Silence from South African art world following Venice Biennale controversy
Pavilion commissioner is also a gallerist and two of his artists have been selected to represent the country
By Matthew Blackman. Web only
Published online: 22 September 2011
A questionable silence has fallen over the press and much of the South African art world regarding the controversy of South Africa’s participation in the Venice Biennale. The quiet follows highly public and furious exchanges between the Cape Town University professor Malcolm Payne and the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa), a development agency funded by the National Arts Council (see related article).
The controversy arose when the blog Panga Management revealed that gallerist Monna Mokoena and the Lethole Mokoena, listed on the Biennale’s website as South Africa’s commissioner, were one and the same person. Suspicions were aroused by the fact that two of Mokoena’s artists, Lyndi Sales and Mary Sibande, had been selected to represent South Africa alongside Zwelethu Mthethwa—who pulled out over the fiasco—and Siemon Allen. Mthethwa, who withdrew from the Biennale owing to “a lack of transparency”, said that for quite some time he was unaware that Monna Mokoena was the commissioner.
How the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) selected the commissioner is still shrouded in mystery. In emails that have recently come to light, the department’s chief director of international relations claimed as late as December 2010 that it “could not commit at this stage” to the Biennale and that the department would probably not participate in 2011 because the budget “was under severe strain.” Both the DAC and Mokoena have, to date, refused to reveal just how South Africa’s participation has been financed. The DAC is also known to have asked Marilyn Martin, the retired director of the South African National Gallery, as recently as late 2010 for information as to what processes and procedures were undertaken when South Africa previously participated in the Biennale in 1995.
Following the discovery of Mokoena’s identity, he and the DAC have remained evasive when questioned about the circumstances surrounding Mokoena’s appointment. They have refused to deny or confirm that Mokoena is a friend of Paul Mashatile, the arts and culture minister. Payne is also known to have written a letter asking the pavilion's curator, Thembinkosi Goniwe, why all parties concerned remain silent. Goniwe has not responded to date.
Mokoena’s representatives at ChilliBush Communications said that artists Nicholas Hlobo, Marlene Dumas and Robin Rhode were originally contacted to represent South Africa, but all reportedly declined the offer before Goniwe decided on Sales and Sibande. However, Rhode has recently claimed that he was never contacted by anyone concerning the Venice Biennale, while Hlobo said in an email that he would not “be able to help” clarify the matter.
The DAC has defended its decision to allow Mokoena to include artists from his gallery by admitting that the process was rushed. According to emails, the decision to participate in the Biennale seems to have been taken around 13 January this year. Mokoena’s appointment was made public when the Biennale announced South Africa’s participation in mid-March. When questioned as to how the selection process took place, the DAC stated that it was only “supporting an existing initiative that was well advanced in terms of its planning”. It has stood by the claim that this “private initiative” was the best way to represent South Africa given the limited time between being made aware of its participation in the Biennale and the opening on 4 June.
Since Payne’s exchanges with Vansa, the arts community has done little to figure out what happened. Vansa made it clear in a public statement that it had little interest in looking into the current situation, saying instead it is “substantially more concerned with the ways these decisions and investments will be made in the future”. This is despite their constitution stating that they are bound “to promote transparency, accountability and sound financial and organisational management within the arts and culture sector”. In an open discussion with several members of Vansa’s board, one of the authors of the organisation's statement said that he was more interested in working in a private capacity with both the DAC and Mokoena than in pursuing the question of corruption.
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