Perhaps the biggest of Africa’s success stories at the Biennale, though, is South Africa, which has had the advantage of a permanent space in the Biennale’s Arsenale location for the past four iterations of the event. (Egypt is the only other African nation with a permanent space in Venice.)
The pavilion had a particularly strong presentation this year, drawing high praise for its ambitious showcase of two immersive works by
, exploring the migrant experience and the history of black identity in South Africa.
The pavilion’s curators, Lucy MacGarry and Musha Neluheni, credit their more confident outing at this year’s Biennale partly to this being the first time the pavilion has been allowed to receive private or corporate support—from galleries and an auction house, among others—beyond primary funding from the South African Department of Arts and Culture.
“That’s a big step forward for us,” said MacGarry. “It’s enabled us to market the pavilion properly and have things like a party, which is important to get together as a community. But it’s also to encourage a feeling of investment from our local network.”
That investment was on full view at a dinner celebrating the South African pavilion during the Biennale’s opening days, where the mood was jubilant, and where attendees represented the country’s rapidly evolving art world. Those included Liza Essers of Goodman Gallery, who hosted the event; Frank Kilbourn, of Strauss & Co, one of South Africa’s homegrown auction houses; and Jochen Zeitz, who is set to open the much-anticipated Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town later this year.
With the additional support of the South African art community, the curators chose to eschew what they said was the politically correct approach to presenting on the global stage—to take as many artists as possible to the Biennale in order to share the platform widely. “They always think: everyone needs a chance,” said Neluheni of South Africa’s local art community.
But in light of the country’s growing art industry, they felt it was time to focus on the quality and curatorial strength of their presentation, rather than inclusivity. “I think we’re at a point now where we can compete at an international level in a very real way,” said MacGarry. “So our intention was to limit the number of artists and bring it down, and make it a little more immersive.”