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Antifragile – South Africa at the Venice Biennale

WORDS: Ashraf Jamal

In his novella Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer provides a withering exposé of the Venice Biennale. It is not its status as the ultimate showcase of the world’s nation-based art offerings that captures Dyer’s attention, but the debauched and decadent culture that underpins it. For all the lofty internationalism, the Biennale for Dyer is about art as inflated as it is meaningless – no different to the banal frisson of a one-night stand or the endless rounds of Bellinis consumed by the art cognoscenti as they move from party to party.

58th International Art Exhibition
Lerole: Footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting) (detail), Dineo Seshee Bopape, 2018. Mixed media installation view Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg /Beirut

Not exactly the backdrop for the story I wish now to unfold – the story of two young female South African curators and their vision – however, in today’s art world we have to accept the rub of toxicity and purity. This is because, today, given the art world as it is, we cannot make neat distinctions between that which is debased and that which is elevated, moral or immoral, authentic or inauthentic. How so? Because the art world is indisputably caught in a moment of radical relativism in which nothing quite sticks and anything goes. It is therefore against this bilious backdrop that we must now consider South Africa’s offering for the 2019 Venice Biennale.
     I recently met with the curators, Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu, at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, where they are based. What was immediately apparent was their enthusiasm. Having barely had time to celebrate winning the bid to represent South Africa, they were both immersed in the vision itself – what it was they intended to express and reveal about the South African condition.

58th International Art Exhibition
When You Look At Me My Spirit Leave My Body (Diptych), Mawande Ka Zenzile, 2019. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas.
Image courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

     ‘Resilience’ was the trigger – ‘the antifragile nature of the spirit of South Africa’. From the get-go, Mabaso and Makhubu refused to buy into the hype either of South Africa’s enduring strength or its imminent collapse. Rather, what interested them was the management of instability, be it national, continental, psychological, or creative. Hence their decision to embrace Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of the antifragile, ‘a property of systems that increase capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures’. And hence the title of Mabaso and Makhubu’s exhibition – The Stronger We Become – inspired by a song by Labi Siffre, which in turn was inspired, in 1984, by South Africa’s struggle for liberation.
     In hindsight, however, and from this particular vantage point in 2019, any vision of a changing South Africa cannot be glibly or unthinkingly triumphal. After all, ours is an antifragile time in which we are compelled to adjust to mistakes, accept volatility, and endure failure.

To read more of what Ashraf Jamal’s essay on South Africa at the Venice Biennale, purchase the May 2019 issue of Creative Feel or, to continue supporting our role in the South African arts, culture, lifestyle, and heritage sector, subscribe to our monthly magazine from only R180.00 per year. SUBSCRIBE HERE!

More about the 58th Venice Biennale:

Interesting times for South African art

South Africa gets ready for the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia

Antifragile – South Africa at the Venice Biennale

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