In the middle of March, I flew up to Durban at the invitation of The World – the world’s largest privately owned passenger cruiser, to join the ship and sail from Durban to Cape Town. On two mornings, I gave lectures to the residents in the beautifully appointed theatre. My subject: contemporary art in South Africa, in which, given that there were only 130 passengers on board, quite a surprising number turned out to be interested.
In the time that I was not lecturing, I was free to do as I wished. I could have played tennis on a full size court, swam, played golf, read the printouts of the latest international papers in the extensive library, added a few pieces to an outsize jigsaw puzzle laid out on a table or just relaxed in the many comfortable corners on the upper deck, picking up the adjacent phone should I care for a drink or a snack.
Contemplating the ocean while stretched out on a lounger gave me some time to think about the current train smash which is South Africa’s (non) participation in the upcoming Venice Biennale.
Why, when the Department of Arts and Culture knew full well that the Biennale opens on May 8 2015 did they wait till September 2014 to put out calls for proposals on their website, giving prospective curators just over one month to provide themes, artists, commissioning information, logistics, costs etc? An almost impossible task, and a call that shows how tenuous the grasp of the DAC is on the complexities involved, and how little respect it has for the visual arts community.
Fiona Hall will represent Australia on this year’s Biennale, installing her work in the brand new Australian pavilion. Her selection as the national artist was announced in November 2013, the day the previous Biennale closed.
In March 2014, Sarah Lucas, the woman once described as ‘the most unabashedly all-balls-out, rock ‘n ‘roll of the Young British Artists’, was announced as the artist to represent the UK in Venice 2015. The announcement was made by Andrea Rose, chair of the selection committee for the prestigious international art show and director of visual arts at the British Council March 2014.
The following month, April 2014, 13 months ahead of opening date, the United States released their news. Veteran video and installation artist Joan Jonas, 78, had been selected by the State Department’s bureau of educational and cultural affairs, which promotes cultural exchanges worldwide, following a proposal from Paul C. Ha, the director of the M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Mass., who will be commissioner of the exhibition.
These are just the first three countries I picked at random to research. Apart from the timeline, and the fact that all the artists are women, what one notes about these selections is that in each case, although each of the countries have exhibition spaces many times larger than the space rented by South Africa, one artist has been chosen to represent their country. Just one.
The fatal tardiness and lackadaisical attitude of the D.A.C. is complicated further by its compulsive insistence on inclusivity, an insistence that led to the unfortunate overcrowding of the last South African exhibition in Venice. It was characterized by a kind of one of everything approach – black, white, other, male, female, young, old, straight, gay, sculpture, painting, installation, video, etc. etc.
The reason given out by the D.A.C. in February this year for the failure to award the curatorship to one of the proposals submitted in response to the horribly late September call is that not one of them ‘fulfilled government procurement requirements’. Presumably the sub text to this jargon is that none of the proposals were sufficiently inclusive.
Thank goodness a group of Johannesburg artists have seized the opportunity to announce that they will be performing as the ‘Joburg Pavilion’ in and around the streets of the biennale. Twelve performance artists will strut their stuff and 15 video works will be screened, all on the theme of what Johannesburg means to them. Included in this group are Athi-Patra Ruga, Anthea Moys, Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Kudzanai Chiurai and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.
How visible they will be in the cultural chaos that is Venice remains to be seen. Though the fact that they will be there at all is important. And it’s hard to ignore Athi.
And perhaps somehow something will appear in the South African pavilion after all.
But is it not imperative that the important task of selection for the Venice Biennale is taken out of the hands of the appallingly incompetent D.A.C. and given over to an independent committee of arts professionals? Immediately? So that by the time 2017 comes around, we can actually be prepared.
VANSA, the Visual Arts Network of South Africa, you are the representatives of the artists of South Africa. Please take the matter up.