We’re in the second week of May, the year ends in an odd number and everyone who is anyone in the art world is en route to the opening of the Venice Biennale. No matter that this international art exhibition will run until November, it is this week, this VIP week, that everyone wants to attend; curators, artists, performers, gallerists, collectors, critics, dedicated art lovers, groupies and a few excitable tourists who got caught up in the fray. Everyone except, of course, those in the know who go in late September or early October, when the heat of the Italian summer has mellowed, when European schools have started, when holidaymakers have disappeared from gelato queues, when hotel prices plunge, when cruise ships pass less frequently through the narrow strait of the Giudecca Canal. Actually yes, go out of season when maybe, just maybe, you find yourself alone in a dim church looking at a varnished Tintoretto, the Venetian master easily forgotten in the onslaught of contemporary art that fills the 117 small islands of Venice for seven months.
The first Biennale opened in 1895 and it included 516 artists, of which 188 were Italian and the rest were either invited by the organisers or selected by a jury based on submissions. In that year, 224 000 people visited the show in the Giardini (a formal if now slightly shabby French garden set up by Napoleon in 1797), making the Biennale a significant tourist attraction. In 1907, Belgium negotiated to build a permanent pavilion next to the main exhibition hall in the Giardini, followed by Hungary, Germany and Britain in 1909 and other nations, mostly European, after that. In 1930, the USA built a Palladian pavilion in the Giardini and later, as the garden filled up, a disused shipyard, the Arsenale, became the main secondary venue.
Today pavilions of newcomers and collateral events are dotted all around Venice, wherever spaces or palazzos can be rented or leased. While it is not a commercial event – sales of any kind were banned in 1968 – galleries and collectors are often financially involved in the logistics of shipping and mounting art, a smart move given that inclusion in the Venice Biennale is a huge deal on any artist’s résumé. Apart from the art in the national pavilions – some 90 countries are represented in 2019 – there is always a main exhibition curated by the Biennale director. This year it’s Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London, and he selected 79 artists, including South Africans Zanele Muholi and Kemang Wa Lehulere, who have engaged the headline theme ‘May you live in interesting times’.
Besides Egypt, the only African country to have a pavilion in the Giardini since 1938, Africa has been largely missing from Venice. Granted, in 1922 an exhibition of traditional African sculpture was held, but this displayed the ‘primitivism’ of African art as inspirational fodder for modernism’s obsession with exotic cultures, as seen in the work of the Cubists, the Futurists, Modigliani, Gauguin and many others. A 2001 show entitled Authentic / Ex-centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art made a first attempt to represent contemporary art in Africa and this was followed in 2007 by a commissioned ‘African’ pavilion, though it proved far from adequate for representing the diversity of an entire continent. Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, and this year Madagascar and Algeria, have all inaugurated pavilions over the past decade.
South Africa participated in the Biennale in 1950, 1966 and 1968 (with works by Lucas Sithole and tapestries from Rorke’s Drift Art Centre), but was then absent until 1993 because of the cultural boycott. This year, University of Cape Town academics and curators Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu staged The Stronger We Become in reference to British singer Labi Siffre’s 1987 hit ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’, which became an anthem against apartheid South Africa. They have chosen Mawande Ka Zenzile’s cow dung and oil canvases, a video by Tracey Rose and a dimmed large-scale installation of wet clay and ritual objects by Dineo Seshee Bopape.
One of the most talked-about pavilions this year is Ghana’s first entry to the Biennale. Star architect David Adjaye (born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and now a British national) has challenged the idea of the neutral white-cube art space by designing a gorgeously sinuous series of spaces in the texture and ochre colour of African soil. In the first space, a huge gold bottle-top wall-hanging by El Anatsui invokes the country’s historical wealth and spectacularly announces Ghana’s participation in the international cultural world. Anatsui is joined, among others, by diasporic artists John Akomfrah and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (both British nationals of Ghanaian descent), inadvertently raising questions about the rather anachronistic notion of ‘national’ pavilions in a world where so many people have multiple affiliations. The pavilion is partly funded by the Ghanaian Government and represents a moment of “narrative-building”
according to its curator – undoubtedly a move away from the post-
colonial towards what President Nana Akufo-Addo called in his presidential manifesto “Ghana Beyond Aid”.
One could go on about the serendipitous discovery of Mongolian throat singers in a small pavilion in a back lane close to the Giardini, about the opera performed by sunbathers on a fake beach that grows increasingly hostile (Lithuania won best pavilion for this), or the magnificent retrospective of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans in the Palazzo Grassi, the kitsch campness of Russia’s overfull pavilion or the brilliance of Zanele’s huge self-portraits dominating the exhibition in the Giardini.
Or one could have another Aperol while eyeing the lavish yachts that dot the Adriatic Sea, resting tired feet and preparing for another art-filled day ahead.