Honours in Curatorship Trip to the Venice Biennale: Philiswa Lila

8 Jul 2015 - 13:45

“I’m on Okwui’s time,” I said, after I bought a watch designed by Swatch, one of the sponsors for this year’s 56th International Art Exhibition, on our Honours in Curatorship trip to the Venice Biennale. Part of me feels like the concept of time has been a focus of mine lately, as for my most recent project, for the ‘Object’ section of the Museum Studies module, I selected a Cartel clock as my object of choice from IZIKO Museum’s Koopmans de Wet House. This was based on the concept of time as being something that has already passed, moments in ‘history’, and the clock’s continuing presence, use and significance today.Koopmans de Wet House. This was based on the concept of time as being something that has already passed, moments in ‘history’, and the clock’s continuing presence, use and significance today.

In response, Nancy Dantas, the Liaison Officer, asked, “What do you mean by Okwui’s time?” To which I answered, “It means I’m next in line in curating this international event.” There is an initial sense of inclusion and potential suggested by the title of the Biennale – All the World’s Futures –, which encourages such projections.

With 56 countries participating in this year’s La Biennale de Venezia, the most important show to see remained Enwezor’s main exhibition at the Giardini, designed by David Adjaye, and Arsenale. All the World’s Futures features 136 artists, 89 debuting at the Biennale for the first time. These include a selection of influential artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Chris Marker, Walker Evans, Marcel Broodthaers, Inji Efflato and, to mention some of my favourites, Sonia Boyce, Chris Ofili and Lorna Simpson. Instead of one monolithic theme to link the artist’s works, “the title itself is like a frame around which artists and thinkers and composers reflect on what I would call the state of things, which is currently determined by the great fragility and uncertainty. …But it is not a utopian title. The exhibition is a way to think about debris and residue” (Buhr 2015: 54). This debris and residue is seen in many of the artworks selected for the exhibition, especially when it comes to material. For instance, in Ibrahim Mahama’s large-scale public installation made of sacks previously used for transporting goods, which draped the walls of the passage buildings to the Arsenale. Under the title Out of balance, Mahama seems to challenge the notions of labour, capitalism, transportation and value commodities.

The artists I mention here barely scrape the surface of what there was to see in these large spaces. This is true too for the vast amount of pavilions and other exhibitions of interest that Nancy Dantas had arranged for us to see, which were spread throughout Venice. Angola, the winner of the prestigious Golden Lion for the best national pavilion, was one of the pavilions that I enjoyed the most. I also found the very different pavilions of Romania, Egypt, South Africa, Germany and Japan very interesting. In Japan’s pavilion, there was an installation by Berlin-based artist Chiharu Shiota, titled The Key in the Hand. This large-scale installation filled the room with tangles of red yarn suspended from the ceiling, with multitudes of keys hanging from it. The keys, some hanging and others on the floor, appeared as if overflowing from the two boats, place sided by side, at the bottom of the red yarn. On the promotional material for the exhibition, Hitoshi Nakano (2015) is quoted, saying, “in our daily lives, keys protect valuable things like our houses, assets, and personal safety, and we use them while embracing them in the warmth of our hands.” Therefore, the two boats are said to symbolize hands “catching a rain of memories”.

As we moved around the city of Venice, finding our next stop for the next venue, getting lost and losing each other along the way, I started to pay attention to the vast variety of advertising of the La Biennale de Venezia 56th International Art Exhibition. Bombarded by different sizes of banners and posters with bold writings of the title All the World’s Futures, I began to reflect on the selected ‘colours’ of the logo. Colours, in all their different tones and shades, are imbued with multiple meanings. The choice of using ‘Black on White’ and ‘White on Black’ in the promotional material meant a great deal to me, as my experience of being in the city of Venice was a bittersweet one.

It was my first time travelling outside of South Africa and experiencing social and identity politics in Europe, which seem particularly heightened at this moment. Of course, this is true of my experiences in cities like Cape Town too. This idea, the troubles of ‘now’, is an important aspect of the Biennale’s first African curator’s approach. Therefore it is understandable that the artwork by South African artist Willem Boshoff included in the South African pavilion, I am proud to be labelled as racist in South Africa if it means that (2011), has “tongues wagging”. In Linda Stupart’s (2015: online) review, an anonymous artist is quoted “referring to the piece as a ballad of white privilege.” I will not argue about this here, although it is worth mentioning that in Venice, my daily contact with the people of this city made me very aware of my skin colour. Although occasionally innocent, sometimes a stare can be a damaging weapon, used to intimidate, humiliate and, most often, judge.

The logo is especially pertinent when considering the curator, Enwezor, and his known discourse on African art. This is said with reflection on his essays, articles and books, including Reframing the black subject ideology and fantasy in contemporary South African representation (1997), Where, What, Who, When: A few Notes on ‘African’ Conceptualism (1999), The postcolonial constellation: Contemporary art in a state of permanent transition (2003), and Modernity and postcolonial ambivalence (2010) to mention a few. Hence, in this year’s main art exhibition, All the World’s Futures, there is a total of 21 African artists presented. This includes the work of Sammy Baloyi (DRC), Adel Abdessemed (Algeria), Kay Hassan (South Africa), Karo Akpokiere (Nigeria) and Fatou Kandé Senghor (Senegal), who are not only African, but also reflect on the reoccuring politics of ‘black’ and ‘white’, in their artworks. It comes as no surprise then that it has been called “the most politically minded Venice Biennale for some years” (Luke 2015: online).

I have purposefully used the word ‘on’ as a combining word for the two ‘colours’ of the logo, in my discussion of The Black on White and White on Black representation. The two ‘colours’ are seen in relation to each other; in support of the other but, at the same time, pointing to a division; histories of differences and similarities, conflict and agreement, presence and absence, fact and fiction. Interestingly enough, Enwezor does not use ‘themes’ for the curatorial process of this exhibition, employing what he calls ‘filters’ instead. This “constellation” of filters, ‘Liveness: On Epic Duration’, ‘Garden of Disorder’ and ‘Capital: A Live Reading’, he describes as both reflections on the current “state of things” and the “appearance of things” (Santaniello, 2015). This, in my opinion, is structured around the idea of separate-ness and convergence and, therefore, these filters can either separate, or multiply. I assume then that in Enwezor’s case, this notion is based on the complexities of globalization as he has stated that “…globalization is a way of participation; it’s a way of bringing African ideas to the world; it’s a way of embedding African concepts in the world, to enable it to travel, to enable it to also produce returns” (Vitra Design Museum Germany, 2015). With this in mind, I believe Enwezor’s exhibition All the World’s Futures is significant, historically. Time, though measured and often fleeting, bares memories and my trip to the La Biennale de Venezia 56th International Art Exhibition will be treasured as I remember Enwezor’s attempts to bring Africa to the world.

Buhr, E. 2015. Venice is such a dance place. In Monopol Magazine. Biennale special edition: pg. 52-55.

Luke, B. 2015. The Nigerian curator’s exhibitions in the Giadini and Arsenale promises to be the most topical Venice show of the recent years. In Art Newspaper. Available: [Accessed 16 June 2015]

Nakano, H. 2015. Chiharu Shiota: The Key in the Hand. Japan: The Japan Foundation.

Santaniello, F. 2015. The parliament of forms. In The Mag. Vol. 1: pg. 8

Stupart, L. 2015. Proud racist’ artwork has tongues wagging. Available: http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Proud-racist-artwork-has-tongues-wagging-20150516 [Accessed 11 June 2015].

Vitra Design Museum Germany. 2015. Interview with Okwui Enwezor [Video file]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khNz6rWTSOU [Accessed 19 June 2015].