The 1st Johannesburg Biennale

In an attempt to restore artistic exchange and dialogue after the Cultural Boycotts of the Isolation Years, the first Johannesburg Biennale titled Africus, running from 28 February – 30 April 1995, represented the lifting of internally imposed prohibitions and the coming-out of the South African art scene to an international audience.  The nervous condition of welcoming an influx of practice from abroad, and the exposure of the local at the end of Apartheid, is best summarised in the title of Thomas McEvilley’s contribution to the Biennale catalogue: “Here Comes Everybody”.  To this extent 63 national pavilions, and 20 South African exhibitions, were organised under the primary curatorship of Lorna Ferguson, a previous director of the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg; Christopher Till, Director of the Biennale Project and Director for Culture for the Transitional Municipal Council of Johannesburg; and Bongi Dhlomo, responsible for ‘Community Projects’ and the ‘Outreach and Development’ educational programme. However, this structure only emerged after an extensive consultative process, which stood for “everyone’s desire and right to have a voice, to be heard, to be consulted”[1] , a procedure questioned as not adequately, and democratically, representative in the formation of selection committees, which in turn was subject to more contestation through asking “how much, if any, power they had to influence”[2] Biennale staff.   These managerial gestures extended to a curatorial training programme intended to bridge the space between organisers and the community, as well as the stipulation that foreign curators were only invited on the condition that they include South African artists within their Biennale exhibitions. 

Ferguson outlined two central themes for the Biennale – ‘Decolonising our minds’ and ‘Volatile Alliances’ – which engaged with Afrocentric aesthetics, the expansion of frontiers through artistic allegiances, and diversity as cultural inclusivity rather than dissolution into sameness, by probing how “to avoid cultural re-colonisation” and “re-appropriation”.[3]   Highlights of the Biennale included the Spanish Pavilion’s ‘Black Looks White Myths’ curated by Octavio Zaya, Danielle Tilkin and Tumelo Mosaka, which in an inversed nationalism featured 19 South African artists alongside only 4 Spanish artists; and the Australian Pavilion, curated by Anthony Bond, on notions of mistaken identity and assumptions of race, as explored through the work of four female artists, Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon (both Aboriginal Australians), Adrian Piper (American) and Belinda Blignaut (South African), whose work 8345223 – a series of posters affixed at bus stops and public bathrooms throughout Johannesburg of a cropped photograph of the artist in bondage gear footnoted with the titular telephone number which was connected to an answering machine installed in the exhibition space at Museum Africa - became an iconic piece in the Biennale for confronting misogyny by looking at the misreading and exploitation of identity in exhibitions, as well as challenging the relation between incidental publics and exhibition goers.  Other exhibitions and pavilions dealt more explicitly with the ceasing of cultural quarantine by evoking xenophobia, exile and exclusion: the Danish Pavilion featured William Kentridge and expatriate, Danish-based, Doris Bloom, who made a two-part collaborative site-specific drawing Fire/Gate in Newtown and Walkerville (24km south of Johannesburg) dealing with tensions between the urban and rural in migrant labour; whilst ‘Outside Inside’ curated by Julia Charlton at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and ‘Volatile Colonies’ curated by Kendell Geers to showcase only overseas artists, spoke to uncertainties concerning nationalism and hybridity.  On the Biennale Fringe ‘Laager’ curated by Wayne Barker, consisted of fourteen shipping containers installed to replicate an encampment of ox-wagon in the Great Trek, was an ironic and lauded exhibition of young emerging artists omitted from the official Biennale selection – including Minette Varí and Hentie van der Merwe – pointing to an entrenched defensiveness and parochialism that seemed to define the local art scene at that point. 

Through curatorial refusals to impose a legible and singular framework upon the Biennale, no dominant logic or principal mode of representation was discernable, specifically as pertains to notions of what may be homogeneously and authentically deemed African, which Candice Breitz deemed an avoidance of “a rhetoric of integration”.[4]   Nevertheless, despite the inclusivity of showing Helen Sebidi and Johannes Segogela alongside Ilya Kabakov and Cai Guo-Qiang, the Biennale highlighted that the art establishment in South Africa was predominantly White.  South African representation at the Biennale was marked by the “structural violence” that according to John Peffer “frames art in terms of a spurious definition of race”, where White artists, mostly mobile and university educated “conceptualists” represent ‘intellectualism’ whilst “Black rural visionary sculptors” signify ‘community’.[5]   Dhlomo herself warned against the pitfalls and abuse of the term ‘community’ in relegating the “Black arts” to the townships, which then functions to maintain a hierarchy of aesthetic difference.[6]   Of the 20 local exhibitions merely two were located in Soweto, at the Mofolo Arts Centre and Funda Arts Centre, and these were not exhibitions that featured international artists or the input of overseas curators.  As Ivor Powell noted, “less than five percent of funding resources were allocated to community projects and development”, and thus this differentiation was perpetuated fiscally.[7]   These separatist sensibilities were indicative of the continuation of entrenched racism in the conflicted crossover period, particularly as organisation of the Biennale commenced by Ferguson in 1993 before the official fall of Apartheid, with funding stemming from the remains of the Cultural Affairs budget of the old state.  Some Black artists felt estranged from, and hostile towards, the initiation of the Biennale, as Kay Hassan remarked “I don’t understand the reason for the Biennale so I don’t want to be part of it.”[8]

As much as the Biennale was about the violence of the re-emergence of South Africa into the global sphere, and the cultural legitimation of this transition into democracy, it was equally about Johannesburg itself, about marking it as a world-class, “international city”.[9]   Despite the “the blinkered hubris of the Africus enterprise”[10] , the Biennale sought to reinvigorate and open the cloistered local art scene, an endeavour defined by a palpable “excitement and energy”[11] .  Yet notwithstanding an engagement with the political moment, participating South African artists elided certain concerns pivotal to the newly governing African National Congress, such as rights to land and repatriation, which Ferguson pressed as “specifically South African” – “this is dynamite, so why don’t we see it?”[12]   Perhaps this reservation pointed to the complex anxieties associated with representation.  The first Africus Johannesburg Biennale was a wide-ranging, in parts nebulous, exhibition, which “could not and did not redress the imbalances” implicit in a society defined by years of discrimination, although attempting and advocating “critical scrutiny”.[13]

William Kentridge & Doris Bloom, Fire/ Gate, (1995), chalk drawing, Wakerville, as part of Memory & Geography, the Danish Pavilion at the 1st Johannesburg Biennale. Image source

Katlehong Artists Collective, Caspir, (1995), mixed media. Photo: Andrew Meintjies. Source: Candice Breitz, ‘The First Johannesburg Biennale: Work in Progress’, Third Text Summer 1995, Vol 9 Issue 31, page 92

Endnotes

[1] Ruth Rosengarten, ‘Inside Out: The Johannesburg Biennale’, Frieze June 1995

[2] Candice Breitz, ‘The First Johannesburg Biennale: Work in Progress’, Third Text Summer 1995, Vol 9 Issue 31, page 89

[3] Ruth Rosengarten, ‘Inside Out: The Johannesburg Biennale’, Frieze June 1995

[4] Candice Breitz, ‘Towards a Cyber-Creativity in Post-Apartheid South Africa (from Identification to Afiinity)’, in Africus: Johannesburg Biennale Catalogue, Transitional Metropolitan Council: Johannesburg, 1995, page 288

[5] John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid, University of Minnesota Press: London & Minneapolis, 2009, page 123

[6] Bongi Dhlomo, ‘Emerging from the Margins’, in Africus: Johannesburg Biennale Catalogue, Transitional Metropolitan Council: Johannesburg, 1995, page 26-27

[7] Ivor Powell, ‘Africus Another Planet’, Mail & Guardian, 05 May 1995

[8] Kay Hassan cited in Sean O’Toole, ‘Bowie in Africa’, Contemporary &, 17 February 2016

[9] Christopher Till, Foreword, in Africus: Johannesburg Biennale Catalogue, Transitional Metropolitan Council: Johannesburg, 1995

[10] John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid, University of Minnesota Press: London & Minneapolis, 2009, page 125

[11] Garth Claasen, ‘Africus Johannesburg Biennale’, African Arts Spring 1997, Vol 30 no. 2, page 88

[12] Lorna Ferguson cited in Ruth Rosengarten, ‘Inside Out: The Johannesburg Biennale’, Frieze June 1995

[13] Candice Breitz, ‘The First Johannesburg Biennale: Work in Progress’, Third Text Summer 1995, Vol 9 Issue 31, page 94

Last updated : 13-Mar-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 08-Feb-2017

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