Venice Biennale Italy

South African artist quits pavilion over selections

Zwelethu Mthethwa pulls out over “lack of transparency”

Zwelethu Mthethwa said he didn’t want to be a “pawn in this project”

LONDON. The return of South Africa as a national participant in the Venice Biennale this month after a 16-year hiatus has been marred after one of its official artists withdrew over organisational decisions made by the South African pavilion commissioner and curator. Zwelethu Mthethwa was one of four artists chosen to represent South Africa this summer in Italy. But The Art Newspaper understands that Mthethwa pulled out when he learned that the pavilion commissioner, Jo­han­nesburg-based dealer Monna Mokoena, and curator, Thembinkosi Gon­iwe, had selected two artists from Mokoena’s Gallery Momo—Mary Sibande and Lyndi Sales—for the biennale (Siemon Allen is the third remaining South African participant).

Mthethwa told the ArtThrob blog that “a lack of transparency” brought about his decision, adding that he did not want to be a “pawn in this pro­ject… I pulled out because I couldn’t put the pieces together.” A spokesman for both Mokoena and Goniwe responded: “Mr Mthethwa never furnished us with any reason for withdrawing from Mr Goniwe’s exhibition.”

The selection saga has sparked fierce debate in the South African art world, prompting a statement from the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (Vansa), a development agency funded by the National Arts Council, a government-backed body. Vansa says that it “notes with some concern the unfolding controversy relating to the representation of South Africa at the Venice Biennale”, but acknowledges the fact that the “government is investing in the promotion of South African contemporary art on international platforms”. The statement points out that Vansa is “substantially more concerned with the ways in which these decisions and investments will be made in the future, than in the current furore surrounding our presence in Venice. Viewed in another light, the present situation represents an opportunity for government, in consultation with the sector, to articulate a clear vision and policy around these kinds of events.”

It proposes that a panel of experts should be convened by government through a process of public engagement or nomination. In the case of Venice, this panel would, in turn, take responsibility for the appointment of a commissioner and a curator on the basis of a “request for proposals” process; the commissioner and curator would then oversee the selection of artists.

But Vansa’s stance has provoked a furious response from Malcolm Payne, emeritus pro­fessor of fine arts at the Uni­versity of Cape Town, who exhibited at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Writing in The South African Art Times, Payne says that Vansa’s “smug” proclamation “neglects to honour its principles in terms of section four of its constitution” which aims to “promote transparency, accountability and sound financial and organisational management within the arts and culture sector”.

He is particularly critical of Vansa’s decision to justify the South African pavilion selection by citing the biennale commissioning processes adopted by five other national participants including Ireland (its commissioner, Emily-Jane Kirwan, and artist, Corban Walker, belong to New York’s Pace Gallery) and Italy (“the appointment of Vittorio Sgarbi as curator of the Italian Pavilion was seemingly made directly by the minister of culture,” notes Vansa).

Payne concludes, however: “Once again if Vansa lived up to the ideals of its constitution it would…demand of the [government’s] Department of Arts and Culture, the commissioner and curator a public explanation for their actions that seem by all accounts to embody malfeasance if not nepotism. By neglecting to do so, Vansa cuddles up to government placing its credibility to represent the broad visual arts sector (at a time of crisis) in jeopardy.” The South African government is funding the pavilion.

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