The 58th Venice Biennale is a city-wide pageant which feels like a mad, unrepressed Disneyland. The two largest venues, the Arsenale and Giardini, are home to the national pavilions while other exhibitions (such as this year’s Luc Tuymans and Marina Abramovic shows) are dotted across the city.
When I visited in June it was swelteringly humid. The glare from the turquoise canals was disorientating, sunburn crept between the seams of my clothing and even in the shade the refracted light was dazzling. I was grateful to enter the coolness of the Arsenale, a long building to the east of the city, where, in the South African Pavilion, it took a long while for my eyes to acclimatize to the deliberately dim atmosphere.
The title of the show, ‘The stronger we become’, is adapted from the song (Something Inside) So Strong by Labi Siffre, a British musician and the child of diasporic immigrants. The song was inspired by a documentary about Apartheid which showed white soldiers opening fire on black civilians. The song is a soulful expression of solidarity and self-worth in the face of struggle. Lyrics like ‘The higher you build your barriers/ The taller I become/ The further you take my rights away/ The faster I will run’ articulate that strength exists in the face of hardship. Which begs the question, how do the curators intend us to complete the sentence: ‘The stronger we become…’?
The stronger we become the more we …?
The stronger we become the harder it is to …?
And it is a show that ‘begs the question’ on multiple fronts, preferring to infer rather than to cultivate clarity. The brooding darkness and impassioned, incomprehensible voices from a video work immediately feel unfamiliar, even hostile. Tinted windows, textures of earth and the fact that the room is a cul-de-sac (and not a passageway like many of the other exhibits) makes it feel cave-like. In terms of building an atmosphere, it is an exhibition that strikes an emotional note, establishing a gloomy status quo.
Three artists are featured in the show, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose, and Mawande Ka Zenzile. Of these, only Ka Zenzile’s six paintings are forthcoming about their intentions. They contain the symmetrical, geometric compositions we’ve come to associate with twenty-first century colour-field painting. But here the color has been combined with dung, and captions are placed within the geometric planes – espousing post-colonial philosophies.
One diptych is cleft by a horizon line, into terracotta sky and ashen ground. On the latter is an uncredited quote from ‘Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior’ by Marimba Ani: ‘The secret Europeans discovered early in their history is that culture carries rules for thinking, and that if you could impose your culture on your victims you could limit the creativity of their vision, destroying their ability to act with will and intent and in their own interests.’ Another painting in earthy maroon reads: ‘The four stages of subversion/ Demoralization/ Destabilization/ Crisis/ Normalization’.
What is clear is that the intention of the show is to subvert and disrupt. And the term they’ve used is ‘future-orientated disobedience’. In an interview curator, Nkule Mabaso, uses a plumbing metaphor to explain this:
Let’s say you have an immaculate structure and then a pipe bursts within the wall. It may take the longest time, but the water will eventually find a way to drip through to the outside.
So then, if we consider the monolithic themes that the artists are trying to chip away at with their practice, they are basically trying to burst the pipe inside the wall so that something can drip through. And when you eventually come across the dripping you can know that if you follow that drip, with enough time somewhere in that vicinity, you can find the pipe.
Someone with systemic power can come to that situation and can say “we need to shut the water off” then they can go into the wall and fix the ‘problem’. These artists don’t have that, they have the power of disruption; future-oriented disobedience.
Because it’s not for now, it’s for some time later. And later it may not even make sense – but it’s an attempt which is all there can ever be.
And what are those things that Zenzile is chipping away at? In his practice and in his masters dissertation, he is looking at epistemic justice inside the academy. He is asking: why must I use this list of references and sources? I want to bring in my own list of references, my own personal canon of things that make sense to me.
There’s something ironic about how tolerated, even encouraged, works such as these are at the Biennale, when they are so critical of the hegemonic environment they inhabit. They communicate a sense of jaded reluctance on the part of the artists and curators whose prestige and professional longevity depends on how well they navigate the institutions against which they hold justified intergenerational grudges. The curatorial statement contains the lines: ‘The stronger we become reflects the disenchantment, disillusionment and scepticism towards the agendas inherent in national and global discourses. But more importantly, it looks towards the subversiveness of often overlooked intimate spaces…’
This subversion extends to our own governmental structures. Mabaso said of finding that their proposal was accepted: ‘We understood immediately when we received the news that [the department] had misunderstood it. And when they called me, and I told Nomusa, I said … they’re going to be so pissed off, and they’ve been angry ever since. We’ve been fighting because they’re starting to catch on.’ This anger probably stems in part from the fact that ‘the stronger we become’, while having the same optimistic ring as ‘rainbow nation’, is far from a utopian appraisal of the South African existence. Makhubu writes of the term Rainbow Nation: ‘This utopian ideal, if it can really be perceived as such, obscures bottled anxieties that decelerate genuine social transformation and shelters unchanging myopic attitudes towards the issue of race in South Africa.’ The Department of Arts and Culture’s displeasure may also be the result of the way it is cast as a resilient (code for ‘inflexible’) institution by the exhibition.
One of the interpretations of ‘stronger’ Mabaso gives is ‘resilient. She spoke about what she sees as a culture of unadaptable institutions, saying:
Now let’s consider South Africa – it’s considered to be resilient. Resilient means that your institutions absorb shock and then go back to the way they were. That’s problematic! South Africa does not need resilient institutions, It needs anti-fragile institutions – so that when the shock happens they are able to respond to the shock and move towards the source of the shock. They need to be able to produce different outcomes – not simply fold back to where they were. It is by having resilient institutions you end up with Marikana, you end up with violence against students, you end up with recurring xenophobic attacks. Because the mechanisms you use to deal with uprising are the same ones still in place.
Even the repurposing of terms we usually take to have positive connotations is a form of subversion. Rose gives the Latin language a similar treatment in her video Hard Black On Cotton, where it is used as a vehicle for a free-verse collection of unreferenced quotes. The actor Denzel Edgar performs a complex monologue, contorting his tongue and parroting the alien language with occasional voice over by Simon Njami. He rolls the strange syllables around in his mouth, trying self-consciously to sound as though he commands the language and not the other way around. In the end his clumsy efforts are rewarded and the scene, which shows him in a ramshackle study, changes and he is in a simulation of a ruby-red magic carpet. Gaudy ornaments surround him, his eyes light up and his forehead glistens with sweat. The Romantic, Orientalist aesthetic mirrors Delacroix’s 1828 painting, The Death Of Sardanapalus. The difference here is that the protagonist on his vermilion bed is grinning. Here he is Mansa Musa – the emperor of Mali who lives in popular imagination as the wealthiest and most powerful black man in history. During his rule, Mansa Musa established Timbuktu as the centre of learning in the Mali Empire and Africa, which it remained until the 1600s. This makes it ironic that he would be speaking Latin instead of one of the Manding Languages of Mali. Now, Latin is the language associated with classical academia, with naming and categorizing, and here it is put to unlikely use as a medium for rhetoric that is pro-black and anti-establishment.
Bopape’s installation is intermittently illuminated by little pools of light. These take the form of a fictional constellation throwing occasional mud bricks into muted relief. Her work is delineated by a blue tarpaulin on which she has built an earthen edifice. The form is unclear, but it is perspicuously non-organic and of human construction. The building materials feel rural, but the scale could be life size or a model of a larger structure.
When I mentioned that I was concerned that, in the absence of context, readings of Bopape’s work as primitivist were possible and may be valid, Mabaso disagreed. She made a distinction between the ideas found in the work (which are wide-ranging) and the ideological framework in which Bopape works which narrows possible interpretations. From the context brought to the work by the artist’s demographic, we can tap into the symbolic vocabulary of her materials and hopefully know that they signal land, dispossession, femininity, spirituality, inherent connection with the elements and playful un-planned construction.
The title of Bopape’s installation is Marapo a yona Dinaledi (Its bones the stars), hint at a metaphorical interpretation of the universe as an organism. The way she puts together the work in a flow state implies a trance-like capitulation to that universal structure. The idea that it signals a cohesive whole outside of conventional (western) understanding and presents an alternative that is numinous and holistic can exert a pull away from the narratives and tools-for-thought we currently rely on.
The stronger we become inhabits a dark space not unlike the subconscious which exists in complex contrast to the blinding sunlight and frenetic production outside. Yet none of its intricacy is apparent in situ (even if you’re fluent in Latin). Understanding the exhibition is a quest that begins in its aftermath. I would say that having access to an arts degree, unlimited internet and an interview with an obliging curator is almost mandatory. Ultimately, to my mind, it’s little wonder that the proposal could be misconstrued. Provision for misunderstanding is even made in an accompanying essay by Gabi Ngcobo, a formidable creative researcher who was appointed curator of the tenth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. She writes:
To apply opacity as a strategy for making things differently clear is a way of owning the right to non-imperative clarities. It is a commitment towards the rearrangement of systems for the creation of new knowledge, a way of distributing responsibility for the historical process of unravelling ‘the problems we didn’t create.’
Through this lens the work is not simply ambiguous, but deliberately wriggles from the mind’s grasp. Whether that is to allow an emotional interpretation to be primary to the experience, to exclude the viewer to enforce empathy with a feeling of exclusion or to frustrate the viewer when he or she is an intellectual enemy, I simply cannot know.
What is clear is the importance of balancing information with intrigue. A negotiation happens in The Stronger We Become between enforcing and ceding one’s authorial and curatorial intentions. Essentially, between giving up control (and accepting that viewers may come away with readings of the work with which you don’t agree) or providing plenty of context and exposition.