To Joanna Gong, open-mindedness has always been a form of survival, with the ability to trust her silver bullet for success. Born in the US, Gong moved to Beijing with her family as a child and was raised in an international community prior to returning to the States for higher education. The Private Sales Director and jewelry specialist at Sotheby’s learned from a young age to follow nomadic urges and embrace risks, experiencing what she calls some of her “best moments” after following a gut instinct. Now, Gong is embarking on a journey that will see her step into the art world’s biggest stage at the Venice Biennale in 2024. The art history and rarities specialist has joined the curatorial team of the Republic of Benin as Director of Global Partnerships and Development. The goal? To share—via the unique platform of Venice—the rich, spiritual, and diasporic culture of Benin with the world.
The appointment came as a surprise to Gong. “My immediate reaction was, ‘I’m honored, but you must be mistaken,” she says. “I curate exhibitions for commercial success. My form of storytelling is through the lens of acquisitions—one cannot acquire another country’s heritage! I am neither Black nor from Africa. The Venice Biennale is the Olympics of culture. This is a huge moment for the country to introduce themselves to the world. What can I bring to the team?”
What Gong brings is decades of experience, but not the kind found on a résumé (though years of international treasure hunting and auction expertise doesn’t hurt). When she was only twelve, Gong began a life-long dedication to consider other cultures with sensitivity. “I was told in a formulaic way that the keys to success were a job, stability, companionship, food, shelter—and above all, money to fund everything,” she explains. “Rather than blindly follow, I wanted to test these theories myself, so I started pushing back against this formula and putting myself in situations that gradually stripped away one or more elements. I wanted to distill which elements were truly core contributors to happiness for myself and for other people.”
Gong’s tests took the form of traveling. This included couch-surfing with her sister in Southeast Asia, backpacking across East Africa, hitchhiking alone through South America, working on a mango farm in Colombia, and, most recently, throwing a dart at a map and flying wherever it landed, which happened to be Senegal. “I won’t pretend it isn’t nerve-racking,” she says of her intrepid travel experience, “but when you surrender yourself to the world, it’s mystical what can happen. In my travels, I realized I found my purest bliss at times when I had the least. I learned firsthand that happiness and success are subjective. I learned how to view other cultures with curiosity and trust. In turn, the people I met shared their values with me. There is a deep peace that can be found when truly surrendering oneself to the golden, fate-filled moment.”
Fate seems to be a constant in Gong’s life. While transferring at the airport for her ‘dart trip’ decision to visit Senegal, Gong’s social media story reached the feed of New York friend, Mariama Camara. Camara, a well-known entrepreneur active in humanitarian efforts, immediately offered to connect her with family in Dakar. After observing Gong’s quick assimilation with Camara’s West African roots, Camara continued the introductions with Idelphonse Affogbolo, a Beninese businessman and avid supporter of contemporary African art. Gong told Affogbolo that she’d heard of Benin’s renowned Voodoo festival and hoped to visit someday. Affogbolo, it turned out, was one of the festival’s organizers. “It was beyond my wildest imagination,” she says of her initial invitation and journey to Benin. “I hadn’t even booked a hotel the day prior to landing. Instincts told me not to do any prior research—to land completely fresh-eyed, receptive, and absorbent. Idelphonse led the most beautiful journey.”
While in Benin, Gong met Azu Nwagbogu, the newly appointed head curator of the country’s inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale. “We immediately felt a sense of kismet,” Gong says. The next few days were filled with hours of discourse as she learned about Benin’s history, and the country’s ambition to lend its voice to Venice. A few weeks later, Nwagbogu asked Gong to join the curatorial research and development team. For Nwagbogu—who is of Nigerian descent—the story of Benin is that of a Pan-African rendering with deep roots in Africa, but with branches and subterranean networks that spread out far into global diasporas.
Gong feels this kinship. “My deepest interest in art is finding the common denominators—not to study how ‘unique’ we are, but rather, how connected we are. As members of their own culture, the people of Benin have a perspective created from birth—the goal now is to tell the story in a way that speaks to international audiences, which includes descendants around the world who may not know of the traditions and contemporary art in Benin. I am humbled and honored to be a part of Benin’s first-ever participation at Venice. And I am still flabbergasted.”
Photographed by Alvin Kean Wong
Styled by John Tan
Written by Annabel Keenan
Hair: William Schaedler
Makeup: Monica Alvarez