Crusading Journalist Takes on South Africa's Culture Ministry Over Venice Biennale Corruption
New questions (and very few answers) are emerging from a dispute between journalist Matthew Blackman and South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) regarding the country's participation in the 2011 Venice Biennale. The Times of South Africa reports that Blackman has filed a court challenge demanding information about how the country curated and financed its presentation at the prestigious international exhibition last year. In a strange twist, the pavilion became mired in controversy after the offical commissioner "Lethole Mokoena" was revealed to actually be Johannesburg-based Monna Mokoena, a dealer who happened to represent two of the artists selected to show in Italy. Now Blackman wants answers about how this situation, which tarnished the African nation's first Venice outing since 1995, came to pass.
Blackman has covered the scandal for the Art Newspaper, and filed the new affadavit to articulate concerns within the South African art community that Mokoena influenced the selection process to favor his artists, a charge the gallerist denied by pointing out that the artists were selected by the curator he appointed, Thembinkosi Goniwe, who acted independently. (For his part, Goniwe declined to comment on the issue to the Times of South Africa as long as the issue is being discussed in court.) Other concerns center on why the position of commissioner wasn't publicly advertised. (The Times of South Africa reports that the DAC has previously claimed that it "did not have time to follow prescribed tender processes in the appoint of the commissioner.")
The revelation of the conflict of interest came to light last year after one of South Africa's four Biennale artists, Zwelethu Mthethwa, dropped out of the exhibition, citing the "lack of transparency" of the selection process, and saying that he felt as though he'd been treated like a "pawn in this project." The revelation of the conflict of interest came to light last year after one of South Africa's four Biennale artists, When Mokoena's real identity was first revealed to be the commissioner last September, his public relations representatives ChilliBush Communications added that international art stars Nicholas Hlobo, Marlene Dumas, and Robin Rhode were initially approached to participate, but all three declined, before Mthethwa, Siemon Allen, Lyndi Sales, and Mary Sibande were tapped — the latter two of whom are represented by Mokoena's Gallery Momo.
In the court documents Blackman also questions whether public funds were used to finance South Africa's costly Venice exhibition without full disclosure. Last year the DAC, in response to a parliamentary inquiry, revealed that its Biennale exhibition of works by Allen, Sales, and Sibande cost R14.1 million ($1.8 million). Yet according to Blackman's reporting, in emails dating from as late as December 2010, the DAC's chief director of international relations wrote that the country's return to the Venice exhibition seemed unlikely as the department's 2011 budget "was under severe strain."
Blackman's inquiry to discover how exactly South Africa's participation in the Biennale was organized and paid for has received little support from the Visual Arts Network of South Africa, an agency that the country's National Arts Council funds and whose stated goals are "to promote transparency, accountability and sound financial and organisational management within the arts and culture sector." For its part, the DAC has refused to answer Blackman's questions since the controversial curatorial and appointment process were revealed last fall.