Liese van Der Watt provides her insight into the South African Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, as well as an opinion about Africa’s presence at the “art Olympics” for 2015.
ABOVE: Installation view of ‘What Remains is Tomorrow,’ the South African Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy of the South African Pavilion.
The weekend I fly into Venice for the preview of the 56th Biennale is punctuated, strangely, by the birth of two babies: the one, royal, is born in gentle England and contrasts vividly with the other, a migrant girl, born on an Italian navy ship after her Nigerian mother went into labour during a rescue operation, not that far from Venice.
This, right here, must surely be one future that curator Okwui Enwezor had in mind when he titled the 56th Biennale ‘All the world’s futures,’ for in this stark juxtaposition of entitlement and marginalisation lies the core of what Enwezor, with characteristic articulacy, has called “the disquiet of our times.” And despite the fact that this disquiet of our world – the increasing concentration of capital, escalation of conflict, privatisation of space, ownership of labour – has become the topic de rigueur for much of contemporary art, leaving little space for the formalist self-referentiality of a previous era, Enwezor’s vision for his Biennale nevertheless managed to surprised some. In the many (and largely superficial) overviews that have emerged in the days after the opening of the Biennale, quite a few critics have described the show as “angry,” “political,” “didactic” and even in one case as “ugly.”
Of course, if one is familiar with Enwezor’s work, his vision for the Biennale should hardly be surprising. Back in 1997, when he curated the Johannesburg Biennale, he made it clear that for him the cutting edge in art “is measured by the degree to which artists pose durable questions,” and he has stayed true to this political vision in all the shows he curated subsequently. The artists he has chosen for his two shows at the Giardini and the Arsenale challenge us repeatedly to look at the world around us and the future we are creating.
For many critics, Enwezor’s credentials as the “first African curator” of the Biennale explained the inclusion of so many artists of African descent (36) and of so many who have never shown at the Biennale before. While it would seem that Enwezor’s Nigerian origins raised barbed expectations of an “otherness” still associated with Africa, there is nevertheless no doubt that his African roots provide a kind of unique code switching in the international art context in which he operates and where he is established. It is this ability – what I would call his semiotician’s eye, the propensity to translate visual themes into various contexts – that characterises this year’s Biennale above all in works that address issues of labour, capital, migrancy and displacement in very local and specific contexts, all the while gesturing to a broader global malaise.
While this global status of art and commentary is emphasised in Enwezor’s show, with many artists calling more than one place home, the National Pavilions are of course, paradoxically, locked into showing art that somehow engages with national identity. And as the debacle with the Kenyan Pavilion demonstrated (where the majority of the artists were from China), nationalism and origin are no longer easy bedfellows, if ever they were.
In the case of the South African Pavilion, the curators included a variety of artists based (not necessarily born) in South Africa, rather than following the tried-and-tested formula of the more noteworthy Pavilions that chose just one or two strong artists from their countries. And while the curatorial team should be applauded for pulling together a professional-looking exhibition in a very short period of time (the go-ahead was given at such a late stage that South Africa is not included in any of the catalogues), the final show seems somewhat random, like one of those “Identity shows” that were so popular just after the first democratic elections when South Africa was allowed back onto the international stage. (Although, since we’re counting, three women in a sea of men are not enough!)
Don’t get me wrong: I was not necessarily looking for a theme, but one wanted the works to relate, to speak to one another. Under a broad banner of “the past has come back to haunt us” in works that have “a sense that there is a narrative of belonging that must be interrogated,” as stated in the catalogue, one nevertheless senses a typical South African anxiety over fair representation in the array of artists addressing everything from the heaviness of the TRC in Angus Gibson’s new film, to the visual lightness of Robin Rhode’s street art, to the brooding intimacy of Mohau Modisakeng’s performance on ritual, to the bleached landscapes of Jo Ractliffe’s Borderlands series.
As one of two moments that the exhibition is “organised” around, Angus Gibson’s film on the TRC is brilliant, but it would probably fit better in the Apartheid Museum where Christopher Till, the curator of the Pavilion, is also director. In this filled-to-the-brim venue in Venice, it competes for attention, especially placed towards the end of the exhibition. In a show that purportedly talks about the future, how is the viewer’s return to the trauma portrayed by the TRC to be interpreted? Despite the fact that this is no documentary but a sensitive fragment portraying the complexity of that process, Gibson’s film – plus a sound recording of the Rivonia trials – may have made more sense at the start of the show as a context, rather than disappearing in the mesh of other works.
This jumbled, synoptic quality is probably also the reason why Willem Boshoff’s Racist in South Africa caused such an uproar. I don’t think it is a particularly strong work – in fact, it is decidedly uninteresting visually – but this work should have been supported by citing the original context in which Boshoff made this work, namely a moment in 2004 when former president Mbeki expressed frustration with white people criticising the mostly black government. When Boshoff finally made the work in 2011 it articulated his exasperation at the suggestion that white people may not criticise, or risk being labelled racist. This is a dangerous notion: even in a country such as South Africa where whiteness is particularly marked and loaded, the wrongs that Boshoff lists such as crime, unemployment, poverty – despite exaggeration and some strong word choice – should elicit anger and disapproval with anyone, irrespective of race. What probably caused such upset is that Boshoff’s work seems to flatten history, without speaking to the contextual reasons for many of these complaints.
The overwhelming (and furious) consensus in the South African art world has been that this is the “rant” of a conservative white male, a poor choice for Venice especially, but this is to misread this work. Boshoff’s intention is less interesting – what makes the work fascinating is the politics of race in South Africa that it names, inaugurated by the work’s first line, “I am proud to be labelled a racist in South Africa.” Note that Boshoff is not proud to be a racist, but to be labelled one: he shifts the issue of racism to become the problem of the one that labels, the one that accuses him, without claiming that name for himself. This puts the viewer in a compromised position: if it is impossible not to disapprove of corruption or crime or aids orphans left without care or violent car-jackings, does that make one racist?
Space does not permit a detailed review, but suffice to say I left wanting less overview, more depth, more analysis of the disquiet that is always present in South Africa. Perhaps more new works addressing a specific breaking point would have been more considered than this mix of mostly established, rather “safe” artists – Jeremy Wafer, Brett Murray, Nandipha Mntambo, Robin Rhode, Diane Victor – culled from the gate-keeping galleries of South Africa’s art world.
Perhaps less (artists) would definitely have been more this time.
Liese van der Watt is an independent art historian based in London. Her current writing interrogates race, identity and representation in contemporary African and especially South African art. Until 2007 she was a senior lecturer in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town where she taught Art History and Visual Culture.