It’s not all a pretty picture at the Venice Biennale

2015-05-24 11:13
 

2015 is the year for African art at the Venice Biennale, but it’s not all a pretty picture. Linda Stupart visits the Italian city to assess the offerings from home and the rest of the continent

The Venice Biennale is a kind of Olympics for art that happens every two years. Countries from around the world rent spaces at huge expense to showcase their artists alongside a major global show by an appointed curator. 

Unlike an art fair, there is no work for sale so, at its best, the biennale is a space for real critique and opening up of local and global conceits inside and outside the art world. 

ALL THE WORLD

This year sees the appointment of the first African curator, Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor has strong ties to South Africa, where he curated the now legendary Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 and, more recently, co-curated the mega photography exhibition The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. 

Enwezor is famous for bringing artists and works of art from peripheral spaces into the art world centre, in particular bringing artists from Africa on to the global stage in conversation with Western contemporaries.

Though it may seem obvious that any curated show intended to showcase the art of the entire world should have a large African contingent, that is seldom the case in Venice. 

Enwezor’s show, All The World’s Futures, is notable for its diversity. It is still absolutely necessary to remind contemporary artists and art consumers that Africa exists as a real site of heterogeneous contemporaneity – that shifting politics and aesthetics play out on the continent in ways that are still often invisible to the centre. Similarly, histories of colonialism and Eurocentric violence remain largely unacknowledged in contemporary relations within art institutions in the West. 

So, although Enwezor’s particular curation of materialist socialist history feels a bit heavy-handed and outdated – is reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital really the most exciting or effective way for art to deal with the commodity form? – mere inclusion of so many African artists is in itself revolutionary and important, as is the curator’s unpopular refusal to frame the biennale through a set of open and trendy signifiers. (One critic described the show as “morose, joyless and ugly”.) This is an exhibition about crisis, and crisis is global. 

Highlights in the main curated exhibition in the grand old water-filled city include Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, a nauseating three-screen video that forces the viewer to consider both immigration tragedies and ecological destruction.

Also impressive are Kenyan Wangechi Mutu’s sculpture, video and collage installation of queer Afro-futurist sci-fi bodies, and Nigerian Emeka Ogboh’s remarkable 10-channel sound installation of an African choir singing the German national anthem.

Four South Africans feature in the main event: Marlene Dumas (who lives and works in the Netherlands), Kay Hassan, Joachim Schönfeldt and Mikhael Subotzky. 

Subotsky’s work, Show and Tell, subjects violent video images to microscopic scrutiny, abstracting the images to glowing projected pixels. 

For an artist who rose to fame photographing prison inmates, this is an important and admirable shift in meditating on representations of violence, and the violence of representation.

THE AFRICAN PAVILIONS

Only eight African countries have national pavilions at the biennale, though this year sees Mozambique, Mauritius and the Seychelles make their debuts, with Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa returning. 

For me, the highlight of the national pavilions was Angola (which was awarded best pavilion at the 2013 biennale). The massive installation work by Francisco Vidal, U.topia Luanda, is easily my favourite work in Venice.

It features a sculpture made of painted machetes, a giant silk-screened wall, repeated detailed drawings of Kanye West and a roughly painted giant text piece, which explicitly draws out the complex problems of representation faced by African artists and nations when brought into the opulent superexhibition construct that is the biennale: “Venice experience: The African industrial revolution!!! Presents: The U.topia Luanda Machine!!! Plus Venice texts Venice studios traditional knowledge colonial constructions postcolonial resolutions post-war readings...” 


THE SOUTH AFRICAN PAVILION

The South African pavilion, however, does not fare as well, and the pavilion’s failures feel especially raw in light of such an Afrocentric biennale. 

Controversy around the South African pavilion is not new. In 2011, the department of arts and culture funded an exhibition by gallerist Monna Mokoena and refused to respond to queries about how its R10 million exhibition budget was spent. The 2013 offering – handled by the National Arts Festival – was busy and bland. 

This year’s tender process was thrown out by Treasury, resulting in a new tender and a mad dash to the finish, meaning the pavilion and its artists do not appear anywhere in official biennale guides or catalogues. 

When the curators were finally announced less than a month before opening – Christopher Till, the director of the Apartheid Museum, and Jeremy Rose from the Mashabane Rose architecture firm – there was further discontent from artists at the selection of two white men. 

That controversy, however, was nothing compared with entering the exhibition, titled What Remains is Tomorrow, and immediately encountering Willem Boshoff’s Racist in South Africa (2011), which speaks such casual violence at the centre of the pavilion. It is a large disk of text engraved into aluminium that rages against “dim-witted” politicians, farm murders and police bribes. 

Boshoff says he is proud to be called a racist if “I appreciate security walls, electrical fences and guard dogs; I fly into a rage when sports teams are forced to select undeserving players; I could scream in frustration when jobs are given to unqualified people...” 

It goes on and on. 

Even if the work is intended to be satirical, this intention is impossible to read in the work, the catalogue or the wall text, all of which stand as representative of South Africa on this international stage. 

I was so enraged by this work and the curators’ choice to include it – this glib, conservative white-male privilege engraved in metal that totally ignores histories of apartheid and colonialism, and the realities of contemporary economic, geographic and educational racialised disparities in South Africa – that it was hard to even look at any of the other 12 artists’ work in the show. 

It didn’t help, for me, that Brett Murray, who was at the centre of a major racism controversy with The Spear, was also included in the exhibition. Murray’s work for the biennale, Triumph (2015), is a two-channel video installation featuring a white Afrikaans man and a black man, each on a screen.

Both wear suits and stand at podiums, and the video is in black and white. The film is named after Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will, and is intended to suggest the dangers of all kinds of nationalisms equally. 

Listening to a white Afrikaner voice, watching what we are to assume is a black African man, both speaking to nationalism, and being told a) that these expressions are identical and b) that they are both akin to fascism again feels like a dangerously uncomplicated, historically bereft and racist portrayal of what black nationalism means, particularly within recent histories of apartheid. 

In attempting to move beyond these two overbearing white-male monoliths, I did encounter some interesting work. 

The show takes two recent historical points of departure – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and recent xenophobic attacks – with the curators aiming to “unsettle the useless mythologies of democracy, ubuntu and nationalism”. 

Included in the show is Warrick Sony’s take on the Marikana massacre. Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Soft Vengeance, a red cast of the arms and hands of the Jan van Riebeeck statue in Adderley Street is a pointed take on the #RhodesMustFall movement. (I am reminded of one commentator’s suggestion that the South African pavilion contain only the decommissioned Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town.) 

Gerald Machona’s People from Far Away, which uses signifiers of aliens and space explorers to deal with the difficulties of coming to South Africa as a Zimbabwean, and Mohau Modisakeng’s Inzilo, a video in which the artist engages in a Zulu morning ritual, both situate the artists’ own bodies within a complex set of sociopolitical and aesthetic intersections. 

If you’re wondering why I am only mentioning men, it should be noted that only three out of the 13 South African pavilion artists are women. 

What many commented on was the failure of the space to exceed anything other than a fairly standard commercial gallery show.

There is no live work or performance, no intervention, not even any real installation work. Though the curators acknowledge in their catalogue that they do a violence to individual artist’s work by including it in a group show (and imagine being a young black artist whose work is placed next to Boshoff’s rant), there seems to be no attempt towards any other kind of curatorial strategy. 

I am fairly sure that there were more artists in the South African pavilion than any other in Venice, and with a relatively small space, this does no justice even to the work that is interesting. 

Out of the 13 artists, 10 are represented by either Goodman or Stevenson, South Africa’s commercial gallery heavyweights, and another by Brundyn+, which is hot on their heels. It would take a much longer article to fully discuss the detrimental effects of commercial gallery culture on South African artists, particularly young artists, where sellable, reproducible work is encouraged in the hopes of furthering sales and careers without any questions of real affect or critique. 

Nevertheless, this gallery-isation is at the heart of this exhibition. With Till and Rose having only a few weeks to put together the show (although they did propose something in the original tender), perhaps they might be forgiven for finding most of their works of art in the Goodman Gallery’s storage basement. Though perhaps not. 

THE JOHANNESBURG PAVILION

With this in mind, the Johannesburg pavilion, an unofficial group of performance and film artists, was a breath of fresh air in opening week, with projects continuing for the duration of the biennale and beyond.

Curated by Roelof Petrus van Wyk, in partnership with the Joburg Art Fair, the work is intended in part as a homage to Enwezor’s Johannesburg Biennale, and is organised and enacted on the same principles of liveness, interruption and institutional outsider status. Because of its unofficial nature, the artists use Venice not as a “platform” for gaining careercentric “exposure”, but rather as a loaded geopolitical space in need of rupture. 

Works include Farieda Nazier and Alberta Whittle’s Journey of Aspiration, which sees the two “other” women walking the chic shopping streets of Venice in grotesque nude suits and a crude pregnant belly, questioning models of representation, acceptability and whiteness so prevalent in the city and the biennale.

Senzeni Mthwakazi also performed an invisible black identity, dressed as her character Theodora Hlongwane in a red uniform dress reminiscent of a domestic worker’s attire. Arya Lalloo, Thenji Nkosi and Chris Wessels are shooting a film as they drag fishnets filled with lost shoes from the Lido beaches across luxury shops and the central exhibition space. 

With models decked in vast shrouds of balloons, Athi-Patra Ruga performs an instalment of the Future White Women of Azania to a crowd of the superwealthy and very important, here faced with the artist’s trademark grotesque and vibrant carnival of embodied identities. 

The artists in the Johannesburg pavilion embrace the possibilities of the biennale as a space for showing a global art world what South African artists can do.

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