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South Africa’s Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale Asks Unsettling Questions

Reflection, resilience, revolution: the curators of SA’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu, share their vision.

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The South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019 features work by Tracey Rose, Dineo Seshee Bopape and Mawande Ka Zenzile (multiple artworks pictured).

 

'The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.' The famous words of African-American author and activist Toni Cade Bambara are as poignant today as they were in the 1990s.

It’s why global art platforms such as La Biennale di Venezia (the Venice Biennale) are increasingly places of protest and polemics. After all, art is fundamentally an expression of our experiences. Which is why this year’s La Biennale theme – ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ – echoes the turbulent global landscape of today. 

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Curators of South Africa’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019, Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu.

 

In turn, 2019’s acclaimed curators of South Africa’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu, have presented a curatorial approach entitled ‘The Stronger We Become’ – because with interesting times comes deep-rooted resilience. 

'We were not aiming to curate a response to the main curatorial theme,' explain Mabaso and Makhubu. 'It wasn't made to "fit" the international curatorial theme but converged with it. “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.'

Mabaso and Makhubu selected three South African artists to showcase as part of the Venice Biennale pavilion, supported by the Department of Arts and Culture: Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile. Rose is no stranger to La Biennale, having presented work previously in 2001. Together, they have created a pavilion that interrogates and absorbs the senses. 

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Installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape.

 

'The selected artists and their pieces were apt in the process of working with the concept of social resilience. The work of Bopape, Rose and Ka Zenzile delves deeper into the concept of social resilience and gives nuanced interpretations of the contestation against hegemonic discourse,' say Mabaso and Makhubu.

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'It's the boldness, frankness and rawness in the artists’ work that was important. Bopape's space-time installations, Ka Zenzile's earthy, bold, double-edged paintings and Rose's resolute performance art show, in different ways, reflect the disillusion with the "post" in post-colonial 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.' 

It was no coincidence that the opening night of South Africa’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale was also election night back on local shores. 

'With this exhibition, we are acknowledging the climate of cynicism and disillusionment,' say Mabaso and Makhubu. 'We are also acknowledging what it is that makes us fully human, in the context of a dehumanising history.'

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For Mabaso and Makhubu – and indeed for the artists sharing the stage at South Africa’s pavilion this year – our country’s revolutionary past must not remain just that: in the past. If there’s one thing the curatorial duo wants viewers to take home from the pavilion, it’s reflection.

Venice Biennale | House and Leisure
Work by Mawande Ka Zenzile and Tracey Rose (multiple artworks pictured) at the Venice Biennale 2019.

 

'The exhibition is designed as an immersive, contemplative space,' they say. And if that isn’t art making revolution irresistible, we don’t know what is.

For more about the pavilion, the artists and the curators, visit thestrongerwebecome.co.za.

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