When visitors and architecture stars from around the world flock into Venice on May 26 for the opening of the prestigious Venice Biennale of Architecture there will not be a South African Pavilion.
That’s because there will not be a South African exhibition this year.
Zimasa Velaphi, spokesperson for the department of arts and culture, confirmed the news this week: “The tender will be cancelled in the government tender bulletin and press [because] the tenders received and evaluated did not adhere to all the policy requirements and a decision was taken not to take part.”
The local architecture fraternity and bidders that City Press spoke to are, however, outraged.
They insisted it was the department that messed up by dragging its feet, and not them.
A South African no-show will throw away the estimated R1.5 million spent to lease and maintain the South African Pavilion in the tower-like building called Torre di Porta Nuova, in the Arsenale, a converted shipyard in the heart of the biennale action.
South Africa signed a 20-year lease for the coveted square metre space. The time and effort of the bidders has been wasted.
The estimated R5 million budgeted to stage the show will, says Velaphi, be “reallocated to plan for the 2019 Venice Art biennale”.
City Press has studied some of the lengthy bids, which appeared to meet all of the rigorous tender requirements.
No stranger to Venice controversy, the department was supposed to have announced the winning bid to showcase South Africa’s most visionary design thinkers last October.
Instead, just days before the announcement, the four bidders received letters requesting an extension of their tenders until the end of January.
That deadline came and went and they say they received no further notice, despite contacting the department for clarity.
The Venice showcases – the famous art biennale that alternates with the architecture biennale – were chosen by the state seven years back to promote and expose South African art and design on an international platform and to “open market access for economic growth”.
But the 2015 art exhibition was announced horribly late and South Africa’s debut in Venice in 2011 was mired by allegations of corruption and evidence of dodgy invoices.
What has actually gone wrong this time is unclear – two sources in the department say the proposals were evaluated and the preferred bidder sent to the director-general Vusi Mkhize.
They believe the strongest bidder was Grahamstown Power Station, submitted by a team that included the National Arts Festival.
They have staged the South African art pavilion in Venice before and would provide infrastructure for content from acclaimed young Cape Town architect Ilze Wolff.
Wolff, who combines advocacy, community involvement and academic research in her ground-breaking work, was shortlisted for the Moira Gemmill Emerging architect of the year award, 2018 by the Architectural Review, an important platform for global architecture.
Apart from co-directing her own firm with Heinrich Wolff, she is an architecture fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.
Contacted for comment about the Venice fiasco this week, Power Station’s Tony Lankester said that “the news is really disappointing. What an amazing opportunity wasted.”