Jettison the idea of a SA national pavilion in Venice

Hospitality. It is an idea as much as an action, one that Jeremy Rose and Christopher Till, the curators of the South African Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, would do well to observe, and enact.
An exhibition is an idea given form, a speculative proposal formalised into a statement; but, and here I’ll brave optimism, it can also be a volatile ignition device. A lens that concentrates light, creates fire. 

We can learn a lot from Egypt.

In June 2011, some four months after protests against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak set Egypt on a new course, that country – the first African state with a permanent pavilion at the Venice Biennale – made a little fire in the Egyptian pavilion in the backyards of the Giardini. Egypt is not South Africa, but reading yesterday’s last-minute press release for South Africa’s national pavilion at Venice, I think we’re missing the point. Or, at least, being like Egypt before and after 2011. 

When Egypt started putting on shows in Venice, in 1952, the emphasis was on presenting work that evoked an “Egyptian essence”. As South Africans we’re good at that kind of navel-gazing too, the two curators of South Africa’s national pavilion arguing that our past is an “alluvial undertow” in our “fractured and multivocal present”. 

For Egypt, this absorption with essences and the deep sediment of history often resulted in exhibitions that involved time travel, backwards. Not quite in the mould of the South African National Gallery, which up until not so long ago wore its horsey Bailey Collection like a badge of honour, but close. 

In 2011, before Egypt again reverted to type, the pavilion’s commissioners, no doubt motivated by the urgency of the moment, ventured a brave idea. They showed a five-screen video installation by 32-year-old Cairo-based new media artist and electronic musician Ahmed Basiony, who had been killed by a military sniper in Tahrir Square on January 28. 

Titled 30 Days of Running in the Space, the work combined raw footage Basiony made at Tahrir Square with a selection of outtakes from a month-long performance in which he ran on the spot outside the Cairo Opera House and Palace of Arts in 2010.

His work was clumsy, playful, chaotic, noisy, boring –– very much like attending a political rally. It was also an elegant meditation, after the fact, tragically, on entrapment, of being contained, of running on the same spot, and getting nowhere. 

Which, all said, is pretty much what Egyptians felt in January 2011, and how I personally feel right now, in April 2015. 

Here’s an idea: I think we should jettison the idea of a South African Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. It is an unsupportable fiction. 

Rather, and in the spirit of speculative thinking and close attention to the dirty fibre of reality, the curators should make a gesture of simple hospitality. Put aside the big ideas and hubristic nonsense that is really ambition dressed up in fancy words. 

Venture something brave. Ask Serge Alain Nitegeka, the Burundian artist living in Jo’burg, to make another set of 100 wooden stools – just like he did in December 2011, and which he gave away, in a simple act of hospitality, to foreign nationals queuing at the Refugee Centre in Marabastad, Pretoria. 

That’s it. Invite visitors to enter our proxy national space in Venice, invite them to sit, to look, to see nothing, and in that recognise something about our national character right now. A deep void.

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Sean O Toole
Sean O’Toole is writer and editor based in Cape Town. He has published two books, Irma Stern: African in Europe - European in Africa (2020) and The Marquis of Mooikloof and Other Stories (2006), as well as edited three volumes of essays, most recently The Journey: New Positions on African Photography (2020). His essays, cultural journalism and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times.

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