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Ongoing Controversy over South African Representation at Venice

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Information recently unearthed, following the service of court papers to the Department of Arts and Culture, have revealed further inconsistencies in the commissioning of the South African pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.

Court papers were served after Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile failed to respond to an application under the Promotion Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA), for information regarding the appointment of the pavilion's commissioner, Mr Lethole Mokoena. The application also requested a disclosure of the project's finances. Meanwhile, South African artists and curators sweat it out in anticipation of what the 55th Venice Biennale will bring. Before long plans for next year's South African Pavilion will be underway, and the art world is almost unanimous in a desire for greater transparency.


On 30 September Matthew Blackman, News Editor of ArtThrob, submitted an application to Parliament for the disclosure of written records pertaining to the appointment of Mokoena as commissioner for the biennale, and of any public funds used to finance the South Africa's representation in Venice.

According to the PAIA, Mashatile was required to respond to Blackman's application, either affirmatively or
negatively, within 30 court days of its submission. But the 30 days passedwithout a word from the minister. This was followed by an appeal for a response to the application, to which no reply has been received. Mokoena and the exhibition's appointed curator, Thembinkosi Goniwe, have been just as silent when posed with questions from the press and members of the arts community.

According to a report issued by the Democratic Alliance (DA) on 1 April, the DA submitted parliamentary
questions on 25 October 2011 hoping to shed light on the widely-held perception of a conflict of interests in Mokoena's commissioning process. Mashatile has responded to these questions obtusely, and the unavailability of a comprehensive financial audit of the project has raised further suspicion from
the arts community and the DA.


Curious circumstances

The South African Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale constituted the country's first appearance in a
dedicated national pavilion in 16 years. In April 2011 the Venice Biennale website announced Lethole Mokoena as commissioner of the South African national pavilion and Goniwe as Mokoena's appointed curator. It was subsequently leaked on the blog Panga Management that Lethole Mokoena is better known by another name in the South African art world: Monna Mokoena, art dealer and owner of
Gallery Momo in Johannesburg.

Mokoena's perceived attempt to conceal his professional identity, coupled with the inclusion of two artists represented by Gallery Momo in the proposed four-artist exhibition, raised suspicion within the arts community. Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, originally selected for the exhibition, withdrew his participation shortly after the announcement on the basis of "a lack of transparency", he said in a statement
issued at the time. Of the remaining three artists on the exhibition — Mary Sibande, Lyndi Sales and Siemon Allen — both Sales and Sibande are represented commercially by Mokoena's gallery.



Other curious circumstances, and the refusal of Mokoena or Goniwe to account for the apparent conflict of interests, have led to the disclosure of further inconsistencies. According to Mashatile's responses to the DA's parliamentary questions, the commissioning process was not open to public tender because of tight deadlines. "There was no time to call for public participation since any delay would have caused South Africa to miss the deadline," Mashatile wrote. Instead, the DAC suggests, Mokoena initiated contact by submitting a proposal to the Department on behalf of a company named Cul Art, following which the proposal was approved and Mokoena was appointed commissioner. There is no indication of whether or not Cul Art's proposal was solicited.



Regarding a potential conflict of interests, Mashatile said the following:

"The Commissioner was given the responsibility to appoint artists to participate at the Venice Biennalle and no conditions were imposed to exclude artists from his own gallery. … The process was transparent since the Commissioner reported to the Department all plans for participation in the Venice Biennalle, included the names of all artists and their work to be exhibited. The issue of conflict did not arise since artists
from the Commissioner's gallery were not excluded from participating."



The uncommonly large budget for the exhibition, an amount in excess of R14 million, has not been transparently accounted for either. According to the minister, R10 million of the budget was financed by the DAC, but the source of the remaining R4,1 million has not been disclosed. According to the DA's findings, budgetary spends that have been disclosed include unspecified printing costs of R1,23 million, a cost which far exceeds any possible spend on the mini-catalogue produced for the exhibition, and a R1million social media marketing campaign (a report in the Mail&Guardian
<http://mg.co.za/article/2012-04-02-taxpayers-dish-up-for--private-initiative-exhibition/>
puts the figure at R4,5 million). Oddly, though, a Facebook search for the South African pavilion at the Biennale yields nothing, and the exhibition's Twitter feed (@BiennaleSA) weighs in at a paltry 232 tweets, beginning on 26 May 2011 and ending on a self-congratulatory note on 7 June 2011.



Mokoena and Goniwe have been unavailable for comment throughout, and the DAC has declined any further comment at this stage.