South African artists Candice Breitz & Mohau Modisakeng showcase their works at the 57th Venice Biennale
Voted among the top 11 pavilions at the 2017 Biennale, the South African pavilion curated by Lucy Macgarry and Musha Neluheni, showcases works by two incredible artists; Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng. The duo bring out gratifying installations that address forced migration- a recurring theme at the 57th edition in Venice.
South Africa’s decision to focus on works from two internationally acclaimed artists has made the exhibition appeal to a larger audience. The audience has a chance to deeply engage with the art emotionally and aesthetically, and, for the first time, the South African pavilion located on the first floor of the Sale d’Armi, Arsenale di Venezia showcases a moving image and sound-based exhibition, the exhibitors hold that; the resolve to include moving image acknowledges contemporary video art as a disruptive and critical language for addressing issues of representation and misrepresentation. Through the duo’s work, the curators are showcasing the works of an independent artistic duo who consider moving image revolutionary to storytelling thus bringing about an international perspective to art as opposed to just ‘African art.’ Modisakeng and Breitz present The Passage and Love Story respectively.
The Passage is an enigma of sorts. It is a masterfully crafted video installation that incorporates a three channel video- each video; with a subject on a boat that is slowly sinking. The slow motion action of the drowning subjects is not only fascinating but also full of suspense. On one of the boats, a woman with a hawk perched on her arm- her only possession stands patiently waiting to sail. The boat, calm like the sea waits to be stroked into action while the pitiless sea water seeps into the milky white boat engulfing the occupant. Though calm, the lady; holding a lash, dressed in slave labourers clothes, her legs bare tries in vain to make the boat move, but the only movements are the desperate whiplashes and the disappearing boat into the dark waters. Despite the expansive sea, the occupants on the boat take up a tiny position in the vast merciless mass of water. Their detachment from society individualises their problems and needs, isolates them from the pain of others although they share similar problems. It therefore becomes a fight for an individual to survive, a fight that slowly becomes worse as their livelihood sinks and efforts wane. And after all that struggle, they are forgotten- unmarked graves in the vast ocean of those marginalised. The sinking boat, the slow motion which makes the subjects seem lost in eternal damnation, the crystal clear water, and the movement on the water make this a powerful yet agonizing work of art. Modikaseng seems to be capturing the lost glory of home, and the never ending fight to move back which, as the boats sink, tragically ends at sea.
Born in 1986, Modisakeng grew up in Soweto, Johannesburg where he draws inspiration for most of his masterpieces. Born at a time when South Africa was on the horns of liberation from Apartheid, Modisakeng has a wealth of the turbulent history of his country which is conspicuously dotted in his work. In his opinion Hlonipha Mokoena an associate Professor at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research-WiSER states through a historical perspective that, “In the year in which South Africa commemorates the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi – a passenger ship that sank on 21 February 1917 oﬀ the Isle of Wight while transporting men who were part of the South African Native Labour Corps – it is apt that Mohau Modisakeng has created a film that, although not directly about the SS Mendi, nonetheless reminds us of the countless voyages that have become marginal in the South African imagination” he proceeds to say, “the men who died in 1917 were serving as soldiers in World War I and the reports of the survivors tell us that they exhibited valor even while they faced their deaths.” Mokoena feels that, it is a befitting gesture that their heroism should be celebrated in the art of Modisakeng.
Mohau Modisakeng Passage- Frames 1-13, 2017 Epson Hot Press Natural 150 x 200 cm Edition of 6 + 2 AP Courtesy WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town; Galerie Ron Man-dos, Amsterdam; Tyburn Gallery, London
Modisakeng currently lives and works between Cape Town and Johannesburg. He earned his undergraduate degree at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, in 2009. His works have been exhibited in the USA; Laumier Sculpture Park (Saint Louis, Missouri), MOCADA (Brooklyn, NY), Kunstraum Innsbruck, the Museum of Fine Art (Boston) and 21C Museum (Louisville, Kentucky); Netherlands at the Framer Framed (Amsterdam), International Kurtzflmtage (Oberhausen) and South Africa.
Mohau Modisakeng Passage-Frames 1-13, 2017 Epson Hot Press Natural 150 x 200 cm Edition of 6 + 2 AP: Courtesy WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town; Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam; Tyburn Gallery, London
Candice Breitz on the other hand recreates immigration testimonies in her exhibition titled, The Love Story. The love story features the narrations of American actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. The 76 minutes long video features accounts from immigrants Mamy Maloba Langa – survivor from Democratic Republic of Congo, Sarah Ezzat Mardini- who escaped war torn Syria, José Maria João-former child soldier Angola, Farah Abdi Mohamed-young atheist from Somalia, Luis Ernesto Nava Molero-political dissident, Venezuela and Shabeena Francis Saveri- Transgender activist from India. Despite having taped the immigrants, Breitz uses Hollywood stars to re-tell their story. According to the artist, Love Story “interrogates the mechanics of identification and the conditions under which empathy is produced.” The seven-channel wide ranging video installation also includes individual victims telling their experiences both in their country of origin and where they are in exile- concept being, to show the impact of fame on story believability vis-à-vis witness accounts. Admittedly, many would feel empathy and even shed a tear in the movie Titanic or Hotel Rwanda than the original survivor accounts. In most occasions, survivors become faceless individuals in the moving wheels of global acceptance.
In an article titled ‘Oh! Oh! Love’ Research Curator at Tate; Zoe Whitley (exhibition catalogue) writes; “Breitz’s amplification of the irreconcilable distance separating dramatized narration from lived experience, is both artistic and editorial: “Often when we encounter interviews with survivors of socio-political crises or trauma of some kind, editorial decisions regarding what information is relevant (or not) have already been made for us. The editor brings a structure to narratives that might otherwise resist easy comprehension, imposing a grammar that packages the unimaginable in comfortable form. I wanted to resist oﬀering that easy comfort to viewers as they engage the interviews that are at the heart of Love Story.” It is this concept that wrenches the installation from the encounter of immigrants to a new level of who tells the story and how it is told. The biggest question here is, if the lion learns to speak and tells the tales of hunting, will the story be believable?
Born in 1972 in South Africa, Candice Breitz is a Berlin-based artist whose moving images have been showcased internationally. She holds degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), the University of Chicago and Columbia University (NYC). Her artworks have been exhibited widely at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, the Nationa Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Palais de Tokyo (Paris), The Power Plant (Toronto), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk), Modern Art Oxford, De Appel Foundation (Amsterdam) Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead), MUDAM / Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (Luxembourg), Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Castello di Rivoli (Turin), Pinchuk Art Centre (Kiev), Centre d’Art Contempora in Genève, Bawag Foundation (Vienna), Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin, White Cube(London), MUSAC / Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (Spain), Wexner Center forthe Arts (Ohio), O.K. Center for Contemporary Art Upper Austria (Linz), ACMI / The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Melbourne),Collection Lambert en Avignon, FACT / Foundation for Art & Creative Technology (Liverpool), Blaﬀer Art Museum (Houston) and the South African National Gallery (Cape Town) and also selected group exhibtion. She is currently a tenured professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig, Germany.