South Africa’s long-awaited return to the Venice Biennale — the world’s most prestigious art exhibition — has sparked outrage instead of celebration, following the surprise withdrawal of one of the participants, Zwelethu Mthethwa, over alleged “lack of transparency”.
South Africa has not participated in the Biennale since 1995, although individual artists heave exhibited there. But two years ago Momo gallery owner Monna Mokoena decided it was time to stage a comeback. In his personal capacity, the charismatic art dealer opened negotiations with the event’s organisers in Italy. In January he received confirmation that South African artists could exhibit.
Mokoena says he approached the department of arts and culture to ask for its blessing and backing. The department formally appointed him as “commissioner” for the initiative and he named Thembinkosi Goniwe as “curator”. But the department did not pledge any funding.
Goniwe selected four artists to represent South Africa. Two of them (rising star Mary Sibande and the lesser-known Lyndi Sales) were from the Momo “stable”, the others (Mthethwa and Siemon Allen) were not. By early February Mokoena’s team was confident that preparations were on track for the Biennale’s June opening.
Except they weren’t.
A big black cloud
Mthethwa suddenly announced he was pulling out and South Africa’s cultural blogosphere exploded.
Mthethwa claimed that Mokoena’s team had approached him too late in the process and that it had refused to give him information about the overall budget.
“Everything is shrouded in a big black cloud,” he subsequently told the Mail & Guardian.
Arts blogger Panga Management (PM) joined the battle, citing a further concern: conflict of interest.
“You don’t have to be the brightest crayon in the box or the sharpest tool in the shed to see that this is very unethical,” blogged PM, referring to the fact that two of the selected Biennale artists came from the Momo stable.
Speculation mounted that the Biennale would “kick out” the South African team, a rumour that was scotched by press officer Francesca Valente. She told the M&G that, according to Biennale regulations, each participating country had “complete autonomy” to decide how to select artists and curators.
Malcolm Payne, the former head of the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, added his voice to the debate this week. Payne, who exhibited at the 1995 Biennale, strongly criticised the way in which Mokoena was appointed. “It’s a handout,” he said.
Payne said there was a déjà vu element to the current situation. In 1995, he said, public outcry forced the newly elected ANC government to reconsider its original choice of Biennale curator: “What happened then is happening now. A commercial dealer is being given the task of setting up the exhibition. The only difference is that in 1995 such behaviour was queried, overturned and fair play was the outcome.”
Mokoena’s spokesperson, Victor Dlamini, is unmoved by all of this. And he is adamant that the local organisers have acted in good faith.
Dlamini said the team was “absolutely baffled” by Mthethwa’s withdrawal, because “he was the very first artist to [agree to] participate”, and “even showed us his works”.
He also dismissed as “cheap shots” the allegations about a lack of transparency and said there was nothing untoward about the selection process or the appointment of Thembinkosi Goniwe as curator, whom bloggers have cast as Mokoena’s stooge.
“I’ve yet to meet a more stubborn chap. Goniwe is a serious ideologue,” he said.
According to team Mokoena, attempts were made to include other top South African artists in the Biennale line-up — notably Marlene Dumas and Robin Rhode — but they were not available.
The final four were chosen because their work was “in line with the theme of the event” and the “vision of the curator”.
Department spokesperson Lisa Combrinck confirmed that the department had decided to throw its weight behind Mokoena because of his “track record in the field”. She said the department also considered the “lateness with which South Africa had confirmed participation and the necessity to couple this with existing groundwork that had already been done”.
The department has not yet decided whether to contribute funding to the 2011 Biennale initiative because it is “still finalising the nature of its support”.
A more coherent, transparent approach
For now, the storm in the arts blogosphere seems to have died down. But leading cultural figures, such as Joseph Gaylard, the director of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa, feel it’s important to keep the underlying issues alive.
“It is great that we are being represented [in the Biennale] but, going forward, more thought has to go into the selection process,” he said.
In 2010 Gaylard conducted a study of the visual arts landscape for the Human Sciences Research Council. He called for a more coherent, transparent approach to cultural diplomacy and urged the formation of a selection commission to identify potential curators, artists and international platforms.
Government has apparently not yet “digested the contents” of the study.
Gaylard feels that the department has tended to prioritise craft and music because of their “economic payback and possibility for job creation”, which make them “more attractive” than the visual arts.
But that may be about to change. According to Combrinck, the department is planning to hold a “stakeholder conference” on cultural diplomacy later in the year.
Meanwhile, Mokoena’s team is determined to put South Africa on the map at the 2011 Venice Biennale — with, or without, top-up funding from the department. “We are committed to doing the show,” said Dlamini, pointing out this week that Mokoena would carry the costs if necessary.
South Africa’s Biennale exhibit is titled Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art. The narratives may be far from ideal, but the desire is still there.