SA artists to fly the flag in Venice

 'SAY CHEESE' by Johannes Phokela, one of the South African works to be shown at La Biennale di Venezia from June to November

‘SAY CHEESE’ by Johannes Phokela, one of the South African works to be shown at La Biennale di Venezia from June to November

They will represent South Africa at the 55th La Biennale di Venezia from June 1 to November 24. The 116-year-old exhibition is held every two years. In 1968 South Africa was expelled from the biennale. In 2011 it returned – but the four artists who flew the flag then were booed from the stage.

At the heart of the furore was the selection of the commissioner of the project – a private gallery owner. Arts journalist Matthew Blackman raised concerns that he was able to “influence the selection of participating artists in favour of artists affiliated to his gallery”. But Mack Lewele, spokesman for Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, said all Blackman’s concerns had been addressed and the matter “is dead”. This year’s process has not courted controversy.

Last week, Mashatile announced some of the artists contracted to participate. They include Joanne Bloch, Wim Botha, Kay Hassan, David Koloane, Gerhard Marx, Maja Marx and Philip Miller, Sam Nhlengethwa, Johannes Phokela, Cameron Platter, Andrew Putter, Penny Siopis and Sue Williamson.

This year’s exhibition is entitled: “Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive.” “The exhibition aims to showcase artists who use materials of the past to comment on the contemporary. The exhibition is about the protection and preservation of our national heritage and the symbols and artifacts of that heritage,” said Mashatile. “The voices contained in this exhibition are as rich and varied as those of the citizens of our country. They are bold and brave.”

The department has appointed the National Arts Festival to curate and stage the South African exhibit. Gilly Hemphill, spokesman for the festival, said the department had secured a venue in Venice but it will tackle the logistical mountain of getting all the artwork there. She has given the assurance that “everything is on track”. She said artists will gain invaluable exposure at the exhibition. “Some of the artists are doing new work for the exhibition. But we have also looked for artists that had existing work documenting South Africa’s past,” said Hemphill.

Antoinette Murdoch, head of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, has applauded the minister and the arts festival. “I think it is very important to have our arts represented internationally,” said Murdoch. She said a good group of diverse artists had been selected but singled out Gerhard Marx as “brilliant”. Murdoch emphasised that the cost of sending the South African team to Italy was minimal in comparison to the money spent on sports.