Arts and minds: Not that sinking feeling again

10 January 2017 - 10:17 By Michael Smith

For a country to crawl out of, and perennially be dragged back into, a past riven with traumatic divisions, and then to attempt to stage art exhibitions under a unifying national banner seems to be setting itself up for failure.

Unfortunately, failure and discontent have seldom been far from South Africa's participation at the Venice Biennale, the largest non-commercial international art event in the world. The sprawling exhibition is over 120 years old, and has survived world wars, the fascism of Mussolini and sea water that, since 2012, has been known to be rising five times faster than previously thought.

It's odd, then, that nationalism would be one of its enduring challenges. Much of the tension stems from the historical arrangement of the exhibition. Since its beginning in 1895, the show has grown to include 30 national pavilions, dedicated to mainly European countries and housed in the Giardini, as well as venues that temporarily house exhibitions from countries that do not own a national pavilion. The implied power dynamics are obvious: historical allies of Italy have prime spots; the rest make do with what they get. Efforts to disturb the inherent Eurocentricism have seldom gone far enough.

WAR AND PEACE: Mohau Modisakeng in action Picture: COURTESY OF MOHAU MODIKASENG

Artists, however, can be tricky creatures, not always happy to go along with these ideas of national identity. In 1993, German artist Hans Haacke dug up the floor of the German Pavilion and exhibited it as Germania. Wanton destruction, you may think? Maybe. But since Haacke was in fact destroying the floor which Adolf Hitler's Nazi government had insisted be laid during a 1938 refurbishment, he was clearly attacking the idea of nationhood and the brutal history upon which it often rests.

The immediate history of South Africa's participation in the Biennale seems to reflect different issues with nationhood; corruption, mismanagement and a general sense of disorganisation have attended our presence there. In 2011, the South African Pavilion came under intense scrutiny for unethical procedures.


Gallerist Monna Mokoena was commissioned by the National Arts Council to curate the SA show, but two of the four artists chosen, Lyndi Sales and Mary Sibande, were from Mokoena's own stable. Mokoena's decision was an obvious ethical misstep: an artist's selection for Venice can bump up their price tags, and murmured accusations of an "insider trading" strategy followed.

The funding of the 2011 South African contingent also drew the ire of critics; the DA lists in its archives a number of suspicious expense amounts attached to the show, including R3.5-million on advertising costs and, unbelievably, R1-million in social media marketing costs. R1-million worth of Facebook advertising in 2011 would have created ubiquity, but few art industry insiders here saw much mention of the show at all.

By 2015, we seemed not to have learned our lesson; the names of South African artists participating in that edition were announced less than a month before the event, and as such were excluded from the Biennale's official press releases and advertising. South African artists and curators rushed to cobble together a show that would inevitably be panned for its incoherence.

However, things are looking up for our representation at the 2017 Biennale. Well ahead of schedule, Lucy MacGarry, previously curator of the 2016 Joburg Art Fair, has been announced as curator of SA's Venice exhibition. She will be assisted by Musha Neluheni, contemporary curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Also, two solid artists have been selected to represent SA: Candice Breitz, whose residence in Berlin will bring a diasporic perspective to the show; and Mohau Modisakeng, who works in video, photography and installation, and who uses his body to explore the violence of our nation's history and its impact on black, male identity.

MacGarry is excited about both artists' installation-based work (Breitz has for more than two decades, as Artforum magazine stated in 2013, "delve[d] into the nature of identity production through the circuits of mass media").

Maybe keying into the Biennale's overall theme of "Viva Arte Viva!", which seeks to put the focus once again on the personal and idiosyncratic worlds that artists create, will be a way for curator and artists to sidestep the pitfalls of nationalism and also transcend the difficulties of the past.

We watch with interest.