Portia Malatjie
Portia Malatjie
Image: Lerato Maduna

Venice, Italy will host the 60th iteration of La Biennale Di Venezia, or the Venice Biennale from April 20 to November 24. For one of the most significant biennial showcases of visual art globally, this year’s Venice Biennale title, Foreigners Everywhere, (Stranieri Ovunque) can be read as an outright instigation to consider and reconsider migration and how the art world reflects on the geopolitical elephant in the gallery.

The SA Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is one of the flagship cultural diplomacy initiatives by the country celebrating 30 years of democracy in 2024. Quiet Ground, the SA Pavilion’s contribution to this year’s Biennale, responded to the Biennale’s overall theme with an immersive exhibition anchored by a sound installation that reflects on the locality of South Africans’ relationship with land, showing how the experiences of displacement and rebuilding relationships with it has reverberated domestically.

“MADEYOULOOK,” the artist collaboration between Molemo Moiloa and Nare Mokgotho, created Dinokana, an eight-channel sound installation which will be the main feature of the exhibition.

The curator of the 2024 SA Pavilion, Dr Portia Malatjie, works as an academic and educator at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. Malatjie has curated some of the most iconic exhibitions of SA art in the past decade, including “When Rainclouds Gather: Black South African Women Artists, 1940-2000” at the Norval Foundation, which included works by Noria Mabasa, Esther Mahlangu, Helen Sebidi and others. She is currently an Adjunct Curator of Africa and African Diaspora at the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational at Tate Modern (London) alongside her teaching and research work.

How does one become the curator of the SA Pavilion at the Venice Biennale?

There isn’t necessarily an “SA Pavilion”. The people who win the bid become the SA Pavilion. It is funded by department of sports, arts and culture, but conceptually, creatively, thematically, you just run with it. They trust that you’ll have the experience to carry out the pavilion as best you can. You have free reign to work with the space creatively. As the curator you are meant to conceptualise what the exhibition is going to be. I suppose because you have to select the artists as well, you have to think in terms of what would work. The theme for the overall Biennale is “Foreigners Everywhere”, and essentially the curator is playing around with ideas of foreignness in a global arena, also focusing on ideas of migrancy which is something that is quite current in today’s climate.

What was that process like?

I started thinking about ideas of foreignness and ideas of being and belonging, and tied that to ideas of land, especially in the context of SA. Whenever one thinks of foreignness, one thinks of cross border ideas of foreignness and alienation, especially in SA where it’s super rife. There was a desire to focus on the idea that South Africans feel foreign in situ. Thinking of the history of SA, obviously ideas of forced migration, of displacement come to mind, and how that has dictated how Black people get socialised and how they move through land. There was also a desire to focus not only on the negative aspects of relationship to land. There certainly are beautiful quotidian experiences and relations that people have with land. Finding a place in your homestead where you appease your ancestors, for instance. There’s a prominent relationship between land and spirituality. I also wanted to signal to other forms of engaging with land that are not always violent.

How did you choose MADEYOULOOK as the artist(s) you wanted work with on this?

I thought of MADEYOULOOK because their practice, in some instances, is concerned with ideas of land. Their approach to it is interesting because they do the work of moving beyond the violence. In addition to focusing on SA landscapes, they also speak about ideas of land rehabilitation. It was that moment of how does one rehabilitate the land, but how does one rehabilitate one’s relationship to the land that I found compelling.

You are currently installing the work at the physical SA Pavilion space. Can you describe how you planned for it to look, and feel?

What was quite pertinent was having an immersive experience of the work and of the space. One other thing that I enjoy and that made me choose MADEYOULOOK and their practice is whenever they have an exhibition or when they participate in a show, you find that it it’s one installation or one artwork that takes over their gallery space. I wanted the idea of having one artist, in this case they are a collaboration, represent the space. I thought it would be a good model to start testing out for the SA Pavilion as opposed to having two or more artists.

As you enter the space, you engage with one artwork that has a lot of components to it. There is a certain contemplative mood that I wanted to achieve. We’re doing lighting at the moment and that plays a part in how the installation comes alive.

One of the pillars of this year’s Pavilion is “Land as Classroom”. How do you present your thoughts on this topic in the exhibition?

It’s essentially understanding that the land itself has subjectivity, the land has agency, the land holds memory, the land remembers the people who have passed through it in a particular moment or a particular place. Because of the memory that it holds, it is able to disseminate knowledge, not only because our ancestors embed knowledge in the land, but I’m trying to understand the land as its own entity and having its own abilities. “Land as Classroom” is about what we can learn if we listened to the land. This is where the idea of Quiet Ground comes through, trying to focus on listening practices as a form of learning.

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