterthought, the space (a beautifully old Venetian building, the sort you would expect a live-in museum about the city’s history to be exhibited at) was entirely encapsulated by the distinct work of these diasporic artists. It was a beautiful sight to see said old Venetian house filled with the bright, clashing fabrics of Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s installation ‘The British Library’ – an ode to immigrants to the UK and the contributions they have made.

Jordi Coloner at the Spanish Pavilion, Giardini. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

Outside of the Diaspora Pavilion, the work that made a significant impact on me was Jordi Coloner’s ‘Únete! Join us!’ representing Spain. An immersive “installation of installations”, the Spanish Pavilion at the Giardini depicted a utopian, borderless landscape, in the form of a socially functioning, community-based series of projects. Again, for me the entire lack of self-importance, or least the self-awareness present meant this work was encapsulating and highly engaging.

This time, the invitation to sit on the wooden, sports stadium-like stands was clear at the entrance of the work, and so no reluctance to sit and watch the work was had. Instead, a way of exhibiting video work in a way I have never seen before – moving around the space, crouching on one wooden stand and then on to another, with the overall space creating the piece once each screen has been seen.

The spectrum of work seen throughout my few days in Venice, especially from a curatorial perspective, was highly insightful. Both pavilions featuring incredibly sleek and expensive work with high production value – as well as the smaller, lower key works, that provided interesting discussion points. I found travelling with the Engine team to attend my first Biennale, to be a hugely useful and engaging experience – being able to attend and interact with the work, and more importantly to be able to discuss and share ideas, and crucially, with those within the sector I hope to pursue after studies. Gaining an insight in to the practical and administrative aspects of art exhibitions was a major highlight of visiting the Biennale.


Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin reports from the 57th Venice International Art Biennale, with a focus on the Diaspora Pavilion curated by David A Bailey MBE. Her visit was funded by an Engine bursary.

Courtesy International Curators Forum


Thursday 16th November 2017
6pm – 8pm
Birmingham Hippodrome, Thorp Street, B5 4TB
The masterclass will take place in the Pwc Room

Book your free ticket here


Courtesy International Curators Forum

David A Bailey

David A. Bailey MBE came to prominence as one of a new generation of Black photograpers in the UK in the mid to late 1980s. Since then, he has done much work as a writer and curator, working with institutions and organisations, as well as working independently. His projects, both curated and co-curated have included MirageICALondon, 2005; Rhapsodies in BlackArt of the Harlem RenaissanceHayward GalleryLondon, 1997; Black Moving CubeArnolfiniBristol, 2006, Back to BlackWhitechapel/The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2005. David A. Bailey was for a time Associate Senior Curator at the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) in Londonand was subsequently Curator at AutographLondon. He edited, (with Ian Baucom and Sonia BoyceShades of Black, subtitled Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. Likewise, Sonia Boyce and David A. Bailey’s collaborative work was included in the book Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. He chaired the “Curatorial Debates Since the 1980s” panel at the Shades of Black conference, 20 April 2001, Duke University.

David A. Bailey, ‘Curator and Founder, Autograph-Association of Black Photographers’ was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2007, for services to Photography.

International Curators Forum

International Curators Forum (ICF) is a network that meets to discuss emerging issues of curatorial practice in the context of key events in the international arts calendar. It offers bursaries and professional development opportunities to curators and works in partnership with key national and international bodies. This program has been conceived to promote opportunities for curators to visit and participate in several major international art events to enable them to network and gain experience for their career development.

International Curators Forum (ICF) and University of the Arts London (UAL) present Diaspora Pavilion, an exhibition to be held in Venice from May 13th until November 26th 2017 at the Palazzo Pisani S. Marina during the 57th Venice Biennale.

The Diaspora Pavilion is conceived as a challenge to the prevalence of national pavilions within the structure of an international biennale and takes its form from the coming-together of nineteen artists whose practices in many ways expand, complicate and even destabilise diaspora as term, whilst highlighting the continued relevance that diaspora as a lived reality holds today.

The pavilion also forms part of the 22-month, joint ICF and UAL project ‘Diaspora Platform’, which is designed to deliver mentoring and professional development by eleven selected mentors for twelve UK-based emerging artists whose work engages with the topic of the diaspora. During the length of the project, these practitioners will take part in group forum, one-on-one mentoring sessions and group masterclasses. The selected participants and eight of the mentors will all showcase their work in the Diaspora Pavilion, in an exhibition curated by David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor.

Exhibiting artists:

Larry Achiampong | Barby Asante | Sokari Douglas Camp | Libita Clayton | Kimathi Donkor | Michael Forbes | Ellen Gallagher | Nicola Green | Joy Gregory | Isaac Julien | Dave Lewis | Hew Locke | susan pui san lok | Paul Maheke | Khadija Saye | Yinka Shonibare MBE | Erika Tan | Barbara Walker | Abbas Zahedi

The free Masterclasses spotlight the best of diverse cultural leadership as part of the innovative ASTONish programme to supporting  emergent and established cultural leaders in Aston and Newtown. 

This event is open to all and will include a drinks and canapé reception and networking opportunities.

This masterclass is in partnership with New Art West Midlands and CREATE>. 

ASTONish is produced by Birmingham Hippodrome and Lara Ratnaraja in partnership with Birmingham Museums Trust and Birmingham City University. It has been made possible through the A&N funding programme.

ASTONish presents the next Masterclass with David A Bailey MBE on Thursday 16 November at Birmingham Hippodrome in partnership with New Art West Midlands and CREATE.