In Venice, 1895, the world was introduced to the first large-scale international contemporary art exhibition. The Biennale was quickly popularised as nations around the world strived too to present their own such mega-exhibitions. However, it was only as late as 1995, the year of the centenary celebration of the Venice Biennale, that South Africa presented its first such event, the Johannesburg Biennale. Whilst last year saw the presentation of the 60th Venice Biennale, its South African counterpart unfortunately only survived two renditions. What did the two South African Biennales comprise of and why were they so short-lived?
The first Johannesburg Biennale marked the coming-out of South Africa’s art community following decades of creative quarantine and cultural isolation as a result of the National Party’s Apartheid rule. Organised by a curatorial committee headed by Christopher Till and Lorna Ferguson, supervised by the Ministry of Culture and funded largely by the City of Johannesburg, the event was considered a successful one, establishing itself as the then largest exhibition in Africa. In sticking to the popularised model of presenting national pavilions within which each country hangs its own independently curated exhibition, the Biennale saw the representation of 250 individual artists from 80 different countries. The event was criticised by some as being over ambitious; with sceptics pointing out that South Africa was perhaps not yet ready, that economic resources were scarce and, given the needs of reconciliation, were resources that could be better allocated. In seeking its political and cultural re-entry into the world however, it was strategically decided that foreign curators were invited only on condition that they would include South African artists in other exhibitions abroad.
Small and avoidable practical glitches pointed to the fact that this event was perhaps being held prematurely. However, in its entirety the event has been characterized as a cacophony, yet admired for being a diverse and creative one. The successes of Africus, as the Biennale was titled, stemmed primarily from its provision of a forum, one where specifically chosen themes prompted a particular engagement with the legacy of apartheid, as opposed to merely displaying a utopian South Africa. The same can unfortunately not be said for the second rendition of the Johannesburg Biennale.
The second Johannesburg Biennale, held in 1997 and titled Trade Routes: History and Geography was intended by its curator, Okwui Enwezor, to explore global traffic within the cultural sphere. Despite its explicitly global focus, the Biennale was said to have had special resonance in Africa; with its recent emancipation and urge to create new ties with the global world. Enwezor, in sticking to the theme, thus did away with the model of national pavilions and instead invited six international curators to collaborate with him in curating a series of diverse exhibitions. These exhibitions were in their entirety centered on globalization, dealing primarily with the boundaries, both theoretical and physical, characteristic of global dynamics in the second half of the twentieth century. Once more, given this focus, two of these exhibitions were held in Cape Town. Incidentally, as noted in the Biennale’s catalogue, diaspora became a common thread running through many of the artists’ work, not surprising given that more than half of the participating artists resided in countries other than those from which they originated.
Although the Biennale and its curator were admired for challenging the typical Biennale model, while simultaneously embracing a global theme and trying to make it locally resonant, the Biennale was the last of its kind. Additionally, Trade Routes was closed a month ahead of schedule due to a lack of funding for the city of Johannesburg. This premature ending of the Biennale brought to the fore, once again, questions of economic resources and the allocation thereof. Ultimately, the second Biennale, like its predecessor, was plagued by questions of the relevance and importance of contemporary art in a newly democratic and reconciled South Africa. Many of its critics asked the question of what benefit such an event had for the majority of South African citizens, specifically given the problem of poverty in the townships of both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Ultimately, the two South African Biennales were successful events in their own right, achieving their primary objective of emancipating the South African cultural sphere, and re-introducing the world to it. However, they largely failed to survive the politics of their context, and specifically the complexity of a South Africa still finding its footing as a newly democratic country. The Biennales of 1995 and 1997 were not able to strike a balance between connecting with local communities while simultaneously maintaining old and fostering new global ties. Perhaps, however, after 22 years of democracy, South Africa has become a space more hospitable to such an event. Could a third South African Biennale be imminent and capable of righting the wrongs of the past?