The Venice Architecture Biennale has been trying for the past four years to bring more countries into the biannual event, particularly emerging nations and countries from the Global South. Therefore, it is sad to report that South Africa has pulled out of “Freespace,” the 2018 biennale.
The official reason for the African country’s lack of participation is apparently that none of the submitted proposals were good enough to represent the country. The South African City Press quotes Zimasa Velaphi, spokesperson for the department of arts and culture, who says: “The tender will be cancelled in the government tender bulletin and press [because] the tenders received and evaluated did not adhere to all the policy requirements and a decision was taken not to take part.”
But we have reached out to several South African architects (who do not want to be quoted) who seem to agree that since their government has a twenty-year lease to a space in the Torre di Porta Nuova inside the Arsenale and spent 5 million rand (about $400,000–which the government claims will be re-allocated to the 2019 art biennale) to stage the exhibit this will be lost. One architect told A/N that “there have always been problems around South Africa’s participation at Venice–both the Architecture and Art Biennales–and in the past a cloud of corruption has hung over the selection process. Even had it gone forward, there would have been some measure of controversy anyway.”
Furthermore, City Press reported “that just days before the announcement of the official representative, four bidders received letters requesting an extension of their tenders until the end of January.” But when the deadline came and went, they “received no further notice, despite contacting the department for clarity.” City Press also reported, “Two sources in the department say the proposals were evaluated and the preferred bidder sent to the director-general Vusi Mkhize,” and “they believe the strongest bidder was Grahamstown Power Station, submitted by a team that included the National Arts Festival who staged the South African art pavilion in Venice before and would provide infrastructure for content from acclaimed young Cape Town architect Ilze Wolff.”
Another South African architect (one of its most respected) said, “The department is a… f**k up and architecture does not even figure on their agenda. This is very sad and we are still negotiating our way through the past–forget about the present and the future–and a strong move to ‘de-colonize ‘arts and culture is afoot.” What this means precisely no one really knows. He went on, “I think that architecture in terms of the current government is viewed as a neo-colonial plot by settlers to hold cultural authority. What a decolonized architecture would be or look like is problematic. It will be a long and slow process to find a way to express South African architectural identity in Black African terms.”
Whatever the reason, for the South African pavilion, this should be an occasion for the country to rethink their participation process and look forward more thoughtfully to 2020.