SA’s Venice art scandal grows

2013-08-01 13:38

The controversy around a R10 million South African exhibition at the Venice Biennale refuses to die down two years on. In fact, it just keeps growing.

The editor of online art magazine ArtThrob, Matthew Blackman, has made several startling new claims about apparently dodgy invoices submitted by the company CulArt – who staged the exhibition – to account for its spending.

The show was paid for by the department of arts and culture (DAC).

“By a rough addition, at least R4 million of the R10 million CulArt received from the DAC for the 2011 event is backed up by irregular or apparently faked invoices,” claims Blackman.

Last year, in response to questions raised in Parliament by the DA, Arts Minister Paul Mashatile admitted that the DAC had selected a curator and funded the show without putting it out to tender.

At the time, the art community was up in arms when it emerged that Mashatile’s chosen curator, Monna Mokoena (CulArt), had selected mostly his gallery’s artists to appear on an exhibition that’s supposed to represent the nation’s artists.

A budget made available to Parliament revealed numerous other inconsistencies:

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

» R800 000 spent on advertising wraps – yet only a small banner seems to have been hung;

» R360 000 spent on social media engagement – yet only a Twitter account could be found online; and

» R1.5 million spent on management of the project – while artists received only R150 000 each to create work.

» Read Murky waters at 2011 Venice Biennale.

Blackman then made an application for further documentation through the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

ArtThrob this week published a version of Blackman’s story that appeared in the Argus on Sunday. It outlines an audit of the Venice show that appears to contain at least two fraudulent invoices.

Architect Mphethi Morojele of the firm MMA allegedly invoiced Mokoena R360 000 for designing the Venice pavilion. Although having previously told City Press he did some consultation, he denies he designed the pavilion – or that he submitted the invoice contained in the audit.

“I would like to put on record that I have absolutely no knowledge of the attached invoice – which is not even a proper MMA invoice – nor has MMA ever been paid the stated amount,” Morojele told Blackman.

SA’s Venice art scandal grows

“Also signed off in the audit,” writes Blackman, “are 10 different invoices from Italian nationals and companies – all of which were formatted identically. Some of these manifest inaccurate Italian spellings and grammar.

“Equally mysterious is another invoice, this one from a South African company, called Novactive, paid over R1.5 million. The invoice claims that Novactive was paid R1.3 million for ‘boat hire’ and ‘installing (the artworks)’. But according to sources close to the Biennale, no South African company assisted with the actual installation of the exhibition in Venice.”

City Press is in possession of the invoices obtained by Blackman.

In April, the DAC responded to Blackman’s questions about the invoices with an email from media relations manager Teresa Shabalala.

“The department contracted with CulArt, which, in turn, submitted audited financials to account for the funding. If there was any fraud supposedly committed by CulArt, it would have been picked up by the auditors. We have no reason to doubt the professionalism of the audit company,” she wrote.

Last week, says Blackman, they stood by their response.

This week, the department’s Lisa Combrinck said: “Mr Blackman ‘creatively’ interprets the DAC’s April response ... The DAC had indicated to Mr Blackman that we have no reason to doubt the professionalism of the audit; we did not say there was ‘no reason to doubt fake invoices’ which is how Mr Blackman now puts it.” She appears to be referring to the headline on Blackman’s story (“Department states it has no reason to doubt faked invoices”).

In an exclusive interview with Mashatile in Paris in June, he dismissed any allegations of corruption concerning the exhibition and told City Press: “Look at Mary Sibande (one of the artists on the 2011 show). She is now famous all over Europe because of us.”

When approached for comment this week, Mokoena of CulArt told City Press: “I was not aware of any fake invoices. Now that it’s been brought to my attention I will look into it.”

Read Blackman’s full story at ArtThrob.

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