The South African Pavillion 

Every cultural form has its flagship event. There is Montreux for jazz, Glastonbury for contemporary music, Sundance for indie film, Bamako for African photography and Munich in October for those who think of beer as culture. For the visual arts, that event is the Venice Biennale. Its setting is a crowded Italian archipelago tenuously fending off oblivion in a salt lagoon fronting onto the Adriatic Sea.  As in the past, a guest curator was invited to curate the main exhibition and set a theme.

For Africans, and indeed South Africans, the selection of Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor has special significance. Although based in New York and currently the director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, Enwezor came to prominence based on his work placing Africa at the centre of global conversations about art. He is best known locally for curating the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997) and travelling photo exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid, which opened at Museum Africa last year.

Enwezor’s appointment as artistic director of the Venice Biennale is a milestone, one that needs to be understood in the broader context of history. Established in 1895, the same year Italy invaded Ethiopia – only to be repulsed by Emperor Menelik II’s military – the first Biennale attracted more than 200 000 visitors and included artists from 16 countries. African representation at the biennale, which in 2013 attracted over 400 000 visitors, dates back as far as the 1920s but has always been poor. The reasons are not simply economic.

Diane Victor’s Ashes to Ashes, 2015
Diane Victor’s Ashes to Ashes, 2015

In 1942, when a sales office was established at the Biennale to assist artists in finding clients and selling their work, African decolonisation had yet to begin. This year, 89 countries are participating, with South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe each hosting a national pavilion. Enwezor’s main exhibition – it is titled All the World’s Futures – has a fair number of African artists on it. More on that in a moment.  Interested in understanding the “current disquiet that 
pervades our time”, Enwezor has filled his display spaces with a worldly collection of things: sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, films and installations representing the labour of 136 artists from 53 countries. 

As an addendum to his fusty role as custodian of objects, Enwezor has cast himself as sculptor of ideas. As you read this, Karl Marx’s three-part volume Das Kapital (Capital, 1887) is being read out loud as a dramatic text in the Arena, a David Adjaye-designed auditorium inside the Central Pavilion of the Giardini. Here, a priestly caste of Marxist interpreters is recapitulating the meaning and application of words like “commodity” and “use value” (not without self-aware humour: “Materialism is materialism,” sighed Adrian Piper, winner of the Golden Lion for the Best Artist, during one such talk).

Joachim Schönfeldt’s Factory Drawings Drawn In Situ, 2010-15
Joachim Schönfeldt’s Factory Drawings Drawn In Situ, 2010-15

Don’t be fooled: Enwezor’s provocation is not as radical as might seem. Social activism and intellectual agitation are the twin hallmarks of the 120-year-old Venice Biennale. For example, it was only in 1968, the year protestors occupied the Giardini, among other things to protest against South Africa’s presence, that a sales ban on art was implemented. Up until then administrators facilitated sales and charged artists a 10% commission. 

Redefining Africa’s presence in Venice has proven far less easy. In 2001, Olu Oguibe (Nigeria) and Salah Hassan (Sudan) curated the group exhibition Authentic/Eccentric – Conceptualism in African Art. Staged at an offsite venue and co-curated by Emma Bedford of auction house Strauss & Co, then with the National Gallery, the exhibition featured works by, among others, Willem Boshoff, Berni Searle and Yinka Shonibare.

Writing in the preface to their catalogue, Oguibe and Hassan remarked on the difficulties facing Africa’s newly emergent wave of contemporary artists. “Their imagination has enabled them to present new viewpoints and fresh imagery about Africa and the African experience, much different from those routinely portrayed and recycled by foreign media and texts,” they wrote.

“Regardless of their artistic excellence and tireless efforts to showcase their abundant talent and to convey the personal and collective imagination of their changing societies, African and African diaspora artists and curators lamentably remain marginalised in a number of cultural platforms that could amplify their voices.”

Gerald Machona’s Ndiri Afronaut (I am an Afronaut) from 2012
Gerald Machona’s Ndiri Afronaut (I am an Afronaut) from 2012

That may have been true in 2001. Enwezor’s show confidently asserts the place of Africa, the continent and black Africans, be they from the continent or its many diaporas, in Venice. Aside from South Africans – mixedmedia artists Kaya Hasan and Joachim Schönfeldt, painter Marlene Dumas and photographer Mikhael Subotzky all appear on Enwezor’s show – All the World’s Futures includes a sculptural installation by Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo, a comic book narrative of travel and alienation by Nigerian draughtsman and designer Karo Akpokiere, short films and footballs covered in pages from the Bible by Malawi-born Samson Kambalu.

Enwezor’s worldly and confident exhibition also includes prominent African-American artists, among them the fascinating conceptualist Terry Adkins and social activist Theaster Gates. Chicago-based Gates, whose film on Enwezor’s show is set in a derelict church, completed a master’s degree in religious studies at UCT in the late 1990s. In an interview with US magazine Artforum, Enwezor spoke about some of the ideas that underpinned his show. One involved essaying “this moment of post-Westernism”.

Post what? “Post-Westernism has to do wit the scepticism in the non-Western world toward the essential wisdom that is the monopoly of the West,” he explains. Okay, that’s the theory. But what of the show, is it any good? Or is it, to borrow from Simon Schama in a recent Financial Times column, another example of “theory clotted higher drivel struggling to attach critical ballast to the lightweight and the forgettable”?

Good and bad are bland concepts to attach to Enwezor’s sprawling, ideas-rich and elegiac exhibition. It is brutal, to be sure, but ultimately engaging. It is ponderous and sometimes tips over into becoming affectless and deterministic in its essaying of the state of things, but singular works always pull you back to earth.

Marlene Dumas, from her series Skulls, 2013-15
Marlene Dumas, from her series Skulls, 2013-15

Like Egyptian painter and activist Inji Efflatoun’s devastatingly good oil works in hot orange and desert yellows, painted from the 1960s to her death in 1989, 
they pull you out of the mire of black, the Venice Biennale’s signature colour this year, into a world of abundant life and richness. 

The South African Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale deserves an award: for attendance. A month before the opening of the biennale it was still uncertain who would curate our national pavilion, this as government “procurement” processes delayed the selection of organisers to fill the first-floor space in Venice’s old military arsenal with art.

In the event, the Department of Arts and Culture, which has leased the exhibition venue until 2023, chose Jeremy Rose and Christopher Till to supervise the process. Both are linked to the Apartheid Museum, Till its director and Rose a part of the team of architects that designed this remarkable space in Johannesburg’s south.

But here’s the thing, while Till has serious chops as an art curator, having directed the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and Johannesburg Art Gallery, and Rose has a fine sense of architectural space, neither has in any meaningful way been part of the formation of the post-2000 contemporary art scene. Most of their recent projects have been in heritage. Their orchestration of The South African Pavilion reflects this. It is neatly laid out, the works efficiently displayed, a slick production all told.

Brett Murray’s film Triumph, 2015
Brett Murray’s film Triumph, 2015

But at the same time it feels informational and corporate, a potpourri of ideas and attitudes that would play well to NGO types at the UN or see-it-all-in-one-go visitors to the Apartheid Museum. Rose and Till’s show bears the title What Remains is  Tomorrow. Historically mindful and politically enquiring, it aims to survey the state of things. Our “violent and explosive” character, basically. Issues of history, memory, ritual, identity, labour, power, conflict and xenophobia are all essayed in this austere and conceptually messy exhibition.

Of the 14 artists selected, eight are white lefties on the grey side of 50 – or fadgets, to quote a 1983 song by éVoid. There are some well-known fadgets (Diane Victor, Jo Ractliffe, Willem Boshoff, Brett Murray and Jeremy Wafer) and some lesser-known fadgets, at least in terms of regular exhibitions (filmmaker Angus Gibson, musician and sound designer Warrick Sony and photographer Mark Lewis). The rainbow children, to borrow from a 2011 song by The Brother Moves On, comprise Nandipha Mntambo, Mohau Modisakeng, Gerald Machona, Serge Alain Ntigeka, Robin Rhode and Haroon Gunn-Salie.

Group shows necessarily invite statistical analysis. The South African Pavilion features two foreign nationals (Ntigeka and Machona), which is not an unusual idea. This year’s Belgian Pavilion, for instance, which also presents a group show, includes a fascinating sculptural work by Zimbabwe-born, Pietermaritzburg-raised artist James Beckett. National pavilions need not be parochial. Congratulations to Rose and Till on this count.

Haroon Gunn-Salie’s new sculpture, Soft Vengeance, 2015
Haroon Gunn-Salie’s new sculpture, Soft Vengeance, 2015
Karo Akpokiere, 2 Vigils and Nite Clubs, from series Lagos Drawings, 2013
Karo Akpokiere, 2 Vigils and Nite Clubs, from series Lagos Drawings, 2013

June 2015

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