Updated: Jun 14
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Johannesburg - Controversy is brewing around the selection of a work by a major South African artist, Willem Boshoff, for the country’s official exhibition at the Venice Biennale international art exhibition.
Young South African artists reacted strongly last week to Racist in South Africa, which has a prominent place on the group show What Remains is Tomorrow at the South African Pavilion in the Italian city.
It is a 120cm x 120cm piece of text engraved into aluminium, which rants in despair about the state of the nation.
The work begins with the line “I am proud to be labelled racist in South Africa if it means that…” and lists a plethora of gripes, each one framed within a rhetoric of racialised fears that include “I am revolted by ineffective, dim-witted 4 X 4 politicians; I am shocked that countless farm murders go unchallenged; I loathe it when the police take bribes without being punished.”
Boshoff says you can call him a racist if “I appreciate security walls, electrical fences and guard dogs; I fly into a rage when sports teams are forced to select undeserving players; I could scream in frustration when jobs are given to unqualified people and I am afraid for the lives of my children when they walk out into the street.”
Numerous South African visitors to the exhibition that City Press spoke to expressed disdain for the work. No one wanted to be named, but they included young local artists on the same show.
One artist referred to the piece as “a ballad of white privilege … I’ll never take Boshoff seriously again”. A significant player in the art scene said: “This work isn’t even a liberal white person ranting. It’s 100% conservative.” Another artist told City Press: “It’s 2015 and this is what South Africa has to show? I just don’t have time for this shit.”
Social-media users had a mixed response to the work. Many defended it, saying Boshoff was just speaking the truth. Others likened it to Steve Hofmeyr lyrics. Artists questioned its tone, saying Boshoff’s white, privileged position undermined the reality of crime and corruption on black South African lives and did not place crime and violence within a context – the after-effects of apartheid.
“I don’t have anything to say; the work speaks for itself,” said Boshoff when City Press told him about some of the responses. He said he made the work in 2011 when it was shown at a solo exhibition in Joburg and that he didn’t choose it for the biennale; it was chosen by a committee.
The 64-year-old is seen as a sage figure in South African art, crafting powerful, often abstract texts on to stone and other natural substances.
The show’s curators, Jeremy Rose and Christopher Till, scrambled to get the SA pavilion up in time after severe delays in the tender process. They were too late to make the biennale’s official guides and catalogues. At the pavilion’s opening, relief was expressed that they had got a show together in two weeks.
What Remains is Tomorrow is framed around xenophobic violence and features several prominent contemporary artists, including Mohau Modisakeng, Haroon Gunn-Salie and Nandipha Mntambo. Controversial artist Brett Murray has a video work on show.
The catalogue for the show reads that it is “neither a resigned acceptance of the mixed blessings of history nor a utopian gesture. Instead it conveys a desire to weight the present against what has preceded it and to cast ahead the possibility of alternative ways of being in the world, and of making the world.”
They state that “we have not wanted simply to present works that … offer a litany of wrongs and injustices”.
Contacted for comment, Till said that Boshoff’s explanation, which he had heard, “is that he’s far from being a racist but states that in bringing up any of those issues, the race card is played”.
“I half anticipated there would be some reaction to Boshoff’s work, but it wasn’t trying to be confrontational or creating a major issue in itself. But it was a voice, one among 13, and it’s expressed by an artist from a particular perspective,” added Till