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Export Values: The Nordic Pavilion

The Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale tells a fascinating story with photographs, films and documents, but fails to make the best use of its remarkable setting

Thanks to the long march backwards of Niall Ferguson and his camp follower, Michael Gove, British accounts of empire now tend to revisionism. So it’s a surprise to encounter an apparently non-counterfactual history of happy Afro-European intercourse, in no less than the most distinguished (Sverre Fehn-designed) pavilion in the Giardini, under the heroic title ‘Forms of Freedom’.

Except this is not the history of a former slave state, but of Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and the countries they invited to help build their new nations after winning independence in the 1960s. Their search for allies untainted by colonialism happily coincided with the establishment of development aid programmes in the Nordic countries, which sought to spread their version of social democracy worldwide. The results included the construction of many buildings, which are currently being researched by curator Nina Berre of the National Museum of Norway. The show explores the creation of some of these using historical photos, films and documents, and then, via specially commissioned pictures of very high quality, the continuing afterlife of these buildings is revealed: Kenya’s first government building − the Kenyatta Conference Centre, by Norway’s Karl Henrik Nøstvik − is documented by Iwan Baan, and a school by Gunnar Hyll in Zambia has been photographed by Mette Tronvoll. This is a fascinating story, beautifully told.

My one reservation is that the Nordic Pavilion is not looking its best. Last year the tree that abutted the facade was felled due to disease. Compounding this absence, curator Gro Bonesmo has hidden the trees within the structure behind display panels. Not a happy use of a remarkable building.

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