Murky waters at 2011 Venice Biennale

2012-04-14 17:16

As government arts funding is squeezed, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) has raised more questions than answers in clarifying its support of an art fair to which it gave R10 million.

In a written response to a parliamentary question for Arts Minister Paul Mashatile by the Democratic Alliance, the department admits that no tender was put out for the job of creating an exhibition to represent the country at the prestigious 2011 Venice Biennale.

The department, which says it provided R10 million of the proposed R14 million budget, also claims it spent:

» R1.5 million on architects to design and construct the exhibition space – yet the building only needed temporary electrification and art mounting;

» R800 000 on advertising wraps for the exhibition space – yet seems to have hung only a small banner; and

» R360 000 on social media engagement – yet only a Twitter account can be found online.

However, the most shocking revelation is that R1.5 million of the funding provided went to management of the project while the artists themselves received only R150 000 each to create their work.

The department does not state who received the management fee, but said the project was not put out to tender as “there was no time to call for public participation since any delay would have caused South Africa to miss the deadline”.

DAC officials write that “the Department received a proposal from Cul Art for South Africa to participate in the Venice Biennalle (sic) in Italy. Once the proposal was approved, Mr Mokoena was then appointed as the Commissioner for South Africa.”

A company search reveals that Culart Productions was established by Lethole Mokoena and Kgwadibe Mangwedi in January 2011.

The SA exhibition in Venice, titled Desire, opened on June 3 2011. The art community was perplexed to learn that Lethole Mokoena was the Venice commissioner as they had never heard of him.

It was soon revealed, however, that Lethole was well-known Johannesburg gallerist Monna Mokoena. There was further outrage when it was revealed that two of the three artists sent to Venice – Mary Sibande and Lyndi Sales – belong to Mokoena’s stable at his Momo Gallery.

The third artist, Siemon Allen, has international representation and a fourth – Zwelethu Mthethwa – withdrew because he found the offer “murky”. Mangwedi was appointed project manager.

The issue of conflict of interest did not arise, says the department, because “no conditions were imposed to exclude artists from (Mokoena’s) own gallery”. Mokoena, it seems, had free rein to select friends and colleagues to represent the country.

Public relations for the event, according to the department, was handled by Victor Dlamini. Dlamini and Mokoena are joint directors in a company called Island Breeze Trading.

Mokoena did not respond to questions this week. However, the budgeted amounts seem wholly out of synch with the actual work done. Social media around the project seems to involve only a Twitter account active for 11 days and tweeting 232 times.

Hypothetically, at the budgeted R360 000, someone earned R1 500 per tweet.

Another area of incongruity is the on-site marketing.

R800 000 was budgeted for “building advertising wraps” yet visitors to Venice took photos revealing just a small banner hanging from the side of the building. A further R600 000 was budgeted for “building advertising wraps”.

Another murky entry involves the architects. Local firm MMA was to earn R320 000. When contacted, Mphethi Morojele of MMA confirmed that he helped Mokoena find a venue in Venice and also put him in touch with Italian architects to prepare the exhibition space.

He denied being paid this amount, saying he received less.

The chosen site was Torre di Porta Nuova. It is part of a new extension of permanent pavilions for the Biennale called Arsenale Nuovissimo. It is unclear why R1.5 million was budgeted for the Italian architects as the City of Venice had recently renovated the building. All exhibitors had to do was electrify it and mount work.

No structural work appears to have been done.

Several South African visitors to the Biennale contacted this week complained about the choice of venue, saying no taxis were available and others struggled to get into a taxi when the tide was low. Many gave up and visited other countries’ pavilions instead.

Ironically, South African artists Nicholas Hlobo and David Goldblatt, exhibited on international shows, were the talk of Venice – and not the official South African selection.

Department spokesperson Kalay Maistry this week said: “Many of the issues you raise in your email are the same as those raised by Mr Blackman, who has taken the DAC to court. The department is taking legal advice and will respond in due course. It would be inappropriate to comment at this stage.”

Matthew Blackman is the journalist, lecturer and public arts practitioner who has served the department with court papers for failing to respond to a request about the Venice Biennale under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

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