Venice art scandal rages on

Department of arts and culture makes several startling revelations.

The department of arts and culture has made several surprising revelations in response to questions about a controversial South African art exhibition at the Venice ­Biennale last year.

In director-general Sibusiso ­Xaba’s explanation of how a commercial Joburg gallerist, Monna Mokoena, could be given R10 million for one exhibition and then ­select mainly his own gallery’s artists to represent the country, it appears his department is in the dark.

He could not provide adequate documentation about the apparent arrangement made between Mokoena and Arts Minister Paul Mashatile.

Xaba’s response to an application by journalist Matthew Blackman under the Promotion of ­Access to Information Act (Paia) also reveals that:
» The department warned Mokoena that the art community would be upset about a lack of ­consultation;
» Mashatile would be compromised in Parliament as a result; and
» The company Mokoena used to propose the project didn’t yet exist.

Xaba admits in an affadavit that “there are no minutes or other records” documenting Mashatile’s decision to appoint Mokoena as South Africa’s commissioner, other than a letter to the South African ambassador in Italy announcing it.

He did not provide Mokoena’s proposal or offer proof that a ­contract existed with CulArt, a company co-owned by Mokoena that staged the exhibit.

However, department spokesperson Lisa Combrinck said a ­contract did exist.

When asked why this was not ­included in the Paia response, she could not comment.

Lawyers who have seen Xaba’s response said it was “disingenuous” not to have included a ­contract as part of the documentation required.

The only minutes Xaba was able to provide are of a meeting between the department and CulArt at Melrose Arch on March 15 2011.

The meeting opens with the ­department’s Lindiwe Ndebele-Koka addressing the issue of the artists selected, asking Mokoena “if the industry has been consulted” as she “anticipates a lot of questions”. Later the department’s Lulama Ndabankulu raises the matter again, suggesting galleries that should be consulted – Joburg’s Goodman, Cape Town’s Iziko and two Free State galleries.

Ndebele-Koka warns that the ­department could get “bad ­publicity” and face “parliamentary questions that could put the minister in a difficult position”.

In fact, her warnings came ­horribly true.

A month later, there was outrage from the art community when it was announced that two of the three artists selected were from Mokoena’s stable at Gallery ­MOMO.

There was further anger when the Democratic Alliance requested parliamentary answers from the minister, and the Venice budget ­revealed discrepancies between money allocated and money spent on various line items – including R800 000 for a banner outside the exhibition and R360 000 to run a Twitter account.

In the meeting, Mokoena is ­reported to say “at this late stage” there is “no room for any other ­artists”, that the matter was “done and dusted”, and that he had “discussed the artists with the minister and that he approved”.

Xaba’s affidavit states that “Mokoena and CulArt” approached the minister with the Venice proposal “towards the end of 2010”.

A company search reveals that CulArt was only registered on ­January 19 2011.

Xaba denied in his affidavit that there was any pre-existing relationship between Mokoena and the minister.
He said there were “no ­guidelines or policy statements ­regarding the appointments of commissioners”.

Last week Mashatile announced that South Africa would again exhibit in Venice in 2013 as part of his Mzansi Golden Economy Strategy. Combrinck said “the department was working on a cultural diplomacy policy as regards international participation”.
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