Pavilion of South Africa
Title of the exhibition:
Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art
Exhibitors: Mary Sibande, Siemon Allen, Lyndi Sales
Lethole Mokoena
Thembinkosi Goniwe
Torre di Porta Nuova, Arsenale Nuovissimo

This exhibition features four South African artists whose work explores a range of realities, memories and fantasies. The artists produce imaginary truths or rather ideal narratives that reflect on South Africa, a country that is simultaneously adored and detested. South Africa is a specific cultural geography desired and envied due to both its violent inhuman history and the current democratic transformation thriving to foster human values of equality, respect and dignity. Such contrasting attitudes toward South Africa also owe to the irreconcilable discrepancies between the country’s wealth and poverty, the beauty of nature and distasteful wellbeing-ness of poor people. These discrepant conditions dictated by politics and economic factors make democratic South Africa very curious, thus a subject of interrogation to artists, curators and scholars. Yet, there are artists who mission not to only reflect on the dark side of South Africa. These artists produce work that illuminates positive thoughts and experiences. Their affirmative work is not simply passive but rather reflective on examining the politics of humanity, quality of life, various human senses and emotions. These artists have rendered post-apartheid South Africa a site to explore ideals of beauty, pleasure, democracy and freedom. They do so in intimate ways that are irreducible to political rhetoric or ideological stance. Their work is charged, like South Africa it-self, with emotion even if their aesthetic language and representational strategies are conceptual and abstract in form. Desire is an exhibition in which the four artists’ work provides differentiated avenues to re-think the ideals and experiences promised by democracy. The project takes desire to mean yearning and need, the necessity to realize that which individuals do not have but are longing for. In a word, the notion desire is a state of both lack and the elementary motivating factor of human actions and deeds. It speaks to crisis and realization. The world at large deserves to witness and share these ideals as they are inherent in South Africa’s artistic practice, and the curated exhibition Desire will provide such a window into South Africa as seen through the prism of the 2011 Venice Biennale. The exhibition will be a site to contemplate the openness and limits of democracy in ways in which politics of hope and delight are explored. Such a thematic approach speaks to the gifts South Africa has and should share with the world at large. The Venice Biennale is an appropriate international forum for South African artists and curators to share and engage with what their country has offered them, a gift of making possible democratic ideals. The Venice Biennale, with its long history of art, is one of the platforms that enables global participation and contribution of artists, curators, scholars from diverse national backgrounds. To participate in Venice signifies not only recognition and respect but also global interactions and relationships. Exhibiting in the Venice Biennale means visible existence in the world of cultural productions and artistic innovations. Thus South Africa’s participation in the Venice Biennale is important as it will afford the country the opportunity to make visible its own cultural production and artistic aspirations, affording its artists, curators and scholars to display and reflect on the country’s creative wealth and intellectual innovations. And South Africa has the means to both participate and contribute to the making of global history of art, of which artists, curators and scholars are given the global platform to take stock of their national creation and heritage. South Africa’s participation, through re-establishing a pavilion in the Venice Biennale won’t be new or for the first time, but a refreshing return since the country was ostracized due to its apartheid race laws. What is significant about this refreshing return is the fact that South Africa will be one of the very few African countries to have a national pavilion, thus joining Egypt which has maintained a national pavilion since the inception of the Venice Biennale. In this regard, South Africa’s pavilion will contribute to making visibly present what has come to be the virtual absence of national pavilions from Africa, a continent comprised of more than fifty countries.

Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art
By Thembinkosi Goniwe

Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art, marks democratic South Africa’s debut at the Venice Art Biennale. Over the past 17 years, since throwing off apartheid rule and entering into the ‘club of nations’ with constitutional democracies, South Africa has emerged as a symbol of how best to fan freedom from the ashes of bondage.

As democracy has emerged, so has South Africa’s role in the global art world. South African artists have received considerable global attention, especially those working in the realm of contemporary art — as do the three artists represented in Desire. Many of the country’s artists have long been closely followed by the international art world, the interest spurred in part by the obvious, as well as more subtle, links between this art and democracy.

It is only apt, then, that the works in Desire offer three approaches to re-thinking the ideals and experiences promised by democracy. Here, desire is taken to mean yearning and need, recognising what individuals do not have, but long for. The notion of desire suggests both a lack as well as alluding to the simple motivation behind many human actions and deeds. Desire speaks to crisis and determination. It is an unrelenting force. Nothing is inert, complete and fixed about desire. Neither is desire tangible. It is rather a mystical force that exists in the form of imagination, the aspiring agent inherent with the power to dream. And, desire is the source of both creativity and of art.

Democracy in South Africa provides enabling conditions for artists to explore works of art that centralise their desires, to explore subjects that were no longer restricted to oppressive conditions primarily concerned with apartheid and its consequences. Post-apartheid art tackles a variety of subjects ranging from memory, history and culture to the self, the body, psyche and emotions. Representations of these subjects are imaginative and poetic, more so rendered in subtle and nuanced ways that avoid political over-determinancy. These representations engage the meaning and value of life in the social realm at its most complex and ambiguous levels. Through the works of Mary Sibande, Lyndi Sales and Siemon Allen, the exhibition Desire presents some of these South African artistic developments at the Venice Biennale.

It should be noted that South Africa’s participation in the 54th Venice Biennale is not technically a debut, but rather a return to this international cultural venue: it is our first appearance as a nation since the country was excluded from international events due to its race laws during apartheid. Although South Africa has been present in the Venice Biennale in 1993, 1995 and 2009, it was not through an official pavilion as is the case this year.

We are therefore proud to join Egypt, which has maintained a national pavilion since the Venice Biennale began, in representing Africa. Together with Morocco, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe at this year’s Venice Biennale (hopefully to continue and expand in future), it is a step toward making Africa – a continent comprised of more than 50 countries – visible where it has long been nearly absent. Such a development is important taking into account the push for democracy that has arisen in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt.

South Africa has been a leading example for instituting and nurturing democracy on the continent, not to mention its stable and growing economy. It is fitting that in a year when South Africa earned recognition on the global economic stage by joining the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) notable for their influential developing economies, it is also earning recognition on the global cultural stage by having a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Such developments extend to South Africa’s achievements in hosting the FIFA 2010 World Cup, for instance.

At a time when a push for democracy can be detected in many parts of Africa, Desire offers a chance to contemplate the openness and limits of democracy and to explore the politics of optimism, of hope and delight. The South African artists represented in Desire explore a range of realities, memories and fantasies. Their work presents imaginary truths or, rather, ideal narratives that reflect on South Africa and how it has transcended its past to foster equality, respect and dignity for all human beings.

Sibande’s work is based on a character named Sophie. Informing the work is a story of the artist’s mother who has worked as a maid and has not quite enjoyed a sustained romantic relationship with the artist’s father. Sophie yearns to be free from domestic subordination and to attain not only social affluence but also subjecthood – as a human subject that matters. Sophie is modelled in Mary Sibande’s image, as such the work, in some way, is autobiographical and represents concerns of the artist.

Lovers in Tango and …of Prosperity reflect on a failed relation of the artists’ parents, a relationship that was once passionate and dramatic but now has become the cold and distant coexistence of two strangers. Despite her failed romantic relationship, Sophie is rendered daring and poised, embodying a set of fantasies. She is monumental in size, dressed in elaborate blue costumes that are a fusion of a maid’s uniform and Victorian dress. Her bodily gestures and facial expressions are a both combination of seriousness and of putting up a front. These characteristics make Sophie a complex figure, a sophisticated black woman; she represents the artist’s alter ego and desire. In this sense, Sophie exists as a site for dreaming, of becoming something other than subordinate, a servant and failure, particularly in a world in which black woman are not treated with the dignity they deserve.

Sales’ work is concerned with creative avenues of perception and the possibilities of alternative realities, thus her work leans toward abstraction. Mining archives and referencing astronomy, Sales constructs aesthetic objects whose geometric and symbolic shapes become visual sites for imagining a world different from our social reality. Devoid of overt sociopolitical concerns, Sales’ Satellite Telescope makes reference to a satellite that was sent into space from Kenya in 1970. The success of this satellite through innovative radiation technology revealed the great wonders of an infinite universe beyond our own world.

Besides this reference to scientific artifact, the work offers not only a temporary escape from entrapment of material reality as it transports us to an imagined space; it also offers the possibility to imagine different worlds, in particular for those who are yearning for a world beyond their grasp. Sales’ work is utopic, created through visual illusions that might offer relief and comfort for those who are looking for an opportunity to appreciate beauty and pleasure.

A collector and an archivist, Allen is interested in South African artifacts that serve as material data to re-construct in artistic representations. In collecting, cataloguing and (re)configuring the artifacts into meaningful art objects, Allen reorders and rewrites aspects of South African history and memory. This is evident in his project Records, comprised of large-scale prints of musical recordings from South Africa. These records bear their own history and yet speak to other histories: history of South Africa, apartheid, music, musicians, Sophiatown, collecting and the archive.

The records have travelled from one owner to another, from one place to another, and they carry with them not only musical melodies, rhythms, beats, lyrics, etc., but also damages and traces of a variety of ownership and transaction. As prints, they read as abstract shapes and aesthetic objects in themselves. Upon closer inspection, observing their magnified dated record labels, they are visual representations that seem nostalgic for a lost history whilst also providing fresh ways of engaging with history. Evident in Allen’s work is the desire to revisit, recuperate and rewrite (vanishing) histories, doing so in insightful and innovative ways also notable in the work of Sales and Sibande.

In these artists’ works, post-apartheid South Africa is a site to explore ideals of beauty, pleasure, democracy and freedom. These artists do so in intimate ways that defy political rhetoric or ideology. Their work is charged, like South Africa itself, with emotion, even if their aesthetic language and representational approaches are conceptual and abstract in form.

Whether working within or outside South Africa, our artists explore conditions that give rise to lack of and longing for personal and societal change: to desire. They wrestle with ideals of humanism and democracy, ideals whose fundamental concern is freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of being and becoming, and freedom of self-definition.

It is not always possible to achieve these fundamental human desires; they often remain elusive. Such is desire. It is a force inherent in the creations of many visual artists around the world: the process and experience of becoming, of attaining, of acquiring, of searching, of looking, of discovering… Desire is journey, voyage, plight and passage; it is an ideal experience. Our exhibition is a space for Mary Sibande, Lyndi Sales and Siemon Allen to present these ideals, whilst also participating in and contribute to an ever-widening ‘global history of art’.

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Photos by Cosmin Năsui

////////////////////////// vă prezintă, în premieră, un serial dedicat expozițiilor pavilioanelor naționale și evenimentelor paralele și dar și a celor colaterale ale Bienalei de Artă de la Veneția, unul dintre cele mai importante evenimente europene de artă contemporană.

Mulțumim Institutului Român de Cultură şi Cercetare Umanistică de la Veneția și ICR București pentru suportul și sprijinul acordat la realizarea acestui serial.