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Viva Venice... Viva... Long live!

Malcolm Payne takes issue with Mario Pissarra's objections to an emphasis on the importance of the Venice Biennale

Mario Pissarra's opinion 'piece' entitled 'Death to Venice! A South African perspective on the irrelevance of representation at the Venice Biennale' is deceiving if it pretends to represent South Africans and the continent of Africa. As the sole proprietor of ASAI (Africa South Art Initiative -, Pissarra may nevertheless simply be expressing an opinion on his private website. So, the axe he is grinding (and has done since October 2003) may simply be his own.

In re-grinding it on his posting of May 7, 2006 he displays evenness of opinion. He sees no worth in South African artists' participation in the Venice Biennale and advises government to waive support of endeavours to do so. What he said then he stands by today. But what does he stand for? What does he understand of the Venice Biennale and how does one begin to grasp his peculiar conflations? Also, what are we to make of his yes, no or maybe?

Pissarra starts off by asking, 'whether South Africans are capable of making a paradigm shift away from a world view centred on the West, and whether we are able to develop an inclusive vision of Africa'.

Reviews by Marilyn Martin and Sue Williamson (ArtThrob, September and July 2003) he says, 'given the prominent positions of these two individuals', announce a 'need for these issues to be debated'. Pissarra highlights extracts from their writing that stress the importance of the Biennale and rebuke government's ignorance and disinterest in promoting South African art internationally.

These lead him to ask: 'Perhaps Martin should tell us why visibility in Venice is so important'. He agrees with Williamson ('her review is less provocative', he says), in her suggestion that the purpose of having a 'real presence at the Venice Biennale' is 'to move [African arts] closer to the centre'. He declares, 'Certainly if we are to measure our success by visibility in the heart of the West, then Venice is important'. Here he becomes confused, he goes on: 'But if the success of our project depends on re-centering the world with a blatant bias towards the exploited Rest then Venice is perhaps not so important'.

What project? Whose project? What does he mean? What does he mean by 'success'? Does he perhaps mean being less marginalised equates with success, or something else? He argues later for the adoption of a period (10 years) of self-imposed marginalisation. To punish the West, I assume, whatever that means. He says: 'We do need to turn the tables on the West if we are to realise our full potential. Let us see how long they can sustain their own shows without the "exoticism" that "developing" countries bring to their events'.

He grinds on:

'Our marginalisation as South/African visual/artists will not be addressed by a guest place at "the centre", it will be addressed by shifting the centre, decentralising it globally so that the fortunes of most are not subjected to the whims of a few. Our marginalisation will be addressed by linking our struggle for visibility with a struggle for relevance, a struggle to engage the critical issues that affect all of us far more profoundly than being on curator Francesco Bonami's guest list.'

Martin and Williamson are not suggesting guest status at the Biennale but fully fledged national participation supported by government; just the same as 70 or so other countries enjoy. Nor are they suggesting participation on some cobbled together 'Africa' show that screams marginalisation. Principal curators (Bonami for example as opposed to Oguibe/Hassan et al) have chosen artists in the past to participate in satellite or themed shows from across the planet, not necessarily for their ethnic or national values, but for their work's capacity to fulfill a curator's vision in representing states of play within global art discourse.

Pissarra seems unwilling to grasp that the aim of the Biennale is to present art in a national context in a global arena. Thus to speak of Africa at the Biennale (a fraught concept that needs divesting of its historical construction in some Biennale exhibitions) we should only speak of Egypt who possesses a national pavilion. Other Africans that may be included in non-nationally curated theme exhibitions are not deemed part of a nation but part of a continent. This 'Other Africa' exhibited at the Venice Biennale therefore knows no nationality. This needs to be addressed from a South African perspective. This can only be achieved with an exhibition that fully represents South Africa and its national aspirations. That means, South Africans represented on the Venice Biennale should not be presented as 'other Africans', those devoid of a nation state, but as South Africans representing their country, not a continent!

It seems Pissarra wishes to see South African art contained within continental Africa, fenced-off from the rest of the world. If it was not so, he would champion any drive to encourage government to support our visual artists' participation in international Biennales. Just as much as they do for our Olympians, soccer players, cricketers, flower growers and choirs who compete on a global level among equals.

Pissarra's conflated off-the-track resolve to redress 'our' marginality is as follows: 'The first concerns working towards peace and development in Africa'. The second 'concerns globalisation and the battle for a fair economic system'. Of the former he bemoans:

'Where are our artists, art educators, curators etc in complementing this process? Why are we not discussing how the visual/arts can contribute towards Africa's development? Why do we let the debates around an African Renaissance exclude the visual/arts?'

Of the latter he asks:

'Why is there no debate coming from within the visual/arts community about how the arts can participate in complementing these critical initiatives? Are the arts, and the visual arts in particular, so impotent that they cannot play a role in these broader processes? If they are, then perhaps the visual arts deserve their marginal status.'

And jumbles the two, after G8- and artist-bashing to conclude 'our' art deserves to be marginalised, but not so marginalised as to be non-players in Third World Biennales. If that is not punishment enough for not doing what artists should do according to the convoluted doctrine of Pissarra, he says the following:

'In the context of our absence from real international struggles lobbying for participation in the Venice Biennale is to inadvertently further the perception of the visual arts as marginal. In fact at this point in time we should not be asking our government to support our participation in any of the major showcases in the art capitals in the West. We should be asking it to support us in engaging with artists across Africa and throughout the Third World.'

Pissarra lives in another time and place. I wish to remind him, artists want to be part of a global humanity in all its complexity. His treacherous posturing, knowing full well he might have an ear where it does matter, promotes one of the most deviant disservices to the visual arts community since Christian National philosophy imposed its insular creed on artistic production in South Africa. To call on government to reject an international development programme for the visual arts beggars belief. If he were to look at South African artists' production he would see their breadth of engagement with a multiplicity of issues including those he declares they ignore.

Let me tell Pissarra why the Venice Biennale is so important. The Venice Biennale receives more press, television and internet coverage than any other art occasion in the world. Every art journal, all key global print media publications and internet art sites devote serious attention - evidenced by analytical and critical texts along with images of the works being published - over an extended period. Contributors to these media are experts in visual arts fields whose critical writing is highly regarded. Exposing South African art to a global audience, on a global stage is vital to its developmental potential in culture-building. The importance of unsolicited peer review cannot be underestimated. Neither can the lived experience of exhibitors whose knowledge and experience will be passed on. This kind of developmental value cannot be gained in any other way. In 2005, Morocco, Cyprus, Iran, Afghanistan, Estonia and Ukraine amongst other small and developing nations (hardly Western) made their artists' works visible. We plainly lag behind the rest of the nations of the world who are striving to expose their creative interventions in Venice.

Also, there is simply no hope on earth of rattling the Biennale's cage. It has survived two world wars, Mussolini's fascism, floods, moans and groans and even 'Authentic/Eccentric'. Pissarra's call on his terms for marginalisation (of them as opposed to us this time) gets really funny when he says: 'But let us not boycott them completely. Let us invite those who traditionally invite us to participate on terms set by ourselves in our own shows with our own agendas'.

Can he not see that that's precisely what South African artistic presence in Venice can and will achieve. If, in so doing, local artists make an impact on the global market with their positive creative production, then the country's core goals, to showcase excellence, will be realised in contradistinction to Pissarra's Scrooge negativity, couched in threadbare PC speak that says: 'we need a proper debate about what it means to be part of the international community beyond fitting into an iniquitous system and creating a few international superstars and holding these individuals up as a sign of progress'.

Finally, I am sure Mr. Pissarra has never dined with Francisco Bonami, whom he impolitely characterises as someone giving a dinner party when what he really did was to fulfill his obligation as director of an important art event. Bonami did not, except for his own contribution, choose the artistic representatives of other countries. If a few Africans end up on the biennale, it's no fault of their own. They were chosen to be part of a larger debate on the state of art by individual curators. However we could be there as a country and as South Africans we should never stop demanding a presence at the Venice Biennale, despite Pisarra's death wish for exclusion, until it happens.

Malcolm Payne
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Malcolm Payne is a practising artist and a professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town