At this year’s Venice Biennale, the South African Pavilion hosted Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng. The decision to present just two artists was deemed controversial by some, but it proved to be a huge success. The South African Pavilion has received critical acclaim from various quarters and is on the top 11 pavilions list of Artsy Magazine.
In previous years the South African Pavilion has been shrouded in controversy from questions around transparency of funds, and lack of adequate planning by the Department of Arts and Culture to a lack of diversity in curators and artists. The success of the planning, curation, and quality of art this year has been a positive contribution to the international respect of contemporary South African art. The theme of the pavilion is historical and contemporary waves of forced migration. Candice Breitz explores contemporary stories of migration in western countries, while Mohau Modisakeng’s work explores historical memory in Africa. Love Story (2016) by Breitz and Passage (2017) by Modisakeng, read collectively, present an articulation of our past and current state of “refugeeness” within a global context of exclusion and transience, comments head curator, Lucy MacGarry. MacGarry adds that questioning the concept of the nation state is a job well suited to artists. With recent waves of refugees entering Europe and xenophobic violence in South Africa making the headlines, it is of utmost importance that artists question the relationship between our identity and our nationality. It is the first time that the South African pavilion has hosted moving image and sound-based art exclusively. The medium of video arts complements this year’s theme as by nature it is temporary, transient and ephemeral much like the lives of migrants.
Breitz’s Love Story picks apart our ability to empathise by juxtaposing the stories of immigrants with performances by Hollywood heavyweights Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin. Her work is based on the personal accounts of six people who fled their countries of origin due to extreme conditions of persecution or violence: Sarah Ezzat Mardini, who escaped war-torn Syria; José Maria João, a former child soldier from Angola; Mamy Maloba Langa, a survivor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Shabeena Francis Saveri, a transgender activist from India; Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, a political dissident from Venezuela; and Farah Abdi Mohamed, an idealistic young atheist from Somalia.
Two interviews took place in Berlin, Cape Town, and New York respectively, which bring into focus the scope of the refugee crisis. The interviews or personal accounts are produced in two forms: in the first space, the stories are told by Moore and Baldwin, but told in snippets and reorganised in a narrative collage.
Baldwin and Moore were asked to choose pieces from the original narratives to create a consumer convenient film clip. Then as the viewer moves towards the secondary space, which sits behind the first, the original interviews are shown on six screens: uncut, unpolished, and told by individuals who have lived the experience in a sort of backroomspace.
By presenting viewers with the first-hand accounts juxtaposed to a cut and edited version performed by Hollywood actors, the piece raises questions about where we focus our attention. Does a fictional drama invoke more emotions from the viewer than a real person with a real story? The work also draws attention to the fact that when celebrities like Moore or Baldwin tell these stories, the world listens, but there is a lack of interest in the stories of the common man on the street.
Filmed real-life accounts total 20 hours, while the Hollywood montages are little more than an hour. By duplicating the six stories in a sanitised and polished version performed by the actors, Breitz also reveals something in her audience. So do we watch the shorter Hollywood cut or the hours of long real-life accounts? Breitz teases out the tendency of some to feign sympathy with a popular cause.
However, when you attempt to watch the full accounts, you soon realise that even if we do watch the entire interview, we can never fully comprehend the experiences that these individuals went through.
The work also considers the difference between fiction and documentary. And the question the viewer is faced with is: Are Hollywood fictionalised accounts more powerful and emotive than documentary footage?
One individual who was interviewed, Mamy Maloba Langa, who escaped Joseph Kabila’s henchmen after they spent a night sexually assaulting her and violating her with a knife, comments how her story will be told and how it will be received: My message to Julie… I really don’t know much about her, but what I know, because they’re famous people, because she’s a famous one (all over the news, TV), my message is that I know that when she will listen to this story and share it with the world, it won’t be the same as if it were just me – Mamy – coming to stand here to share my story … I don’t think all those nice people would come just to listen to my story, I don’t think so … But I think, because of what she is, because of who she is, I know that sharing my story will be something, you know, something nice that people will come and hear, because she’s a famous one.”
Passage is a three-channel video installation dealing with questions on the effect that slavery has had on black African identity. The work consists of three projections that host three characters: a woman with a hawk on her arm, a man with a trilby hat, and a woman in a Basotho blanket.
Each character lies in the boat with their head pointed towards the prow, and they each travel with a single possession. Each lies motionless at first, but starts to move, eventually acting out motions of resistance and resignation.
As the film progresses, the boats on which these characters are travelling start to fill up with water. The water rises until the characters are completely covered, and eventually the boat sinks and disappears. Modisakeng’s work in contrast to Breitz’s is defined by its more local and South African features – visually as well as conceptually. Passage explores the notion of belonging in Africa by portraying two characters that leave what we presume to be the African continent by boat. The journey they take is reminiscent of the Middle Passage – the route across the Atlantic Ocean by which slaves were transported to the New World. By doing so Modisakeng connects historical journeys of forced migration with contemporary ones. He also references another momentous historical event, The Berlin Conference, which was the catalyst for the scramble of Africa in the 19th century. Passage acts as an almost ghostlike reminder of the ‘human cargo’ that was transported to the New World. It is an eerie reminder of the collateral damage of the industrial revolution and modern Europe, which in turn evokes questions about the future that lies ahead for recent migrants in Europe.
The piece binds these three distinctly South African characters with historical journeys of migration. We are reminded of the experience of migrant labourers who travelled to and from the mines that fuelled the South African economy, as well as the experiences of slaves who were brought to the Cape. The exhibitions are on display in Venice until November 2017, and for those who cannot make it to Italy this year the curators are negotiating with galleries to bring the works back to South Africa.