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ArtThrob broke news last week that the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) has handed over documentation concerning South Africa’s participation at the 2011 Venice Biennale. This follows a protracted enquiry procedure which involved the submission of parliamentary papers of inquiry into Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile’s appointment of Monna Mokoena as commissioner of the South African pavilion at Venice, as well as the spending of R10 million of state funds on what the minister himself has called a “private initiative”.

On 30 September Matthew Blackman, a reporter for ArtThrob <www.artthrob.co.za>, submitted an application to Parliament for the disclosure of written records pertaining to the appointment of Mokoena as commissioner for the biennale, and of any public funds used to finance the South Africa’s representation in Venice.

According to the PAIA, Mashatile was required to respond to Blackman’s application, either affirmatively or negatively, within 30 court days of its submission. This was followed by the submission of parliamentary questions to the Department by the Democratic Alliance (DA). Mashatile responded to these questions obtusely, and the unavailability of a comprehensive financial audit of the project has raised further suspicion from the arts community and the DA.

The South African Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale constituted the country’s first appearance in a dedicated national pavilion in 16 years. In April 2011 the Venice Biennale website announced Lethole Mokoena as commissioner of the South African national pavilion and Goniwe as Mokoena’s appointed curator. It was subsequently leaked on the blog Panga Management that Lethole Mokoena is better known by another name in the South African art world: Monna Mokoena, art dealer and owner of Gallery Momo in Johannesburg.

Mokoena’s perceived attempt to conceal his professional identity, coupled with the inclusion of two artists represented by Gallery Momo in the proposed four-artist exhibition, raised suspicion within the arts community. Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, originally selected for the exhibition, withdrew his participation shortly after the announcement on the basis of “a lack of transparency”, he said in a statement issued at the time. Of the remaining three artists on the exhibition — Mary Sibande, Lyndi Sales and Siemon Allen — both Sales and Sibande are represented commercially by Mokoena’s gallery. Subsequently, it has come to light that the DAC and Mokoena met on the 15 March 2011 , before South Africa’s participation in the Venice Biennale had been publicly announced, to discuss Mokoena’s selection of artists for the pavilion. According to Blackman’s report, the minutes of this meeting reflect that the department expressed concern that Mr Mokoena had not consulted with the others in the arts industry. Mokoena is noted in the minutes as saying that it was too late to consult with the sector because the deal was “done and dusted”. Mokoena stated that he had previously “discussed the artists and proposal with the minister and the he [the minister] approved.” Following the minister’s confirmation to Mokoena that his appointment was secure, Mokoena was confident that subsequent queries from the department would not pose a significant threat to his plans. With regard to finances, the department included in the documentation proof of two payments made to Mr Mokoena’s company, CulArt, totaling R10 million. However, no documentation was provided to confirm that these funds were spent according to the items listed in Mokoena’s original project budget. Mokoena was appointed as commissioner before 5 January 2011. In a letter, sent on that date to the South African ambassador in Italy, Minister Mashatile states that ‘the services of Mr Monna Mokoena [have been engaged] to coordinate DAC’s participation.’ However, there are purportedly “no minutes or other records relating to the appointment of Mokoena as commissioner’. 

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