Reflections on the South African Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale

By Cate Terblanche 

Curator, Sasol Art Collection                                                                                                                                                                

The sinking city of Venice, Italy plays host to the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious art events.  Artists, curators, art lovers, all flock to Venice every two years to catch glimpse of  the new trends in art and to view the latest art produced by the world’s leading artists. Being selected to represent one’s country in a national pavilion is a significant milestone in any artist’s career, often catapulting the artist into international stardom.   I have been privileged to make the pilgrimage to Venice for more than a decade now, and have witnessed the evolution of the South African Pavilion from its first re-entry to the Biennale in 2011, starring works by Mary Sibande, Lyndi Sales and Siemon Allen.  Sasol was honoured to have Mary Sibande as one of the final judges for the 2017 Sasol New Signatures competition and a large scale sculptural installation by Lyndi Sales will soon grace the ground floor of Sasol Place.  This year’s South African Pavilion was curated by Lucy McGarry and Musha Nehuleni, and featured the works of two previous Sasol New Signatures winners, Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng. Nehuleni has also been nominated twice for the Sasol New Signatures competition, making this line up a wonderful reflection of the connection and commitment Sasol has to the development of the visual arts in South Africa.

Situated in the beautiful old buildings of the Sale D’Armi Arsenale, the South African Pavilion consisted of two independent mini exhibitions, which together set up a dialogue around the issues of forced migration and the worldwide refugee crisis. 

 Upon entry, Modisakeng’s three channel video projection entitled Passages, confronts the viewer with images of three characters in boats, slowly but surely being engulfed by deep black waters.  At first the characters show no resistance to the water gradually working its way into the boats. Their state of surrender quickly escalates into a very real struggle for breath and life.  Watching this endless struggle generated extreme angst in me, but also reminded me of how water gives life, but takes it too.

The next room features the first instalment of the video work by Candice Breitz, entitled Love Story. Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore appear against green screens, reciting what seems to be extracts from movie scripts, as if auditioning for a movie role. Their recitals seem forced and emotions are artificial. At the correct moment, tears are produced and wiped away by well-manicured hands. Down cast eyes and hunched shoulders play on your emotions and one is struck by the superficiality of the performances.  Yet one stays in this small, dark, hot room smelling of body odours, listening to the artificial blabbering, if only because you are watching two very famous actors ‘doing their thing’.

Leaving behind this claustrophobic room, entering the last room feels like coming up for air.    One catches a glimpse of the outside world, the romanticised world of Venice, its waterways, and the dazzling sunlight that has inspired so many artists over the centuries.  But here the exhibition required the viewer to actually engage with the work, reinforcing the idea that we all need to actively do something in order to change the world. We cannot just be spectators.  Six video screens confront the viewer in a silent, brightly light room.  Only once you are willing to place the headphones on your own ears, are you able to listen to the individual accounts of the harrowing experiences six refugees have gone through, forced to flee their homelands due to oppressive circumstances. Slowly one realises the narratives are the very same narratives spoken by the Hollywood actors, and the implications of what I had just witnessed hit me in the guts.

The exhibition was brilliantly curated by McGarry and Nehuleni, sensitively considering aspects such as the architectural elements of the building, the flow of spaces, lighting and mood to enhance the concepts of the highly relevant artworks by the two artists. The physical discomfort of the viewer additionally served to create a sense of empathy for not only the fictional characters in the exhibition, but for the plight of millions of refugees worldwide. 

Installation views of Mohau Modisakeng’s video installation Passages at the 57th Venice Biennale.  Photograph by Cate Terblanche.

Installation views of Mohau Modisakeng’s video installation Passages at the 57th Venice Biennale.  Photograph by Cate Terblanche. 


Still image of Mohau Modisakeng’s video installation Passages at the 57th Venice Biennale.  Photograph by Cate Terblanche.


Still images of the video installation entitled Love Story by Candice Breitz.  Photographs courtesy of Mem Sevenster. 


Installation view of Candice Breitz’ Love Story featuring the historic Sale D’Armi Arsenale buildings in the background. Photograph by Cate Terblanche.