On a recent visit to Venice I was really impressed by the new South African pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Having read about it I tracked it down, prepared to be critical because of the scandal around South Africa’s participation two years ago. On the contrary this time I believe the department of arts and culture in collaboration with the National Arts Festival, which tendered and won the right (for R10 million) to put together the exhibition, have got it right and have quietly produced a South African centre of excellence on show until November.
I was amazed to find it in a beautifully renovated old building in one of the prime spots in the Arsenale section of the art show — just opposite where everyone has lunch.
As a former ambassador I am conditioned to sussing out ways to promote South Africa in a positive light and this hits the spot.
The exhibition itself under the title “Imaginary Fact” features 16 South African artists including the likes of David Koloane, Penny Siopis, Zanele Muholi, Wim Botha and Joanne Bloch. And its themes are perfectly in tune with the mood of biting political and social commentary, which pervades most of the pavilions and exhibitions of the Biennale.
The new exhibition rooms are sophisticated and modern. And even for the non-connoisseur the works are striking, absorbing and skilfully put together. When I was there it was well-attended by a mostly young audience.
In this pavilion, South Africa is well-positioned to make a positive impression on the international art scene. Sure, the pavilion comes with a price tag of approximately €1.2 million for a 20-year lease, but if South Africa is to participate in this major international art show every two years, it is money well-spent.
When the Biennale is not on, every second year, the pavilion will be used to showcase South African architects at the international architecture biennale. The pavilion and the exhibition make me proud to be a South African in Venice.