Johannesburg - "What would the world be if artists were given the power to create it?” asks French curator Christine Macel. A question posed not to other curators, governmental bodies or media groups, but to artists themselves who, for a change, are at the core of the programme for this year’s Venice Biennale – the 57th edition of the world’s most important art exhibition. “Viva, arte, viva” she says to the 57 countries who will be represented at the event that – her curatorial directive demands – is “designed with the artists, by the artists, and for the artists”.
South Africa’s official response to the question arrived three days after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Pretoria, marching against the country’s immigrant population, wielding axes, spears and sticks meant to violently attack immigrants opposing the march. The memory of that day, alongside earlier xenophobic attacks from South African nationals, linger in the room as South Africa’s two-person exhibition is announced.
As two of the country’s leading artists, Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng will undertake “a reflection on experiences of exclusion, displacement, transience, migration and xenophobia, exploring the complex sociopolitical forces that shape the performance of selfhood under such conditions”.
The sentiment couldn’t have been better timed, but seemed oddly out of step with the Champagne and canapé, invite-only event held at Johannesburg’s luxurious Keyes Art Mile development to launch the pavilion – a similar experience, I later learn, to the Venice Biennale itself.
Breitz explains the horrible irony of earlier experiences at the Biennale, where both she and Modisakeng have been represented before: “When you walk around Venice, you can’t help but notice that there’s this whole informal economy of migrants and refugees, who have all arrived in Venice while trying to escape the injustices of their own countries of origin. You can’t ignore the thousands of Africans and Asians, many of them homeless, that have arrived in the country. You have to be blind not to see what’s happening there.”
A strange place
The Venice Biennale, some artists say, is a strange place. At the six-month-long event, each country erects multimillion rand exhibitions, often about global issues, but as you walk from one pavilion to the next, those very same issues – such as the city’s many homeless – are ignored.
“Homelessness is at the heart of the discussion we’re having this year,” Modisakeng says. “For me personally, the experience of being black in South Africa, where I was born, is that it’s somewhere you feel the experience of being at home, but you don’t own land. A big percentage of the land [in South Africa] is still white-owned.”
“Seventy-five percent of the land is still white-owned, according to a parliamentary debate I watched last night,” says Breitz in agreement. I later discover that fact-checking organisation Africa Check refutes this claim, saying it’s impossible to ascertain exactly how much land is in the hands of white owners. But the point is clear – things are still unequal, 23 years after the rise of what Modisakeng describes as “the democratic regime”.
“So,” Modisakeng continues, “how do I feel at home in a country where ... there was a systematic effort to make me feel like I don’t belong? As a black person, I once would have had to carry a passbook. But we are taught to forget. And then you find someone who has moved from their country to this one and they are also homeless. We are taught by white supremacy that, as black people, we are ‘different’, so we attack one another.”
“It’s related to a certain mythology that exists around Venice,” Breitz says in response. “There’s an assumption that all participating nations show up at the biennale on an equal footing and enter into symmetrical dialogue, that everybody comes to the table wanting to have the same sort of conversation. But the resources and priorities that one brings to Venice of course differ vastly, depending on which country one is representing. It’s quite clear that a country like the US brings far greater resources and very different priorities to Venice than does a country like Nigeria or South Africa. You can tell instantly when you walk around the biennale, where the priorities of each nation lie.”
She continues: “The biennale inevitably reflects the asymmetrical realities of the various nation-states that show up. It invites introspection around what nationality means, around whether and how we should be questioning simplistic definitions of nationhood in an age of extreme xenophobia. What are the conditions under which artists represent their countries?”
A moving pavilion
How that will come together as a national pavilion will all be revealed in May this year when the Venice Biennale officially opens. The biennale forbids any participants from revealing the exact work they will be exhibiting beforehand, so all Breitz and Modisakeng can tell us is that the pavilion will use the moving image as a medium.
“The message of a video is more immediate, which has a lot to do with the fact that people are used to receiving images in the form of television, so people are already conditioned to read images when they are continuous frames.
“But also, practically, if I had to make a sculpture for the Venice Biennale, it would be quite an undertaking – I would need the material and the space to make it, and a lot of young, black South African artists don’t have access to those resources. So, it’s an easy medium to create with, without the constraints of resources. That’s how I gravitated towards it, anyway.”
There still exists confusion about the moving image as an art object, though, largely because it cannot be bought, or hung on a wall in the traditional sense. “The art world is really about commodity,” Modisakeng responds, “so how do you bring that into the art world when it has no real value as an object? It’s a question the whole world is grappling with at the moment.”
Breitz was one of the early pioneers of the moving image in the South African gallery space, and Modisakeng’s formative experience with her works became the first “meeting” between the two. Modisakeng was working as a gallery assistant in Cape Town where one of Breitz’s more famous installations was being exhibited. For eight hours per day, Modisakeng would live with her trademark multichannel works that, Breitz explains, explored “the way mass media infantilises the audience”.
They laugh about the “brutal” experience that Modisakeng had to endure, where Freddy Mercury would chant “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma...” (extracted from Bohemian Rhapsody), while Madonna’s “pa-pa-pa-pa-pa…” (from Papa Don’t Preach) would ring throughout the space all day.
“I tell the galleries that it’s too much for a person to be immersed in the noise all day, but they don’t always listen!”
“I’m sorry, Mohau!” she says, smiling as she covers her eyes with her hands.
“I actually enjoyed it,” Modisakeng responds, laughing. “When you live with someone else’s work, you understand who that person is, in a way, and you create your own experience of the world through their eyes. A lot, I think, like what should happen at the Biennale this year.”
Sharing the pie
Breitz has lived in Berlin and New York for most of her adult life, so she has her own experience of migration, albeit one vastly different from that of a refugee. “In my case, migration has been a privileged experience.
“As an English-speaking, middle class, white South African who was able to accept an opportunity to study in the US and who then later chose to be based in Germany, my experience has been at the opposite end of the scale to what we usually think about when we talk about migration.
“Migration happens at various levels of privilege. We obviously need to focus the conversation on those levels at which there is little or no privilege.”
“Privilege, yes, economics as well, but I think the issue of xenophobia is something that results from our history,” Modisakeng says to Breitz. “I worry that people aren’t able to make the connection to the past. I grew up in Soweto and had to ‘migrate’ into Johannesburg for most of my life via train. Each time xenophobia flares up, people are like, ‘Why is this happening?’ There are all these structural issues, yes, but our social history also has that trauma and that violence.
“But South Africans still have this illusion that things are okay,” Modisakeng continues, looking at me. “Coming from Soweto, I can see what selling this hope of change can do to a person over a long time, when that despair sets in. It’s from that sense of despair that someone will run out on to the streets and attack another African person.”
“Agreed,” says Breitz. “Many of the challenges that we face in this country, like xenophobia, need to be understood as consequences of the lack of meaningful transformation. It’s not easy to be generous if you feel that the arrival of democracy has not adequately transformed your living conditions; your quality of life is still no better than that of your parents’ or grandparents’. It’s hard to share the pie with others when you haven’t been offered a piece of the pie yet yourself.
“It’s simple – when people feel vulnerable, they attack one another.” Modisakeng says, sitting back in his chair with crossed arms. “So really, the question that we are asking is how you reconcile home in South Africa, and globally.”
To include South Africans who aren’t able to visit the event, special efforts are being made by organisers to create online platforms that make the works accessible to a wider audience, so make sure to visit The South African Pavilion.