Stellenbosch Triennale – 2020 vision

The great experimental coming together of art and audience is over and now it’s time to reflect. Petra Mason gathers the thoughts of the Stellenbosch Triennale’s curators to gauge its success.

Interior view of The Curators’ Exhibition. 

The Stellenbosch Triennale — the first of its kind for the Cape — recently staged a take-over of the historic town, kicking off with a lively opening of The Curators’ Exhibition at The Woodmill, one balmy night in February. 

For two and a half months, Triennale pavilions studded the city with their abstract Ndebele-inspired graphics in green, the colour of hope. Representing a bold move for the dorp, they were the showcases for this inaugural event, the first to focus entirely on artists from the African continent.

Inspired in part by the longstanding Venice Biennale, the Stellenbosch Triennale was conceived as an ensemble of three exhibitions – The Curators’ Exhibition, From the Vault and On the Cusp – and had as its overriding theme ‘Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us’.

More than R8 million was raised from businesses and private individuals to fund this local triennale with international ambition. Commenting on his organisation’s contribution, Johan van Zyl of Stonehage Fleming said on the opening night, “Non-commercial initiatives such as the Stellenbosch Triennale require funding from companies like Stonehage Fleming which are interested in promoting excellence in the arts and supporting the role that art plays in preserving culture and minimising the socio-economic and socio-cultural gaps that exist in the world today. Hopefully, the quality of the art on display here will inspire other like-minded organisations to get involved and help the Stellenbosch Triennale to grow for the benefit of us all.”

From left to right: Khanyisile Mbongwa, chief curator; Dr Bernard Akoi-Jackson, curator; Gcotyelwa Mashiqa, curatorial fellow; Mike Tigere Mavura, adjunct curator.

Chief curator Khanyisile Mbongwa described her curatorial process as “tuning into ancestral time”. “We are in danger of forgetting this region existed long before colonisation and apartheid and that the past does not necessarily coincide with what is recorded in the history books,” she said. “I try to listen to what the land has to say to us. Genocides have taken place here. Traces of the original inhabitants are still difficult to find, but they are there. When I speak about ‘us’ [in the theme ‘Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us’], I am talking not only about people, but also about nature, about memory, the ancestral, the spiritual, the imagination and becoming, and how that means everything to us.”

The one-time student activist and Stellenbosch University alumna described the town as a site of woundedness. “For me [the Triennale] is about imagining (and creating) common sustainable futures by looking at the wounds … We need to heal, and for that to happen we have to be brave enough to look at the places that hurt the most. We need to work through the pain and what better way than to ask artists, writers and creators to usher us through that journey,” she wrote in her introduction to the catalogue. 

Artist Sethembile Msezane inside her installation Signal her Return.

The Curators’ Exhibition featured works by 20 contemporary artists, including two Venice Biennale participants: Ghanaian installation artist Ibrahim Mahama and Angolan Nástio Mosquito. Ibrahim signalled his southern African debut with his powerful Labour of Many at the Norval Foundation last year and was quick to secure his spot as ‘one to watch’ for global collectors with an installation of coffins built on site at the Triennale with reclaimed wood found in Stellenbosch.

Artist and writer Dr Bernard Akoi-Jackson co-curated The Curators’ Exhibition and On the Cusp, which showcased emerging talent. “The entire ethos of the Stellenbosch Triennale was to focus on significant examples of contemporary art practices currently making a huge impact in the world,” he explained. “It was this same spirit that determined curatorial decisions regarding the On the Cusp exhibition. There was a great deal of consultation across the networks we have developed throughout the continent before we arrived at our shortlist. Virtual studio visits, portfolio reviews and video calls helped us get a fair idea of the proposed work. It’s even more interesting that many of the works shown here have a lot of potential. They are fresh, cutting-edge and should definitely be making waves soon.”

Artist Samuel Baah Kortey (Kristo)

The addition of the Asafo Black Collective was, said Bernard, “a specific curatorial decision to highlight tendencies that seem to be dwindling in the current art world. This explains the search for ‘collective’ practices in a scene that is perceived as quintessentially narcissistic. I’ve followed the work of the Asafo Black Collective for some years now and they approach the idea of a collective with a certain energy. They’re daring and they’re committed to putting on exhibitions every year, with or without funding or even a space.”

The historically charged From the Vault revealed two very different ideological points of view in dialogue: the contrasting collections of Fort Hare University and Stellenbosch University. Its curator, Dr Mike Tigere Mavura, is considered an agent of change at Stellenbosch University. “The trick is to adapt,” he explained. “We tried to make links between ‘the vault’ as the archive of the old and ‘social media’ as the archive of the now. The exhibition and its context had to be translatable to the new social media archive in interesting ways. The works in the exhibition were hung in clusters and if you took a picture of the clusters with a cellphone, the paintings appeared like sculptures on a wall that took on different shapes as you tilted your cellphone and looked at them from different angles. You could experience this aspect of the exhibition only if you took pictures with a cellphone.” 

Blurring distinctions was key to curating From the Vault. “We deliberately muted the past and reimagined the collections to overcome the linearity of the different histories in line with the Fort Hare graduate, artist and intellectual Selby Mvusi’s emphasis that “the past does not matter in a practice where the problem to be resolved, the commitment to be recognised and the question to be answered is: what is our time?” Our approach was to blur the distinctions of ‘this is the Fort Hare collection’ and ‘this is the Stellenbosch collection’ and to allow the artworks from both collections to speak to each other, to use artworks from both collections to create a dialogue that transcends the past and maps a way for the future.” 

Victor Ehikhamenor’s installation Saints & Sanctum.

On the contrasts within the exhibition Mike mused, “Within the Triennale’s theme of ‘Tomorrow There Will Be More of Us’ we were deliberate about looking for similarities that contrast. I found it striking that the textures of the four exhibition rooms were so different. Each had its own personality and feel, but at the same time was part of the whole. The ‘reading room’ upstairs stood out for me the most because it was unexpected; you could pause there, relax and reflect, so it presented possibilities of being activated for community good.”

When asked about how the local community responded to the event, Bernard reflected, “The reaction has been positive; many people have said they were pleasantly overwhelmed. A comment that kept recurring was that this has been ‘beyond expectation’.” 

The Stellenbosch Triennale offered a welcome shift of focus from the commercially driven art fair model in that it gave the traditionally conservative town the opportunity to host a ‘free to the public’ glimpse at intentional points of contact. In doing so, it enabled residents and visitors to engage with the region’s fractured past, thorny present and complex future.