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South African Pavilion Opens at the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia

The intimate official opening of the South African Pavilion, supported by the Department of Arts and Culture, at the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia brought the local and international art fraternity under one roof.

DAC Department Arts Culture South African SA Pavilion
Installation view of paintings by Mawande Ka Zenzile, SA Pavilion 2019 at the 58th International Art Exhibition

The opening was attended by South African Consul-General and Ambassador to Italy, Ms T Nxumalo; Department of Arts and Culture representatives; the duo of critically acclaimed curators of the SA Pavilion, Nkule Mabaso and Dr Nomusa Makhubu; and the trio of visual artists representing South Africa at Venice – Tracey Rose, Dineo Seshee Bopape and Mawande Ka Zenzile whose art is featured at the SA Pavilion under the curatorial theme: The stronger we become.
     At the opening, Consul-General Nxumalo said: ‘The South African Pavilion is an important part of what we do as the South African Consulate General, based in Milan. The Biennale is the key feature of our cultural diplomacy as it enables us not only to look after the interests of our nation in this part of the world and beyond, but facilitate and build good international relationships with the world at large. It brings us joy and fills us with pride to join other countries that participate in the Biennale.’
     The exhibition of work by the artists under the theme: The stronger we become, seeks to highlight the resilient spirit of South Africa and its citizens, juxtaposed against the 58th International Art Exhibition’s theme, May You Live in Interesting Times, as coined by chief curator of Biennale di Venezia, Ralph Rugoff.
     Creative Feel caught up with the South African curators to find out how the South African Pavilion is doing.
     The feedback from visitors to the Pavilion has been very positive, say Mabaso and Makhubu. ‘The stronger we become is designed as an immersive, contemplative space. We wanted to have few, but conceptually rich, artworks, and create a trialogue from these. So that when a viewer walks into the darkened space, each artwork is prominent. In their unique ways, the artworks engage with issues of place, knowledge, power and spirituality. And so we kept the original walls of the Pavilion bare so as to sustain the tenor of the work – which tackles the subject matter in raw and unapologetic ways. Mawande Ka Zenzile’s paintings each struck a cord, as one worked out the riddles, proverbs and extracts from literature. Tracey Rose’s Hard Black on Cotton (2019), in which the South African actor Denzel Edgar narrates a translation of the text that Rose wrote in Latin, punctuates the space. Dineo Sehsee Bopape’s installation invited viewers to experience it as though they were underneath a constellation of stars.

DAC Department Arts Culture South African SA Pavilion
Dr Nomusa Makhubu and Nkule Mabaso, as part of the 2019 Africa Forum in Venice Panel

     ‘Entwined in this intimate conversation is a reckoning with the misadventure and deficiency of postcolonial, post-apartheid democracy in the context of the abiding persistence of divisive plutocracies. The trialogue is a call to excavate the truths and fallacies in the fantastic ruins of history. And with what we find, make sense of the present.
     ‘The stronger we become leaves behind the ostentation of the consumerist world to understand the discord of contemporary life as a past haunted by its imminent futures. It is a space for raw, unembellished and frank conversation. It is in carving emancipatory spaces that resilience as resistance becomes possible. Within emancipatory spaces, the illusive becomes real and the concealed contradictions surface. Based on politics of space and time – historical and geographical expansion and compression – the trialogue tackles the perplexing questions about land, displacement, mobility and, intimately tied to this, rights. It takes on this task through engaging with affective politics, of anger, outrage, exhilaration, optimism and disappointment.
     ‘And by doing this, it points directly to the quest of our struggles: dignity. To refuse to be fragile is to connect affect or the politics of sentiment with systemic theft of space and time.
     ‘It was gratifying for us to finally see the exhibition come to fruition, both in the ways we had initially imagined and in new and unexpected ways. The artworks enabled us to stretch the conceptual framework and find new exciting dimensions they each presented.
     ‘In some ways, it was interesting that the space was designed this way. Many pavilions worked with bright spaces, overstimulation, excess, which is very consonant with the main theme. We enjoyed visiting the various pavilions and engaging with the various curatorial strategies. But it was very interesting to us that, apart from the intentionally, conceptually cacophonous, we sought to create a conversely designed, moderately paced space.
     ‘We were quite fortunate that each artist produced new work for the Pavilion this year – given the limited time we had. For that we commend the artists. Each produced complex works, requiring complex methodologies.

DAC Department Arts Culture South African SA Pavilion     ‘The exhibition logistics team, Brendan Copestake and Liesl Potgieter, was also fantastic in making this journey possible in the short space of time, we think it all worked out well. We had about two-and-a-half months from start to finish, and making it possible depended on having a very good team, with a very good sense of humour.
     ‘We had good reviews and also hosted the Hayward Gallery group and the group of patrons of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It was a pleasure to be able to discuss the artworks and the concepts that the artists have articulated. We enjoyed welcoming the art public to the exhibition but most of all, seeing how they responded to it.’
     Mabaso and Makhubu say that they are incredibly proud to be part of La Biennale di Venezia given the high standard that is expected. ‘I think it’s taken us a while to sink our minds into it. When we heard we had won the bid, we just thought about all the work ahead of us and we just got involved in the administration of it. The shock of it actually hit us much later. In the end it was very exciting, but once all of it was done, we were exhausted but exhilarated. One could only define it as a roller-coaster ride.’
     The South African Pavilion will be open to the public until 24 November 2019. South Africa’s participation at La Biennale di Venezia is made possible by the Department of Arts and CultureSouth Africa.

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