South Africa, as its name suggests, is located at the southern tip of the African continent. There is almost 2,800 miles of coastline, and is bordered by the countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, as well as surrounding Lesotho. In the world, South Africa is the 24th most populous and 25thlargest country. The history of South Africa has been saturated with war and violence. From 1968 until 1993, South Africa suffered from apartheid, a law of racial segregation. Nelson Mandela became president in 1993 after he had spent 27 years in prison as a war criminal, and he contributed to the disbandment of apartheid. Racial tensions continue into the present, primarily between white Afrikaans and blacks. However, the country boasts quite a cultural variety, and there are 11 official languages, more than any other country in the world. According to Wikipedia, “Since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s unique multicultural character has become integral to its national identity, as signified by the Rainbow Nation concept.” South Africa is considered to be newly industrialized, ranks as an upper-middle economy, and is seen as a middle power in international relations. In 2006, South Africa became the first African nation to legalize same sex marriage.
There are 15 artists on exhibition at the South African exhibit at the 55th Venice Biennale. The exhibit is curated by Brenton Maart and is titled Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive. South Africa’s pavilion is located at the Pavilion de Arsenale in Venice. The curatorial concept is based on the idea of artists using materials of the past to comment on the contemporary. The motivation for such a concept was driven by South Africa’s need to come to grips with the country’s intense history and status as a post-colonial nation. Each of the artists who exhibited work provided some kind of visual exchange between the past and the present. Wim Botha transformed old educational and secular texts into iconographic humanoid sculptures. Sue Williamson documented a man’s dompas (travel or identity card required by non-whites during apartheid) in a series of photographs. Cameron Platter uses black and white comic style imagery to comment on current societal trends. Joanne Bloch displays her Hoard, a collection of fake gold “treasures” imbued with personal histories. Johannes Phokela paints images that are strikingly romantic but overlain with contemporary issues and racial tensions. Ten more artists use various media to establish an analysis of the present based on some real or feigned historical relationship, two artists using portrait photography, a few more painting, sculpture, and of course, video and installation.
Overall, the reception of the exhibit by viewers was positive. Each artist was selected because of the highly political or conceptual nature of their work. The turbulent history of South Africa affected the population as a whole in a deeply influential way, and the various approaches were representative of attempts at a cultural therapeutic methodology. More than a dozen artists from different backgrounds in the same nation chose divergent methods to offer the same message of regret of the past and hope towards the future. Each artist used their media of choice to embark on an introspective and retrospective unraveling of the politically charged past of their homeland, while embracing recent cultural changes. South Africa is in midst of a great societal transformation where retributions are being attempted and reparations made towards past violations of human rights. The country as a whole is continuing to change its global image and make amends as a culture making positive changes towards the future amidst a nationwide appreciation for their recent constitutional freedom.
While all artists were not necessarily born in South Africa, all exhibiting artists are permanent residents or citizens of the country and continue to reside there, at least part of the time. This is certainly unique, given that many other countries, especially African countries, chose foreign artists to exhibit at their national pavilions at the Venice Biennale. The large number of artists presenting works at the South African pavilion is another unique factor for the 2013 exhibition. Artists, their birth years, and places of residence are as follows (in no particular order):
Residing in Cape Town, South Africa:
Joanne Bloch, born in 1961. Wim Botha, born 1974. Philip Miller, born 1964. Andrew Putter, born 1965. Penny Siopis, born 1953. James Webb, born 1975. Sue Williamson, born 1941. Athi-Patra Ruga, born 1984 (also a resident of Johannesburg). Curator Brenton Maart, born 1968, also resides in Cape Town.
Residing in Johannesburg, South Africa:
David Koloane, born 1938. Donna Kukama, born 1981. Zanele Muholi, born 1972. Sam Nhlengethwa, born 1955. Nelisiwe Xaba, born 1970. Johannes Phokela, born 1966 (also resides in Cairo and London).
Gerhard Marx, born 1976, and Maja Marx, born 1977, are both residents of Simonstown, South Africa, and Cameron Platter, born 1978, is a resident of Shaka’s Rock, South Africa.