Reflections on how the 2024 Venice Biennale is an inflection point for change - Frank Kilbourn, Executive Chairperson, Strauss & Co

26 Apr 2024

• Strong presence of modern and contemporary African artists at Venice Biennale
• Successful fourth edition of African Art in Venice Forum
• Strauss & Co May auction includes eight modernists in Venice Biennale
• Opinion suggests this biennale is inflection point for African modernists

The 2024 Venice Biennale, which opened last week, is a watershed event for modernist artists from Africa, and especially South Africa. Presented under the theme “Foreigners Everywhere”, the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale features work by more than 50 modern and contemporary African artists in chief curator Adriano Pedrosa’s main exhibition – among them eight modernist South African artists also appearing in the catalogue for Strauss & Co’s forthcoming live auction in Johannesburg on Tuesday 28 May 2024.

“Adriano Pedrosa’s exhibition is a momentous occasion for modern African artists and an inflection point for change,” said Frank Kilbourn, Chairperson, Strauss & Co. Speaking at the fourth edition of the African Art in Venice Forum, an important platform for dialogue hosted in Venice and sponsored by Strauss & Co, Kilbourn pointed to the historical lack of visibility of modernist artists from Africa in major museums and exhibitions outside Africa.

“Why are certain artists better known than others? Why are there so few African artists represented in major museums and exhibitions internationally? What does it take to make it on the world scene?” These are vexing questions, said Kilbourn. “Contemporary African art has found a place globally: it has the energy, momentum, quality and strong socio-political support. The same does not apply to modern African art made in the twentieth century.”

The 2024 edition of the Venice Biennale arrives as a corrective to this historical oversight. In a statement introducing his exhibition’s strong focus on historical work from the period 1905 to 1990, Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa said: “We are all too familiar with the histories of modernism in Euroamerica, yet the modernisms in the Global South remain largely unknown. Knowledge about these is limited to the specialists in each individual country or region at best, yet connecting and exhibiting these works together will be revealing. It is this sense that these histories assume a truly contemporary relevance – we urgently need to learn more about and from them.”

Pedrosa’s ambitious exhibition, which includes both modern and contemporary art, marks an important step in the recovery and exposure of South African modernists internationally. The historical section includes works by Dumile Feni, Maggie Laubser, Simon Lekgetho, Esther Mahlangu, Ernest Mancoba, George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, Lucas Sithole, Irma Stern and Edoardo Villa. Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg auction in May includes superb examples of works by Feni, Laubser, Mahlangu, Pemba, Sekoto, Sithole, Stern and Villa.

Irma Stern has two high-value works in the auction. Painted in 1930, a key period in Stern’s transformative use of colour, Cape Girl with Fruit (estimate R10 – 12 million/ $525 540 – 630 540) depicts a seated woman in a bucolic Cape woodland setting. Stern’s luscious late-career flower study, Still Life with Amaryllis (estimate R5 – 7 million/ $262 490 – 367 490), is dated 1956. It derives from a key decade in Stern’s international career, when she represented South Africa at four editions of the Venice Biennale (1950, 52, 54 and 58).

The sale also includes pioneer black modernists like Ernest Mancoba, George Pemba (represented by Family, 1990, estimate R300 000 – 500 000/ $15 755 – 26 259) and Sekoto (who has five works in the auction, including Mother and Child, 1971, estimate R400 000 – 600 000/ $21 020 – 31 525) never exhibited at the Venice Biennale during their lifetime.

“This is a breakout year for Gerard Sekoto,” said Frank Kilbourn about the inclusion of the artist’s 1947 self-portrait in a double room of portraits in Pedrosa’s exhibition, alongside work by 111 other modernist artists from across the globe including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Kilbourn added that Sekoto’s self-portrait is scheduled to travel to prominent European museum in 2025.

The growing appreciation for modernist artists from Africa internationally should not be abstracted from a deeply entrenched fact about the art market.

“To a large extent, the secondary market in South Africa is driven by modernists,” said Kilbourn. He added that this was not all that different to elsewhere. “While the contemporary art market has grown significantly internationally, particularly in 2023, by and large it is high value works by modernists that drive auction behaviour, which in turn stimulates the behaviour and attitudes of collectors and museums.”

Strauss & Co’s forthcoming live auction in Johannesburg also features works by important alumni of recent editions of the Venice Biennale, including David Goldblatt and William Kentridge (whose solo exhibition “Self-Portrait as a Coffee-Pot” at Arsenale Institute for Politics of Representation is a much talked about fringe exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale). The auction will be held at Strauss & Co’s salesroom at 89 Central Street, Houghton, on Tuesday 28 May 2024


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