South Africans have a lot to offer each other and the rest of the world. The area of the arts is one space where we are particularly gifted as a nation. And so when CN&CO was presented with the opportunity (at a ConFab with Ann Roberts) to play a role in supporting the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale – one of the largest and most influential art events in the world – we grabbed it with all the hands we could muster. CN&CO is a passionate supporter of the arts and we love to lend a hand whenever we can.
Ann was part of the team that put the South African Pavilion together. She wrote this amazing summary for us soon after the exhibition was taken down at the end of 2017. (We have a copy of the catalogue at our Illovo HQ. Pop in for a visit if you’d like to see it!)
By Ann Roberts
Often referred to as the “Olympics of the art world”, the Venice Biennale was established in 1895 initially as a celebratory exhibition of Italian art. In the first few decades of the 20th century it established itself as THE showcase of international art and artists. The 2017 edition saw 83 country pavilions, a central exhibition showing 120 individual artists and numerous collateral events throughout the city.
In 1950 South Africa debuted at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting in the foreign halls of the biennale’s central pavilion in the Napoleonic public gardens. Well know South African artists including Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern, Maud Sumner, Sydney Kumalo and Maurice van Essche represented their country during the 50s and 60s. After strident anti-apartheid protests South Africa was excluded from the Venice Biennale in 1970.
South Africa took part once again in 1993 and 1995 but concerns around the significant budget required, the lack of a permanent exhibition space in Venice and other understandable priorities during our first years of democracy then led to a number of years of non participation. In 2011 the South African Department of Arts and Culture took a long-term lease in the historical space in the Arsenale to host South Africa for the alternating art and architecture biennales.
2017 saw the fourth consecutive edition of the South African Pavilion to be held in the Arsenale space – and CN&CO was part of this exciting event.
The 2017 Pavilion was listed as one of the “must see” pavilions by numerous media amongst others Artsy, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Le Monde, The Art Newspaper, The Telegraph, Architectural Digest and Der Spiegel. Curated by Lucy MacGarry and Musha Neluheni on behalf of the South African Department of Arts and Culture, Candice Breitz + Mohau Modisakeng was a two-person exhibition that explored and articulated historical and contemporary narratives of forced migration. The works contemplated notions of visibility and identity within a global context of “refugeeness” and its condition of exclusion and transience.
In the first room, viewers discovered Passage (2017) by Mohau Modisakeng, whose multimedia practice in photography, performance and installation was informed by a personal and idiosyncratic investigation of the artist’s coming of age during South Africa’s violent political transition. As a three-channel installation, Passage produced a meditative experience that evoked the disintegration of African identity in the wake of a violent history of slavery and its enduring effect on personal histories.
Visitors then encountered Candice Breitz’s Love Story (2016), presented as a seven-channel installation that featured Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore as conduits to convey the stories of six refugees from around the world, whose original interviews with the artist were included.
Reflective of themes and issues prevalent in Breitz’s internationally acclaimed career, Love Story interrogated the indubitable effect of mainstream media and popular culture on the conditions under which empathy and global awareness are produced.
The exhibition is currently up at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until 9 March 2018.
A selection of quotes that reflect commendation of the exhibition in the news thus far includes:
- “A striking video installation of beauty.”
— Roxana Azimi, Le Monde Afrique (18 May 2017)
- “Two separate works by South African artists Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng come together in one of the most powerful installations to address forced migration at the Biennale, where it’s a frequent theme.”
— The Venice Biennale’s 11 Best Pavilions – Arsty Editorial, Alexxa Gotthardt 10 May 2017
- “At Venice, in the South African Pavilion, Modisakeng has mounted ‘Passages,’ a three-channel video projection that, like his photography, reveals the beauty and trauma of black bodies in motion… It’s a view of existence that suggests that all experiences are transient.”
— Antwaun Sargent, The New Yorker, 25 May 2017
- “…Make sure you see South Africa’s Candice Breitz, whose complex, thoughtful film installation responds to the refugee crisis by taking the stories of six individuals each seeking asylum from oppression in their countries… Posing awkward questions about how our attention is captured and our sympathy elicited, Breitz manages – where so many others fail – to engage effectively with the complexity of this global catastrophe.”
— Louisa Buck, The Telegraph, 19 May 2017
- “The best work I have ever seen by Candice Breitz, Love Story is subtle, tragic and mesmerising, not only in its shuttling glide between different people and their histories, but also between the direct and the translation, between evidence and interpretation, fame and anonymity.”
— Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 15 May 2017
Emma Gilhooly also did a great write-up about Africa’s showing at the Biennale on nataal.com. (See image below)
While the South African Department of Arts and Culture generously funded the exhibition in the Pavilion it was with the support of the Friends of the South African Pavilion that made additional marketing and PR, production of a world class catalogue and hosting of a world class party to celebrate the occasion possible.
CN&CO played a pivotal role by recognising the Pavilion team’s need to network and establish new friends and partners while in Venice. To this end the CN&CO team proposed and supported the #BiannaleSpritzZA campaign, which enabled us to host numerous relationship-building conversations with the traditional Venetian Aperol Spritz in hand.
During the set-up period prior to opening, we met and developed relationships with our counterparts from Nigeria, New Zealand and Turkey, among many others. The Vernisagge (official opening) saw a large crowd of South African and international artists, curators, collectors, critics, media and friends gather to celebrate the works of Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng – and art in South Africa in general.
Later that evening the crowd descended on the Palazzo Pisano Moretta for what has been touted as one of the best parties in Venice. More than 1 000 people poured into the 15th century palace, set on the Grand Canal, that has retained its 18th century interiors. The first floor reception rooms have no electricity and were lit by thousands of candles in the original chandeliers.
On the ground floor, South African Afro-psychedelic band, Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) (who rerouted their flight to Paris via Venice especially to play!), literally blew the crowd away. Venice had never seen anything like it! South African DJ Lakuti then took to the decks and the party continued well into the night.
The attention and amplification the SA Pavilion garnered from the networking and socialising opportunities created by the Friends was invaluable in placing South African contemporary visual art right at the forefront of the contemporary art world in Venice. No mean feat given the scale and stature of the event!
Other Friends included Goodman Gallery, kaufmann repetto, KOW, Galerie Ron Mandos, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Tyburn Gallery, Whatiftheworld, BonelliErede, Strauss & Co, Scheryn Art Collection, KT Wong Foundation, A4 Arts Foundation, Wendy Fisher, Business and Arts South Africa and Emile Stipp.