The Stronger We Become: In conversation with the curators of the South African pavilion

The South African national pavilion at the 58th Biennale di Venezia opened with an intimate party that brought local and international art audiences together. The exhibition The stronger we become, curated by Nkule Mabso and Nomusa Makhubu, is a trialogue about resilience. They explain that “the artists, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile, probe the politics of self-determination, situated-ness, political displacement, and epistemic violence. Resilience – in our time – has become conspicuously inexorable. Under the weight of our complex histories, being resilient is the capacity and the will to resist.”

We spoke with the curators to find out more about their decisions and how they went about working with space.

Installation view, “The stronger we become”, 2019 South African Pavilion; Arsenale, Venice. Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu curate the work of Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile at the 58th Biennale Arte, 2019. South African Pavilion is presented by the South African Department of Arts and Culture.

Why is the notion of social resilience relevant now?

It has always been relevant but has re-surfaced in neoliberal discourse. We have focused on this notion, not in the neoliberal sense, but because we want to create a space where we can think about its complexities. It refers to the ways in which people confront socio-economic and political challenges, how they organize and form movements. Social resilience is also seen as a way to talk about how people create coping mechanisms under harsh conditions. Being resilient, not only means being strong but also means being stretchable or pliable. However, the persistence of divisive plutocratic politics means that people continue to be stretched to a point where they can no longer take it. The rise in global movements against social injustice is a sign that we have to think more carefully about resilience and the will to resist.

Please tell us about the potential of satire and play as an artistic means of socio-political commentary?

There is a climate of cynicism that we have to acknowledge. And we also have to acknowledge that under all the overbearing weight of violent dehumanizing histories people still find ways to laugh, to live, to love, to play – to find that which makes us human. To challenge, on a political level, systemic violence, is also to sustain the humanizing aspects of social life. It is through satire and plays that frank discussions about everyday experiences can be had without tiptoeing around the uneasy issues.

What informed your selection of artists?

We have had an interest in these three artists for a long time and have worked with how their work develops fresh perspectives on our current moment. Tracey Rose and Dineo Seshee Bopape have featured in an exhibition we previously co-curated, titled Fantastic. Mawande Ka Zenzile featured in an exhibition that Nkule Mabaso co-curated with Manon Braat in the Netherlands, aptly titled Tell Freedom. The artists were selected because of the depth in the themes of their work. They articulate the convolutions of the current moment.

In what ways do the selected artists respond to and engage with contemporary narratives in their work?

Bopape’s intricate universes, Ka Zenzile’s earthy, bold, double-edged paintings and Rose’s resolute performances show, in different ways, the disillusion with the ‘post’ in postcolonial and the ‘post’ in post-apartheid. They tease us. Confront us. And provoke us to think critically about social injustice. Engaging with issues of land, displacement and epistemic violence, the artists remind us not only of the tenacity people have but the will to resist injustice.

What was your approach to curating the pavilion in Venice? How have you worked with the parameters of the space?  

Our approach was to work with the pavilion space in such a way that it can be experienced as an immersive, meditative space. We’ve also tried to work with its current feel as much as possible, rather than transform it into a white cube. We’re led by the aesthetics of the work in determining the approach to space.

What do you hope for viewers to take away from the exhibition? What conversations or dialogue do you intend for the pavilion to inspire?

We hope that viewers will spend time with each artwork, seeking intersecting ideas between them, engaging in the visual conversation between works. Through this engagement with the space-time aspect of the curatorial vision, we hope to encourage the viewer to be immersed in a space that unpacks history and confronts the present. The content of the artwork, we hope, will foment debate about radical change, inequality, epistemology, and dispossession. The objective is to have fresh but difficult questions posed, and new perspectives generated.

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