Years ago, when the writer and his family were living in Washington, his wife was part of a committee addressing the then-vexed question of how to best internationalise the local school curriculum. This particular school had many children from around the world attending it, but the curriculum content seemed thoroughly rooted in the local, with rather less acknowledgement of the global.
One night, this committee met at the home of one of its members. It was a normal suburban house, nothing special from the outside; nothing appreciably different from thousands of other middle-class homes in the Washington area. But upon entering, one was immediately confronted by two very large canvases depicting Venice’s St Marks Square. Early morning was on one wall, and there was that same plaza lit by late afternoon sunlight on the other wall. Our host gave a quick smile and said what he must have said so many times before. “Yes, yes they are his paintings – they have been in our family for centuries.” Oh, of course, it’s normal to have a pair of perfectly matched paintings by Canaletto in the hallway of suburban Washington home – Venice in the suburbs.
Canaletto, of course, was Venice’s leading painter of the city’s panoramas for much of the 17th century, documenting its plazas and squares, its many churches and its evocative vistas towards the lagoon. His paintings became a prized souvenir from the European “Grand Tour” taken by so many ambitious sons of British nobility and the scions of the new merchant and business class. In making such purchases, they helped set the archetypal image of La Serenissima in the European mind – an attitude that lives on into the present. From what was essentially a small town built on a swamp on the northern Italian coastline, Venice has achieved an outsized place in Western culture and history. It was the world’s foremost mercantile republican empire for centuries, the naval terror of the Mediterranean, and home base for merchant-explorers who followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo.
The city hosts the illustrious La Fenice opera house (or at least its newest incarnation after being rebuilt several times), dozens of art collections in galleries and churches, and famous craft artisanal traditions. It became the home of illustrious expatriates like art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and it has served as the setting for great dramas and operas – The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Death in Venice (based on the Thomas Mann novel), to name just a few. And, of course there is always the phrase, “See Venice and die”, to help locate the place for us metaphorically for eternity.
The Venice Biennale began in 1895. It originally was part of the great wave of popular world’s fairs – only it would be a fair with a difference – recurring and eschewing modern industrial developments. In Venice’s case, participating nations could show off their unique architectural (and later artistic) developments in a great tide of work from the rest of the world. Over time, the Venice Biennale has evolved into one of the world’s most prestigious – and most lavish international art shows.
This 2013 show is the 55th version of the festival that occurs every other year on the odd-numbered years. The 2011 edition, for example, had some 88 participating nations – this year, maybe it will reach beyond that total. Venice’s venerable Arsenale building is the venue for many of the national exhibitions, while the rest are installed in pavilions in the Gardini (or Gardens) and a few other sites throughout the city. This year’s exhibition begins 1 June and runs through 24 November.
“Il Palazzo Enciclopedico/ The Encyclopaedic Palace” is the overarching theme for this year’s biennale that was selected by Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the 2013 biennale. Gioni, discussing the biennale’s history, says, “Klimt showed there in 1905. That is mind-blowing to me. Since then there has been Morandi and Picasso, Rauschenberg, Johns and so on. Maybe I’m romanticising, but the past is still very present.”
South Africa’s participation in the 2011 exhibition had been a particularly controversial one – less over the works on display than about the way they had been selected. After the choices had been announced, many artists and arts curators around the country had argued that the exhibition organiser, a prominent Johannesburg gallery owner, had only selected his own stable of artists to be South Africa’s representatives and that the contract had been let without public knowledge.
This time around, on behalf of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival as contractor for the exhibition, Brenton Maart has curated the country’s entry, entitled, “Imaginary Fact – Contemporary South African Art and the Archive”. The initial selections received better press, even though there was some criticism of the relative paucity of female artists and the lack of performance installations.
Brent Meersman, writing in the Mail & Guardian about this year’s process, said, “There is a sense of relief and a restrained consensus among the arts community that this year South Africa will go to the Venice Biennale (the 55th International Art Exhibition) with its head held high. The history of the country’s participation in one of the foremost and biggest windows in the art world has been a fraught affair. Ostracised for decades due to Apartheid, South Africa returned to Venice in 1993. Ivor Powell, writing in the Mail & Guardian, described the  presentation ‘as a salad of South African art under Apartheid; though much of the art was of real quality, the exhibition as a whole lacked perspective and curatorial intent’. South Africa participated again in 1995 under the curatorship of Malcolm Payne. A long lull followed until 2011, when Johannesburg art dealer Monna Mokoena obtained the contract to represent the country. Claims of a lack of transparency regarding the expenditure and practices involved in South Africa’s participation sparked some controversy, however, which left parts of the arts community outraged and led to the matter being discussed in Parliament.” Ouch – artists and arts being controversial – who knew?
The organisers of this year’s entry argue that while in the Apartheid past, South African art was often a vehicle for political resistance, post-1994, “artistic expression shifted towards an exploration of issues of identity, with race and gender gaining prominence”. Maart explains the aesthetic that informed his selections for the current exhibition, saying, “To understand how and why histories continue to impact on the world today, contemporary South African artists are turning to the archive, and the chronicles of history become the building blocks for creative action. Working with archives in a creative ways allows the artist to create work with the potential to (de)construct ideologies, and thus change the course of our contemporary world. In South Africa, specifically, artists may therefore be seen as activists in the evolution of democracy, and it is this evolution that is explored in Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive.”
Maart adds, “It was a conscious decision to have a big group show because it is part of our introduction back into the Venice Biennale… The interrogation of a unique combination of colonialism and the added burden of Apartheid… South African cultural products are unlike any others, and it’s reflected in this exhibition not only through an astonishing materiality, but also through the conceptual concerns of a radically diverse group of contemporary artists and their spectrum of experiences.”
Artists in the show include Wim Botha with his high concept plays on the real and imagined lexicon, while Joanne Bloch explores the sometimes-illusive issue of value in relation to archival object collections. Sue Williamson draws on the ubiquitous passbook to portray its indignity, and Penny Siopis comments on the nature of belonging in her digital video about Dimitrios Tsafendas, the man who killed then prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.
The creative trio of Gerhard Marx, Maja Marx and Philip Miller have looked back at the circumstances of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission through an installation of seven films from their theatre piece, Rewind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony. David Koloane’s contribution is a collection of drawings also inspired by the TRC, although his specifically deal with Steve Biko’s capture, interrogation, detention, death and autopsy.
Meanwhile, Sam Nhlengethwa’s Glimpses of the Fifties and Sixties offers 30 collages and mixed media works that speak to events like the Sharpeville Massacre and the Rivonia Trial, as well as more quotidian events like football games, weddings and school life in the townships. Andrew Putter presents a series of black-and-white portraits of contemporary black South Africans wearing “traditional” costume in a critique of subjects typically viewed by “white” South Africans as wild, sub-human, and primitive.
Cameron Platter’s work reflects a “younger generation with new and evolving artistic concerns” that critiques contemporary South African popular culture. James Webb translates and transforms T Rex’s 1972 glam rock hit, Children of the Revolution, into a South African protest song for choir. Most controversially (for some, perhaps), Zanele Muholi will exhibit her entire photographic archive, Faces and Phases. Muholi’s work – focusing mostly on lesbian imagery – was the subject of a blistering public tirade by the previous Department of Arts and Culture minister.
In addition to this exhibition in the Sale D’Armi in the Arsenale, Venetian authorities have now agreed to permit a series of public performances in various spots throughout Venice by performance artist/choreographers. For this part of South Africa’s participation, Athi-Patra Ruga, Donna Kukama, and Nelisiwe Xaba. Kukama will adapt existing work specifically for the biennale.
Before the participating artists departed for Europe at the end of May, the Daily Maverick spoke with Sam Nhlengethwa and David Koloane, two men who might be termed the “elder statesmen” of the new wave of artists who had moved light years beyond the artistic confines of “township art” – starting in the 1960s and 70s. Sam Nhlengethwa studied at the Rorke’s Drift Art Centre in Natal and later taught and worked at the Federated Union of Black Artists and the Johannesburg Art Foundation, and he is a cofounder of the Bag Factory artists’ cooperative in Fordsburg, all in Johannesburg. Nhlengethwa’s work is widely collected in major galleries, museums and private collections in South Africa and abroad.
Asked if this Venice exhibition is carrying too much freight, if there is too much of a high concept effort going on, he replies emphatically, “No! It feels good. The African continent [and especially South Africa] has been isolated [artistically] for some time, while sports is the priority for mixing with the world. So, I feel honoured.” Does he believe his works selected represent are too much of a kind of pained nostalgia and he responds, “If you go down memory lane, it is a mixture of things, people still not getting justice; the miners were one of those things that really touched my heart. And thereafter jazz, it’s my other passion.”
While his work that has been selected for this show does not specifically have the jazz sensibility that so much of his more recent work does, he says while this work is not about jazz, nevertheless, at the same time, it is “not purely about the suffering. Forgetting about the oppression, there was a sense of style and quality, the clothes, the furniture, the cars and we are still going back to refer to them.”
The conversation turns to his early work as a set painter and designer for television and how it influenced his work over the years. He explains with an astonishing metaphor that such an act of creation is very similar to a golfer making a long put. “One gets so tense focusing, it is like a golfer putting into a hole. There are multiple ideas to get this one thing accomplished… A set design when it goes on TV, the public is watching. It is wow or woe.”
Over the years, Nhlengethwa has become well known for his accomplished work as a collage artist, as well as a painter. “Collage is something I never thought would take me to where I am now. Bill Ainslie [the artist and founder of the Johannesburg Art Foundation who died in a car crash in 1989 on a return from an arts workshop in Zimbabwe] showed me works by Romare Bearden. It was ‘wow!’ and I never looked back.”
As for that jazz sensibility so strong in so much of his work, he says, that he came from a family where his elder brother was a jazz musician and this jazz-connected work is a kind of “homage” to him. “He could say, ‘The tune is not on, this painting is not on. That is how I learned about Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus. There is a special room in my house for my music – I have 7,000 vinyls.”
We talk about Bill Ainslie’s influence and Nhlengethwa says of him, “Unfortunately, he passed on early. Bill Ainslie, to me, I never saw anyone like him. He embraced artists from the townships. He was like a father to us. When at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, I felt as if there was no Apartheid in South Africa.” We talk about the sometimes-voiced criticism that Ainslie led his younger charges away from their natural inclinations to do their township art and Nhlengethwa forcefully disagrees, even now. The places where Ainslie taught, “It was like a massive space to experiment with freedom. None of the artists lost their own style. It taught us something new.” It was always, “Move a step forward, try this.”
In allegiance to that ideal, he adds that Ainslie’s example has informed him as well, as in his efforts with David Koloane and Pat Mautloa to set up the active artists’ cooperative, “The Bag Factory”, in downtown Johannesburg. And of the upcoming week in Venice? A big laugh followed by, “I am gonna find some place for more jazz vinyls!”
There was also time for a conversation with David Koloane. David is also a veteran of the Johannesburg Art Foundation and Fuba, and his work is now held by all the major museums in the country – and in a growing number of collections abroad. When asked about the origins of his work selected for the Venice show, he says it is work done for the Museum of African Art in New York City based around the TRC and statements by former security police. “This inspired me to do something around this after many years, when nobody knew what had happened… about the human condition that happened when one was stopped at a road block…”
Photo: SA – David Koloane – The Journey (a series of 16 drawings) 1998 Acrylic and oil pastel 29 x 42 cm_014
Koloane shrugs off the idea of being an elder statesman of the art world – although he has reached a still very creative 74. He laughs and says, “I never think about such things when I am working, I just continue from where I have left off. I just see it as a progression. I just do what I’m doing. How they [the critics] locate it; that is up to them. Sometimes people try to say I belong to the old saga of the Polly Street [a famous early art school dedicated to working with black artists] era – 50 years ago.” He smiles. It’s been a long road for him.
As to the texture of his work, sometimes so very abstract, he says about it that “now it is a combination of abstraction and realism in locating my images”. Actually, he wonders, “What is abstract in art? In order to express anything you have to abstract it. To say it is realistic, you have to abstract it to bring out the realistic elements.”
With Koloane too, the name of Bill Ainslie comes up. Koloane responds forcibly to the criticism Ainslie encouraged artists to go for abstract expressionism rather than the so-called more “authentic” township art style. He says, “It was the primary discourse of that time when we were expected to do township work, black work, rather than work done by any artist. Moving into areas we didn’t understand. One doesn’t consciously say, ‘now I am doing abstract, now I am doing something else’. The analogy is to singing. You sing.” You reject this categorisation? “Precisely. I don’t worry about the critics because I can go for years without reading a review of my work. I enjoy not having to look over my shoulder.”
As to how and where he draws his inspirations, he says, “Travel has been the best education in my life. I started when I was well into my 40s and until that time I had a myopic view of the world. The US was a glamorous country of dreams, a freedom we might never realise in this country. But once I started traveling, I met people I never dreamt I would meet like [the late] printmaker, Robert Blackburn, in New York City. The first prints I made were in his studio. Romare Bearden began doing his prints there. This made me see the importance of prints. I like the process – it is closer to my painting. Easy to abstract, it gave me more freedom – the freedom in painting I found in printmaking too.”
When he travelled, “I met artists like Robert Rauschenberg and others and they took me to jazz clubs. I met Dumile Feni [South Africa’s great exiled artist, sometimes called the Goya of the Townships] and we went off to a nightclub, and there was Bill Evans rehearsing. The more I travelled the more certain I was about my work. We started the Thupelo Project [an offshoot of the Johannesburg Art Foundation]; I had this wealth of experience and I had to share it.”
In thinking about the time under Apartheid, Koloane agrees that through a strange, weird alchemy, it bred tough artists – at least those that survived. “Knowing that there was always an objective, it made you stronger. I came back in 1985, one of the darkest periods. I had a mission and an objective – I had something to share. We have more options now than we used to have. We had no options then. You capitulated or you became braver.” Looking back, it is one very fine thing so many artists never gave in – and that, now, their work will anchor this country’s participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale. DM
Main photo: Sam Nhlengethwa – Migrant Labourers. 2003. Original Photo collage 50 x 38 cm Courtesy of Daniel Stefan Ferreira – from the series Glimpses from the Fifties and sixties
"The man who cannot visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot." ~ André Breton