Billy Gerard Frank’s project for the 2019 Venice Biennale, Second Eulogy: Mind The Gap (2019). Video installation produced by Lauren Beck with cinematography by Adam Donald. (photography © Billy Gerard Frank; courtesy Grenada Pavilion)
The Venice Biennale is perhaps the world’s most esteemed large-scale exhibition of international contemporary art. Some wealthier countries have designated budgets for their national pavilions, and commercial galleries often help cover their represented artists’ expenses, knowing the prestige and clout that participation in the show can confer.
But a little-known fact is that some artists must pay their own passage to the biennial, particularly those from smaller nations with limited arts funding. That’s the case for Billy Gerard Frank, a Grenadian filmmaker and multimedia artist who is among those chosen to represent the Caribbean island in the forthcoming 2022 edition. His crowdfunding campaign for Palimpsest: Tales Spun From Sea And Memories, a body of work based on West African abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano, has just gone live on Fractured Atlas’s website.
Together comprising the Cypher Art Collective of Grenada, the seven artists selected by Grenada also include Oliver Benoit, Ian Friday, Asher Mains, Susan Mains, Angus Martin, and Samuel Ogilvie. Planned for the Giardino Bianco exhibition space in the heart of Venice and curated by Daniele Radini Tedeschi, the multilayered installation will feature time-based media and performance as well as painting, sculpture, and archival materials. StART, an Italian exhibition production company co-founded by Tedeschi, will provide financial support for the pavilion, but Frank must still raise at least $250,000 to make his vision for the biennial a reality.
Frank’s project for the 2019 Biennale, Second Eulogy: Mind The Gap, explored themes of family, exile, and estrangement. (photography © Billy Gerard Frank; courtesy Grenada Pavilion)
This is his second time participating in the biennial — and crowdfunding his way there. In 2018, he launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 of the $70,000 required to produce Second Eulogy: Mind the Gap, an autobiographical short inspired by themes of exile and estrangement as well as his own family memories. Despite “the abundance of talent in the Caribbean and its diaspora,” Frank said, Grenada is the only Caribbean Island nation besides Cuba to participate in the Venice Biennale at least five times; the nation is not contributing any money toward his project.
Funding challenges lay bare the striking economic disparities between countries participating in the renowned exhibition. In 2019, political upheaval in Venezuela delayed the completion of their presentation, which remained empty on opening weekend; some commented on the stark contrast with the adjacent elaborately-designed Russian and Swiss pavilions.
“I think a lot of the reason why the smaller islands, specifically in the Caribbean, don’t really partake is because they don’t have that kind of funding to commit to a nine-month pavilion, and pay the artists to go to the Biennale,” Frank told Hyperallergic. “Artists like painters may not need to raise as much money, but as a multidisciplinary artist working in installation primarily, it is definitely a much more expensive venture for me.”
Richard Cosway, “A self-portrait with Maria Cosway and Ottobah Cugoano” (1784), etching (Royal Collection Trust, courtesy Billy Gerard frank)
The centerpiece of Frank’s project for the forthcoming 59th edition of the show is a two-channel film installation centered on the life of Cugoano, a philosopher, activist, and prominent figure in the 18th-century British abolitionist movement, whose contributions have been overshadowed. Born in 1757 in the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, Cugoano was kidnapped at the age of 13 and sent to work on a plantation in Grenada, then a British colony, an experience he described as “dreadful captivity and horrible slavery, without any hope of deliverance.” Two years later, he was sold to a merchant who took him to England, where he was freed and entered the service of royal artist Richard Cosway. Cugoano founded the abolitionist group Sons of Africa and in 1787 published his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, an indictment of enslavement and colonial conquest sent to George III and Edmund Burke, among other prominent politicians.
“He was one of the first Afro-British people to have written a book in English,” Frank told Hyperallergic. “He died in obscurity, but he was a key figure that no one really talks about when they talk about the abolitionist movement.”
“Since the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of institutions in England as well as in Scotland have been exploring the relationship with the Caribbean, specifically Grenada, and many of these institutions were supported by money that came from plantations and slavery,” Frank added. A “blue plaque” honoring Cugoano was installed by the English Heritage organization last year on the at Schomberg House in London where he lived and worked.
The film will be produced by Lauren Beck, who also worked on Second Eulogy, with cinematography by Tim Sessler; theatrical and video design by Yana Biryükova, and sound by James William Blades, who composed for Beyoncé’s album Black is King. Actor Obi Abili has been cast in the role of Cugoano.
Far from a straightforward, chronological narrative, Frank’s project will be composed of “palimpsests,” conveying fragments of Cugoano’s life in Ghana, Grenada, and England not just through film but also sculpture and painting. The artist describes it as “a deconstructed repositioning of memories, excavating histories and myths, evocative of a place and time and people.”
“The piece will be projected vertically, floor-to-ceiling, and there will be water on both sides of the walls,” he said. “When you enter the pavilion, you’re going to be confronted with this figure as well as projections of 18th century images behind him and onto his body, like maps and archival photographs, as he reads to us and tells us his life’s story.”
“I imagine the piece almost as a sculpture,” he continued. “It is not an atmospheric piece that you just walk past; when you enter, I want you to have an encounter.”
Obi Abili, who will play Cugoano in Frank’s film, in a production of “The Emperor Jones” at the Irish Repertory Theatre. (photo by Carol Rosegg)
So far, Frank has raised 10% of his initial $250,000 funding goal, which will cover pre- and post-production costs as well as travel and lodging expenses from New York City, where he is based, to Grenada, Carriacou, Ghana, and Scotland for the film shoot. He hopes to raise up to $500,000 to produce what he envisions as a second iteration of the project, including a live theater performance in Venice.
“The relevance of my participation as a native to the island now living in the United States for the past 20 years is both personally profound and deeply prophetic when questioning larger themes around cultural heritage, identity, colonialism, and selfhood,” Frank said.
The 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, yet to be titled, will be curated by Cecilia Alemani and take place from April 23 to November 27, 2022.