Exploring the faultlines of modern curatorial practice
by Brenton Maart
After opening the crates containing a collaborative artwork by Pitso Chinzima and Veliswa Gwintsa, Gilane Tawadros, curator of the show 'Faultlines' on this year's Venice Biennale, decided against showing the commissioned piece. We asked Chinzima to discuss the curator's decision. The interview is presented unedited (but for a few minor grammatical amendments). Gwintsa was unavailable for comment.
Brenton Maart: Please describe the process of your invitation to the Biennale. How were you selected to show, and how was your work selected? Do you know what the curator's criteria were?
Pitso Chinzima: I was officially invited. It was a curatorial decision.
BM: Who invited you, and when? Did the curator send a letter of invitation and, if so, did the letter contract you into producing the work, and also contract the curator into showing the work? May I see a copy of the letter?
PC: Gilane Tawadros, who is with the Institute of International Visual Arts, and, of course, the Biennale's Chief if you like, Mr Francesco Bonami. I was participating in a section called 'Fault Lines'. There is a difference between a contract and a letter of invitation. I would rather avoid the term contract because of its loaded meanings. The catalogue is testimony to the fact that we were invited.
BM: What do you feel about the fact that there was no artist's fee for production? Did you agree to produce the work regardless? How did you plan to fund the work's production? Please explain avenues of funding you explored. What were the outcomes of these avenues? If the Biennale paid for your travel to and accommodation in Venice, would that money not have been better spent on the work itself?
PC: As artists we were invited to participate in 'Fault Lines' and the situation panned out [in such a way] that there was no funding for the production of the work and as artists we had no control over that. We did explore a few funding avenues for all expenses, which for various reasons were unsuccessful. It is our understanding that in budget allocation for all biennales there is a budget for travel for artists which cannot be changed as it can be sponsored in the form of plane tickets for example.
BM: Please describe your initial proposal, and explain how and why the work you did finally submit differed from your original proposal. Did you discuss these deviations with the curator before submission? If so, what was the nature of your discussions. Did she agree to the deviation from the original proposal?
PC: As artists we believe that our concept has been clearly explained in the catalogue in the article by Prince Mbusi Dube. It deals with the underlying concept of our installation, which has remained essentially the same.
BM: How do you feel about your work? Do you feel the concept and production quality, even of your revised installation, was sufficiently high to warrant inclusion?
PC: As artists we feel that we executed our concept in exactly the way we wanted, given the funding problem. It is our belief that by the time the curator makes a decision to request participation in a show he or she would have by then taken a curatorial decision that the quality of the work and the subject matter that the artist deal with in their work is appropriate for their show.
BM: Please describe the discussions with the curator when you arrived in Venice. What were her reasons for deciding against installing your work? Did you agree with her decision? Did you attempt to reach a compromise, where a variation of the proposed work could still be installed? Were your suggestions taken up or ignored?
PC: On my arrival in Venice I did not [have a chance to] discuss [the matter] with the curator as it was hectic in preparation for the opening. The reasons and the decision were curatorial and were discussed by the team involved.
BM: Did the curator discuss the quality of the work? If so, what were her thoughts? Did you agree with her?
PC: As I have already indicated I did not have any time to discuss.
BM: What were your feelings during and after the discussion with the curator? Please be brutally honest about this.
PC: As indicated above there was no time for discussion.
BM: Do you think curators have a right to exclude the work once it has been selected/ requested? Do you feel the curator was ethically bound to show your work? Please elaborate.
PC: By virtue of being a curator automatically you can decide on the content of the exhibition. The risks are whether the works chosen are new or already exist [originate] from a collection.
BM: Are you planning any further action regarding your exclusion? What steps are you planning to take?
PC: The Biennale is currently going on and taking further action in this situation will not change the current show, unless if we can plan a conference around the issue of exclusion and therefore we can engage all the artists affected in other exhibitions.
BM: Emma Bedford, in her article 'Circuiting the globe' in the recent Art South Africa, writes cuttingly that your "recent showing at the Sao Paulo was a dismal failure". Could you comment on whether these two events would be damaging to your career? How would this influence future exhibitions of your work?
PC: Artists have always gone through different types of journalistic terrorist attacks if not constructive criticism. I am not an isolated case. I respect Emma's journalistic activities. I would also prefer to have a one-on-one crit session with her in my studio about my recent projects, if she is available. Let me say for now that I was not made up by the media and I would not like to be brought down by them. In terms of career, I would like to indicate that my current artistic activities are part of a calling from my granny, not part of my career. I still have to choose my career maybe after 20 years.