Overturning the Archive: A Diplomatic Choice for a Country Facing a Secrecy Bill
In 2011, South Africa was reintroduced to the Venice Biennale after a 16-year hiatus. But this inclusion was not met with the celebration one might expect due to well-founded claims of a lack of transparency regarding the appointment of the curator, questionable curatorial decisions and irregularities in expenditure, all of which were exposed in the press, outraging elements of the arts community and resulting in a dispute in Parliament.
South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile, was at the center of this controversy, which has yet to be publicly resolved. Not surprisingly, the country’s participation in the 2013 Biennale is a much more diplomatic exercise in which the well-established National Arts Festival selection committee was appointed after a rushed public tender process. A broad-reaching diversity of artists and works have been selected by head curator Brenton Maart with the stated intention of examining “products of history” in order to gain a better understanding of the contemporary.
The subject of the archive is highly contested in South Africa today. Some might say the current ANC government is dismissing or neglecting the archive due to its colonial and apartheid legacy; others fight to have it re-read rather than dismissed outright. While the Protection of State Information Bill – a repressive act that has been passed by Parliament despite a groundswell of public protest – sits on the desk of President Jacob Zuma awaiting sign-off.
At this critical moment in South Africa’s history, is reflection on the archive an urgent enough theme? Or is the representation of art on this platform being eclipsed by efforts to divert public attention from the more sinister agendas (kleptocracy, lack of service delivery, police violence against popular protest, fracking in the Karoo, race and ethnic essentialism as ongoing state policy etc) that proponents of the Secrecy Bill seek to mask? Is it once again a case of “A luta continua” (the struggle continues) for South Africans?Anonymous