South Africa’s participation in the Venice Biennale is marred by political exclusion during apartheid and, nowadays, the controversy about how the tender to produce the South African Pavilion is awarded. This year it was won by Connect TV, managed by Basetsana Kumalo. The curatorial process is a different story. Writer and art critic Same Mdluli speaks in an email conversation to Lucy MacGarry, the curator of the South African Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, which opens on May 13. They touch on artist selection, the relevance of biennales and audience access to such spaces.
South Africa’s participation in the 57th Venice Biennale is made possible by a tender process mandated by the department of arts and culture. What was the brief and how does your team hope to fulfil these requirements?
With the exception of participating in 1950, 1966 and 1968, South Africa has only participated in the Venice Biennale for the past four consecutive iterations since 2011. We did take part in 1993 and 1995 but concerns around the significant budget required, the lack of a permanent exhibition space in Venice and other understandable priorities during our first years of democracy then led to a number of years of nonparticipation.
Recently, securing a space on a long-term lease from the Biennale Foundation in a very central location in the Arsenal has made things much easier from a practical standpoint, and one of our key objectives — as the appointed organisers for 2017 — has been to keep production costs as low as possible to avoid unnecessary spending.
This has been one of our many approaches to try to secure the South African Pavilion as a critical project in the minds of the South African public and to gain ongoing support from the department of arts and culture.
We also believe that the strength of our proposal lay in the diverse experience of the project team, our moving, image-based curatorial concept and the selection of only two leading artists — Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng.
As we know, art has the ability to transcend cultural differences, which is what makes it a powerful tool. The department’s vision is to create a dynamic, vibrant and transformed arts, culture and heritage sector, leading nation building through social cohesion and socioeconomic inclusion.
South Africa’s bilateral political and economic relations with Italy are strong and there is a growing interest in South Africa as an investment destination. So, international cultural activities such as the biennale strengthen these relationships and enable the careers of our artists to flourish beyond the confines of our local art industry.
Often referred to as the “Olympics of the art world”, the Venice Biennale is more than 100 years old and is the largest and most respected global platform for presenting the work of contemporary visual artists. Thus it is an incredible privilege to realise a project of international significance with artists of this calibre.
It has often been left up to each nation to have its view of who can best represent its cultural and artistic values. We need to consider how these choices and selections are made. Can you elaborate on how the two entities (production and curatorial) speak to one another in terms of the vision and mission?
We have an awareness of previous challenges, but this year the department made their appointment well in advance, allowing us the benefit of time to plan and produce an outstanding exhibition. It should also be mentioned that this year’s project represents the first commissioning of a large-scale, purpose-made work for the pavilion, which sets a great example for future public sector support.
But the composition of our team has also been crucial as a means to undo some of the issues you allude to. As such, we have come together as an experienced local production company, with accomplished curators and project managers with first-hand experience of the biennale.
Connect Channel has aimed to make the Pavilion accessible to the South African public via an amplified public relations and social media campaign.
As curator, with the assistance of Musha Neluheni, I have had the opportunity of curating the FNB Jo’burg Art Fair, while Neluheni is acting chief curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the gallery’s curator for contemporary collections.
On the production side of things, Parts & Labour managed the installation of the 2015 South African Pavilion in Venice. And, of course, Breitz and Modisakeng have invaluable experience in realising exhibitions of scale both locally and abroad.
In terms of our practical approach, a retrospective view of previous biennales shows explicit evidence of the strength of an immersive installation by one or two artists versus an exhaustive, curated group exhibition.
The most compelling shows one remembers from Venice are most often singular, momentous and moving. Hence, narrowing the selection down to a maximum of two artists became fundamental to creating a compelling experience that is immersive for the viewer as well as an attempt to challenge notions of applied inclusion and representation redolent in our large group shows of legacy on the international stage.
Experimental film provides a captivating environment for viewers, and it was with a specific thematic approach and the intention of creating a kind of cinematic experience that Breitz and Modisakeng were invited to collaborate. By presenting only one work by each artist, the exhibition becomes the medium, where the interior space becomes a coherent object or scripted experience that is inviting and absorbing.
In events such as the biennale, nations tend to choose in accordance with the politics of the time and the message they are trying to convey to the world about themselves. What would you say the artists selected for this year’s biennale convey about the moment that South Africa is in, if at all?
In a globalised art market, the Venice Biennale is one of the few contemporary art instances where nationalism does come into play. But this is a legacy issue and there is an interesting history of how it has been approached by artists and, in many instances, corrupted.
For example, in 2012 Germany selected Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, Indian artist Dayanita Singh, South African artist Santu Mofokeng and French-German artist Romuald Karmakar as a means to articulate how the cultural landscape of Germany is determined by different religions, economies and politics.
This year, Sharon Lockhart is an American artist representing the Polish Pavilion. Attacking the idea of nationhood and the history on which it often rests, German artist Hans Haacke dug up the floor of the German Pavilion in 1994 and exhibited it as Germania. So for us, it is important to critique the idea of representing one’s country. We can only hope instead to achieve a clear representation of our vision for the exhibition.
That said, South Africa is at an important crossroads and poised to radically transform. But for this to happen, we need to truly consider the everyday effects of the discriminatory system and society in which we live.
Artists like Breitz and Modisakeng require moments of stillness of their audiences. Their works stop time to move forward, inviting us to interrogate the subjectivity of history and our own experiences of the present.
Breitz and Modisakeng began their careers at very different junctures of the contemporary South African art scene. Breitz left South Africa in the early years of democracy to live in Europe. Modisakeng is part of a younger generation of artist whose work is more easily identifiable with the post-apartheid context that moves away from notions of “rainbowism”. I think Breitz’s work negates the post-apartheid context for reasons tied, in part, to her diasporic relationship to Africa and South Africa. Were there considerations of the historical and artistic backgrounds of these artists, and why is their work being presented alongside each other?
For me and my co-curator Musha Neluheni, the biennale presented a rare opportunity to exhibit experimental works of scale that challenge stereotypes of African representation.
We were almost immediately drawn to the work of Breitz and Modisakeng as artists who share a fascination with identity, and with the moving image as a nexus through which to explore the potential ofstorytelling.
As a white person growing up in South Africa during the last years of apartheid, Breitz formed a profound awareness of the way that external structures (institutional, linguistic and representational) can limit and define individual experience. In subsequent work, she extended her fascination with influences of identity construction to the global landscape of the entertainment industry.
For Modisakeng, growing up in Soweto meant that his very South Africanness came to define his practice that seeks to reshape black identity by using his own body as a vessel and a signifier alongside a personal lexicon of ritual and symbolism.
Their biographical contexts, Modisakeng being based in South Africa versus Breitz’s experience as an artist of the diaspora, is in fact key to the exhibition’s conceptual approach. And it is precisely questions around the legitimacy of participation that the curatorial intention is trying to challenge.
In working closely with the artists to select and commission specific works for the pavilion, it was important for us to be conversant with the local and the now while being simultaneously engaged in more inclusive and expansive dialogue beyond the South African context.
The resultant installation, when read collectively, manifests as personal and universal stories of forced migration. These are stories of exclusion that correspond with colonial history and very real contemporary situations in Europe, the United States and South Africa. Without divulging any more before the pavilion is officially launched on May 10, I will say that the works are multilayered, affecting and beautifully filmed.
Modisakeng’s work depicts the desires and anxieties of a violent yet disturbing stillness in a state of being. His work is clearly rooted in the South African context in terms of how it interrogates this through the relationship between photography and self-representation. He has also navigated South Africa’s sociopolitical landscape, albeit through motifs and means that function out of necessity to create “new” spaces and/or reflect on potential “new” practices that grapple with traditional art criticism. How does a platform like the biennale create a discursive space between these “new” practices and how they encourage a deeper understanding of contemporary African art and its place in the international arena?
Without sufficient state-funded institutional support for the arts in South Africa, there is by and large an overarching commercial model that guides our local and international market. This unfortunately engenders a kind of work that freezes African practice in a particular mode.
Exhibitions like the biennale offer opportunities for rare critical engagement by showing experimental work and bringing new voices into the arena. Hopefully this will broaden the conversation and educate international audiences about the dynamic and complex nature of artists coming from this geographic location.
From a wider perspective, South Africa is one of only six African countries that will have pavilions at this year’s event. Acknowledging that the visibility of African countries remains limited, our participation is critical for encouraging fellow African countries to take part and represent their own stories, artists and creative excellence on the global stage.
The dynamics that large-scale exhibitions present can be seen in how there were only two Johannesburg Biennale (in 1995 and in 1997). On the other hand there is an emergence of art fairs that, although centred on similar frameworks, do not necessarily serve the same purpose. This has changed perceptions of the South African art market, where there is now a tendency among artists to exhibit more in shows outside the country and the continent than inside. Are biennales necessary today, especially in the context of the digital age?
Biennales remain a crucial part of the art ecosystem — as an opportunity for major projects to be realised and for professionals from around the world to engage. Although they are noncommercial in nature, they can also have a tremendous impact on the careers of artists. Acknowledgement is most often followed by a surge in demand for a given artist’s work and, consequently, an increase in the value of their work.
With an estimated attendance of 500 000 visitors, the Venice Biennale is the granddaddy of the global biennial circuit and therefore carries with it critical weight and responsibility.
Having an ongoing presence at the biennale is crucial in terms of being part of a global conversation that isn’t exclusively market-driven. By having a strong pavilion, we hope to bring attention to South Africa as being at the forefront of contemporary art.
A question around audiences is critical, given that this is a government-funded initiative. One criticism the biennale has faced is how it benefits South Africans who know little about art but will drive to the airport to welcome a national sports team. It’s a question of accessibility. What are the different ways audiences can access information about South Africa’s participation, and who are you targeting?
We have drawn on Connect Channel’s production resources and robust local network to engage local audiences in the pavilion project. Connect is a digital content and television production company managed by Basetsana Kumalo and, over the past three years, the company has acquired a great deal of experience in producing television shows of cultural relevance to a broad South African audience.
Having access to this broader audience through our social media campaign has been a real win for the pavilion and, in terms of the local art industry, we’ve enjoyed a fantastic turnout at each of our media launches in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
We’ve also been overwhelmed by the number of South Africans who are travelling to Venice to attend the opening.
The Venice Biennale begins on May 13 and ends on November 26. Same Mdluli is an artist, art historian and writer living in Johannesburg. She holds a PhD in art history and is currently a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand division of history of art and heritage management