In early March, the South African Department of Arts and Culture announced ‘The stronger we become’ as the country’s official presentation at the 58th Venice Biennale. Curated by Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu, the group exhibition includes Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile.
In the midst of final preparations and installation, Makhubu and Mabaso were kind enough to chat to ArtThrob about their approach to the South African Pavilion this year.
ArtThrob: First of all, congratulations! The pair of you have been collaborating on curatorial projects for some time now, whose idea was it to go for Venice?
Nomusa Makhubu: Thank you! That should be attributed to Nkule Mabaso. Her brilliance, boldness and bravery has led us to this point.
AT: Ralph Rugoff’s curatorial theme for the 58th Venice Biennale – entitled ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ – was announced a couple of months before the call for proposals from the Department of Arts and Culture. Did Rugoff’s broader curatorial theme factor into your proposal?
Nomusa Makhubu & Nkule Mabaso: Yes. However, our exhibition is intertwined with the work we have done, in our individual capacities and collaboratively. It wasn’t made to “fit” the international curatorial theme but converged with it.
AT: You’ve titled the exhibition ‘The stronger we become’. Could you unpack some of the ideas around this? What was it about this theme that you felt was a good fit for Venice?
NM&NM: The stronger we become is a way to think about social resilience. People create coping mechanisms under harsh socio-economic conditions. Being resilient not only means being strong, but also means being pliable. However, the persistence of divisive plutocratic politics, means that people continue to be stretched to a point where they can no longer take it. The rise in global movements against social injustice is a sign that we have to think more carefully about resilience and the will to resist. With this exhibition we are acknowledging the climate of cynicism and disillusionment. We are also acknowledging what it is that makes us fully human, in the context of a dehumanising history.
We weren’t thinking: what would be a good ‘fit’ for Venice but rather what needs to be said about the South African socio-cultural condition as part of a global discourse.
AT: Did you select the artists which you wanted to work with and construct a framework around them, or did you have an idea of the theme and then sought artists who you felt were a good fit?
NM&NM: Mawande has a work called Untitled (Chicken ‘n Egg). This is more or less that question: did the chicken or the egg come first. The answer is not so simple. We have worked with these artists in our previous projects and over time their intellectual work has been part of the process of thinking through the many things we feel. The anger, the shame, the joy, the exhilaration and disappointment in the post-apartheid era. Mawande, Tracey and Dineo are prominent artists whose divergent views give us the visual language to articulate the political sentiment in SA today. We were not trying to make them ‘fit’ into the curatorial conceptual framework. They, each in their individual right, have been part of an important but larger discourse which we felt had to be foregrounded.
AT: Was it always going to be three artists? How did you settle on that number for this kind of presentation?
NM&NM:We didn’t worry so much about the number. But for the space and for the curatorial vision, for now, the trialogue just felt right.
AT: Can you talk a bit about what drew you to each of the artists – Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile – for Venice?
NM&NM: It’s the boldness, frankness and rawness in their work. Bopape’s space-time installations, Ka Zenzile’s earthy, bold, double-edged paintings and Rose’s resolute performances show, in different ways, the disillusion with the ‘post’ in postcolonial and the ‘post’ in post-apartheid. They tease us. Confront us. And provoke us to think critically about social injustice. Engaging with issues of land, displacement and epistemic violence, the artists remind us not only of the tenacity people have but the will to resist injustice.
AT: In planning the exhibition, were you afforded an opportunity to visit the space beforehand, or do you have to work from plans and hope for the best logistically?
NM&NM: No, we were only notified in February that we got the bid and therefore could not organise recce visits, given the time constraints.
AT: What are some of the unique considerations for curating a show for Venice specifically?
NM&NM: The unique history of Venice opens up the possibility of curating-as-gesture. We take into consideration that what we do is read in light of other pavilions. We take into consideration the historical buildings in which we work and how we transform them into spaces of multiple connotation.
AT: In an age where institutional authority is frequently being called into question, what do you think is the crucial role that a platform like the Venice Biennale plays in the contemporary artworld?
NM&NM: An important one. An old institution like the Venice Biennale needs to begin to critically engage with the nation-state as a methodological and classificatory system. What is the efficacy of nations today and how do they shape our politics? In a world where there is a retreat to parochial, localist views, there seem to be a firm belief in national borders as incontrovertible. At the crux of the matter is the paradoxical of nature national agendas and artists’ globally-entwined motives.
‘The stronger we become’
The South African Pavilion, 58th La Biennale Di Venezia
Sale D’Armi, Arsenale, Venice, Italy, 11 May – 24 November 2019
More information can be found here.