Arts Festival Thrusts South Africa Back Onto World Cultural Stage

Johannesburg Biennale hosts artists from 60 countries and spotlights art from black townships for the first time

Long a pariah both politically and culturally, South Africa has bounded back from the margins of the international art world with a significant event that breaks its apartheid-era isolation and gives long-overdue attention to black township art.

The country is celebrating its reentry with the first arts festival of its kind in southern Africa -- the two-month Johannesburg Biennale -- a blitz of international and local plastic and visual arts.

Some 300 artists from 60 countries have joined 150 local artists at galleries scattered across the city for the largest contemporary art event ever held on the continent.

The festival is timed to coincide with the anniversary of South Africa's first democratic elections, held in April 1994. Organizers say it has helped end the marginalization of black South African artists within their own country and abroad.

''The biennale is a celebration of South Africa's new democracy. It celebrates the country's reentry into the international cultural arena after two decades of isolation,'' says Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa, one of the organizers. ''This event would not have been possible even two years ago.''

The festival, which opened at the end of February, follows the footsteps of the tradition begun in Venice and mirrored in cities across the world in recent decades. The themes were chosen to reflect the radical transition to black majority rule: ''Decolonizing Our Minds'' and ''Volatile Alliances.''

''The issues are hot in contemporary art politics, but in some cases, there has been no visual art production concerning things that are of increasing concern to South Africans -- for example, land rights issues,'' says Lorna Ferguson, biennale coordinator. ''The cross-pollination of ideas will be one of the most important results of this event.''

The epicenter is appropriately located in the Newtown Cultural Precinct, the site of the Market Theatre complex that was the focal point of protest art during apartheid. The biennale has provided a perfect pretext to expand the complex, with a new workers' library and museum, cafes, and galleries in a converted warehouse that organizers say will be permanent installations.

The exhibits have awed South Africans long starved for art.

''This is absolutely incredible; it makes Johannesburg a normal place at last,'' mused South African painter Ruth Rosengarten, who has lived in exile in Europe for some 20 years. ''Maybe it's time to come back now.''

The festival was hurriedly put together, and even two weeks after the opening, workmen were still drilling and laying bricks on the premises. On the opening night at the fringe art section, several art enthusiasts gathered around some workers' overalls lying on an exposed pipe, debating whether it was meant to be an exhibit or was merely part of the building works. They left unsure of the answer.

Issues of identity and change run throughout the show, with titles such as ''Objects of Defiance,'' ''Volatile Colonies,'' and ''The Body Politic.'' The works of many of the African artists, particularly those from Angola and South Africa, are preoccupied with the violence that has affected those countries.

Organizers say that in a country where the priority is often on building houses and educating the recently enfranchised black majority, and where museums have long catered to white tastes, the biennale offers an opportunity to promote community arts projects.

The hope is that the event will help instill a sense that art is as vital a part of the country's development as running water, jobs, and electricity.

''The theme of decolonizing gives dignity to local artwork, which has often been seen as mere curios,'' Dhlomo-Mautloa says. ''The artistic isolation of black artists in South Africa has been national as well as international. We exist by sheer willpower and the need to be creative.''

A centerpiece of the biennale is a program that sends a dozen young South Africans from disadvantaged backgrounds abroad -- including to the United States -- to be trained as curators, art teachers, and community art-center managers. There are also township-based exhibits aimed at bringing art to the streets.

One Pretoria-based project has 10 artists working with street children. In Kathlehong, scene of some of the worst police-township street battles under apartheid, artists exhibit wire sculptures with moving parts together with military vehicles. A mural painted by several township artists pays tribute to Joe Slovo, the former minister of housing and African National Congress stalwart who died last month, and highlights the severe housing problem.

The biennale has had many organizational and funding problems, but coordinators say that is par for the course. ''Sure there have been teething problems,'' says Dhlomo-Mautloa. ''But this is the first start of the journey. We're starting from scratch.''

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