It’s been called the Olympics of the art world; La Biennale di Venezia, as it is known in its home country, is the oldest art biennale in the world, having been established in 1855. It is also the only art biennale for which South African artists and curators receive funding from the Department of Arts and Culture. It is the 58th edition of its International Art Exhibition in 2019, this time titled May You Live in Interesting Times.
Says Paolo Baratta, the biennale’s president: “The title of this exhibition could be interpreted as a sort of curse, where the expression ‘interesting times’ evokes the idea of challenging or even ‘menacing’ times, but it could also simply be an invitation to always see and consider the course of human events in their complexity, an invitation, thus, that appears to be particularly important in times when, too often, oversimplification seems to prevail, generated by conformism or fear. And I believe that an exhibition of art is worth our attention, first and foremost, if it intends to present us with art and artists as a decisive challenge to all oversimplifying attitudes.”
This year, the biennale opens on Saturday, 11 May and runs until 24 November. South Africa is represented by three artists: Tracey Rose, Mawande Ka Zenzile and Dineo Seshee Bopape, at the South African Pavilion, which the Department of Arts and Culture has had on a 20-year lease since 2011.
Preparations for the biennale typically start almost a year before the opening, when the title is announced. Curators then work on their proposals for funding from the department. The winning proposal for this year’s exhibition went to co-curators Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu.
“There was an open call for the tenders in July, then it was cancelled. And then it reopened around about end-November, early-December. We applied before it closed again on 21 December. And we officially found out on 14 February that our proposal was accepted. We informed the artists that same week. All we had was two months to get the show together,” says Makhubu.
The pair have collaborated on other projects in the past, as well as worked on their respective curatorial projects. Both also play key roles at the University of Cape Town, where Makhubu, an award-winning artist herself, is a senior lecturer of art history, and Mabaso is the curator of the university’s Michaelis Galleries. “We’ve worked with the three artists before so it made sense for us to sort of continue what has sort of been a long, ongoing intellectual engagement with their work,” says Makhubu, explaining the thinking behind their choice of artists for the exhibition at the South African Pavilion.
They have titled it The Stronger We Become, a reference to Something Inside So Strong, a 1987 song by British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre. “He wrote that song in response to footage he saw on a TV broadcast of police violence during apartheid South Africa. So it made sense for us, it hit the right notes, to kind of make sense of what is happening in South Africa now. We often think that our problems are exceptional and that they are just South African. The song not only reminded us that during apartheid there was a global movement that helped the resistance against apartheid, but also that even now, activism is a global movement, we are affected globally. Hence it made sense for us to engage with the notion of social resilience,” says Mabaso.
“The Stronger We Become is a trialogue about resilience. The artists probe the politics of self-determination, situated-ness, political displacement and epistemic violence. Resilience – in our time – has become conspicuously inexorable. Under the weight of our complex histories, being resilient is the capacity and the will to resist,” reads the curatorial statement on the exhibition’s dedicated website.
“We’re interested in these artists because of the questions that they raise, the kinds of thinking that they require or demand from us as we engage with their work in relation to pertinent questions in South Africa. Mawande with his questioning of knowledges and epistemes and so on. And Dineo’s invocations through her installations of land… and spirituality… and the knowledge of traditional systems. Then there’s Tracey’s gender-bending and confrontational kind of positionality that also draws in some ways from different histories that are maybe not very evident,” explains Makhubu.
With this exhibition, as well as other exhibitions on which the duo have collaborated, they are adamant that their focus is not on rewriting or rehashing the past.
“We like to focus on rewriting the future, we’re not interested in cleaning up the past. We work on things that excite us no matter how quirky they may be. We want something that’s fulfilling and makes us happy to see it. And hopefully makes other people happy too, because it is fulfilling to us,” says Mabaso.
Following the notion of a trialogue as described in the show’s curatorial statement, the curators describe the layout of the exhibition as conversational and immersive. Says Makhubu:
“When you walk into the space you encounter Mawande’s work almost at the same time (as) you encounter Tracey’s and Dineo’s work. And there’s a voiceover coming from Tracey’s work over the whole space, Mawande’s images lead you in and take you out at the end. You are never away from any of them throughout the whole space. There’s a rationality between the works.”
The process has not been without its challenges, the result of the delay by the Department of Arts and Culture in awarding the tender, leaving the team of curators, artists, producers and marketing people only two months to prepare and create new work, as well as the eventual handing over of the R2.9-million tender only two weeks before the opening, according to Makhubu and Mabaso. As a result, the catalogue for the show will now only be released in June, about a month after the opening.
“In general, something like this would be given a year to put together,” says Makhubu.
Then, of course, there’s the rand fluctuations, which has meant that the money is worth less than when they wrote the proposal in 2018.
“We have to make sure that we do what we said we would do with the money. We can’t really afford to deviate from what we said we would do from proposal to the actual realisation. So we’ve been really happy to have managed to realise the exhibition without much deviation. The changes that did happen were positive changes, in the sense that we initially proposed to use existing work from Mawande and Tracey. But in the end, we got new work from Tracey and two new works from Mawande, and of course Dineo made a new installation for this exhibition. In a sense, we have all-round brand-new works, which is very exciting. We didn’t anticipate that,” says Makhubu. ML
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