Interview with Misheck Masamvu, participant in the 2014 Yango Biennale.
The interview took place over a period of time in 2015 and 2016 via Skype video conversations and emails.
Olga Speakes: You have so far participated in several biennials (Yango, Dak’art, Venice, São Tomé e Príncipe). What, if anything, does a biennial format offer for you that other exhibition formats may not?
Misheck Masamvu: It is sometimes like starting a new relationship, coming in contact with a new space, a terrain curved to develop your own artistic grammar. Often, an exhibition within an institutionalized space is like working within a baby crib, and a biennial pays homage to the artist’s process of collaboration with the curatorial concept and the space. Such a setting is worth engaging with, to encapsulate personal stories and concepts. It is the unlearning of the art-making process by deconditioning a platform where experiences and concepts make the heartbeat of the conversation. When an artist goes to a biennial, we look for space for development—personal growth and development—for an opportunity, for a conversation. The biennial, for me though, is an institutional structure. It should be more about the process of creating work, looking for meaningful, helpful, and revealing discussions about the creative process and what you are trying to do. But as an artist you come across categorizations and stereotypes. The invisible barriers do exist, and not only that, people come to biennials in order to look over these invisible barriers but they already have formed expectations of what they want to see on the other side.
OS: Biennials originated in the West but have become an accepted, if criticized, way of, supposedly, providing an overview of where contemporary art is at within a certain region or globally. Do you feel that they have been able to transcend their Eurocentric history and to offer a useful structure for the artists anywhere to exhibit their work?
MM: A biennial is an open salon, where dirty laundry is often left in the open. The criticism that has plagued their existence in some quarters is marked by the scepticism that comes from the unknown intentions of the funders and curators, which are often viewed with suspicion.
OS: Is the institutional structure through which your work gets exhibited significant for you? And, if so, in what ways? What are you looking for?
MM: An artwork, unfortunately, has to be presented within a certain context for it to reveal its strength. I view the institutional structure as one of many layers within my canvas; its role is to provide a transparent link between source and medium hosting the message. Today, I am not interested in spaces to simply exhibit my work; I am more concerned with defining space as the source, itself revealing a certain experience.
OS: Your work is both personal and, at the same time, activist. You said before, that in some cases your hope for your work is to be the voice of the voiceless. Do you find that the biennial format allows for a higher degree of volume in that voice? Some biennial critics might argue that it is a levelling and universalizing force that has the power to drown out individual voices in the service of global discourses about contemporary art. Could you comment on that?
MM: I do not believe in a revolution fought with foreign weapons. In the same vein, pseudo-biennials attempting to speak for the voiceless is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The language of an artist is both individual and universal, and that does not mean his or her message is for the rest of the world. Currently a global system exists that controls channelling and receiving information, while the consumer is meant to take their poison at will and die alone. When artists speak of death in the presence of their oppressors (those who seek to institutionalize the artist’s career), they seek to incarnate their soul above the levelling and universalizing force encapsulated in dosages of news bulletins. I believe every artist knows that; if you have a healthy relationship with death, then, global discourses on contemporary art are just decorated coffins on a shelf.
OS: What have been your worst and your best experiences of exhibiting your work within a biennial context?
MM: Every biennial is an EXPERIENCE, there is no good or bad. After participating in one, all you just need is time to recover and continue working.
OS: The role of the curator, especially the so-called ‘star curator’, is often debated in relation to biennials. What, in your opinion, is the ideal relationship between an artist and the curator of a biennial? Could you describe experiences, if any, that came close to this ideal?
MM: ART speaks for itself. A curator must be willing to engage in a conversation, the dialog in creating an artwork sometimes needs more people than the artist and their artwork. I met someone who showed me resolved artworks created by an untrained hand from the “Continent”. The intention of the man showing me the image, his objective, perhaps, was to show how an untrained painter discovered a solution that contemporary art struggles with. The painter had discovered and was able to diagnose the difficulty he faced in resolving his visual literacy. This viewpoint stands to assume a position that, what is perceived to be naive, is a notion derived from a stereotypical position rather make a prognosis of the true nature of self. This conversation to which I am referring took place in relation to some aspects of my work because it was dealing with today’s issues, because it chose to deal with contemporary issues, whereas the work could transcend into the purity of self (he called it pure art). It is an ongoing conversation in my work process that I am inclined to take either way, but it has been a conversation that I could not refute to distinguish the journey and the traveller in which a good artwork embodies both.
OS: On the African continent, there have been examples of both long-lasting, well-established biennials like Dak’Art as well as those that ceased after only a few iterations (I am thinking of the Johannesburg Biennale). What, in your view, is important for the success of a biennial, especially in the African context? Do you believe that these parameters of success are different for each specific country where a biennial is based, or are they similar across the board?
MM: A successful biennial is a kind of space that is open for reinvention. In my view, for a biennial to be successful it must adhere to the geo-social and economic realities in which it operates. There must be an in-country supportive and organizational structure that is needed to keep such platforms in existence. One important aspect to note is to make information about the biennial accessible. Such information must include a program and public forum where interested bodies can lobby ideas or structural adjustments beyond the conditioning of the artist through "unrelated themes" and impractical budgets. There are many pseudo art-related programs running parallel to local arts practices that alienate local audiences, leaving them with no clue as to what is going on in their backyard. There is a need to raise local awareness and interest by lobbying for transparency in the making of the right connections with all stakeholders involved.
There must be more awareness and transparency in the location where a biennial takes place. The connection with grassroots programs is essential in order to come up with a biennial that makes a difference; otherwise, a biennial is like an alien that lands in a location, which is also an alien space to the biennial itself and leaves no lasting positive impact.
The keys are education and a genuine interest and engagement with what is happening on the ground. The primary reason for a biennial should not be just a statistic but the development of the local space and its communities, artistic ones and non-artistic ones. There is never data available to see how many different new kinds of people a biennial managed to attract each time.
Working with grassroots groups means to identify the community and work with them as a module for many years and see how things have changed. What positive changes have come out of this work over the years? Has the art scene developed? Has the community’s relationship with art changed? Are there more people taking up art as a career? Has a long-term interest in art developed?
OS: How does the fact of being selected to show one’s work at a biennial impact the artist? And what do you think about the process itself?
MM: There are not that many biennials in Africa, so it is hard to make comparisons as to what works and what does not. One often hears the criticism that the selection of artists for a particular biennial was not fair. Curators often have their hands tied and can only have 50% of what they want, and have 50% of what they can live with. Biennials are often not done or created by the artists for the artists. There is a viewpoint that relegates artists to the outside of the dealings with all the organizational and financial issues. So it is the others who do the selections, and their motivations could be a problem. There is often a lot of dissatisfaction with the selections; and it is claimed that no information is made available to the artists on the ground. The artists are just told, so, as a result of the process itself, artists may feel that they are being conditioned to do what the curator wants them to do to meet their goals as they have that power of choice. The result—what ends up in the show—is never 100% but, nonetheless, it is often 50% acceptable (to both the curators and the artists).
The danger for the biennials in Africa is the promotion of the "fraction", perpetuated by the hunt for the new name, in the context of the recent rise in interest in the art from the continent; of those who are prepared to compromise to give the curator and the audiences that matter what they want and expect. They also forget that an artist comes from a community, is a member of the community, and sometimes that community is a sacred source. One hopes the focus should shift back from the drive to consume to focus on development, self-growth. Biennials on the continent should not be made for geopolitical reasons but should be inclusive of the communities where they operate.
OS: You mentioned that you still see a lot of stereotypes and preconceived ideas about art from Africa. Could you tell me more about your experiences?
MM: Africa is ‘Africa’ whatever that means.
Misheck Masamvu lives and works in Harare. He studied at Atelier Delta, Harare, and at the Kunst Akademie in Munich, Germany. Known as the leader of a new school of Zimbabwean painting that has emerged in recent years, Masamvu, together with his wife, Gina Maxim, nurtures young artists through their Village Unhu studio and residency programme, some of whom have gone on to establish great reputations and international careers.
Masamvu’s work became known on the rest of the continent and internationally, which led to his participation at the 2006 Dakar Biennale, and he was confirmed as the eminent practitioner of his generation with his participation in the 54th Venice Biennale  where he represented Zimbabwe.
Olga Speakes lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa. She completed her Honours in Curatorship at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town in 2013 and is currently writing her dissertation on South African Diaspora art.