The newly announced Sellenbosch Triennale aims to use art as a lens to confront what is needed for renewal to happen in South Africa.

What is a Triennale?

You may have heard of a Biennale, an event that is held once every two years. It comes from the Italian word which means biennial, once every two years. It was first used in this context in 1895 when the first Venice Biennale was held. A Triennale is an event held once every three years. There are also Quadrennials, held every four years. While it may refer to most any event held every two or three years, it has mostly become associated with art exhibitions.

In South Africa, the first Quadriennale was held in 1956, while the first Biennale was held in 1961, called Art South Africa Today, and it continued until 1975. The inaugural Cape Town Triennale took place in 1982 at a time when the cultural boycott against South Africa was firmly in place. This specific Triennale lasted until 1991.

After the first democratic elections, more of these events were hosted in Johannesburg and Cape Town, to some criticism and with financial problems, which led to them having to shut their doors. More recently in 2015 and 2017, the Netherlands based GRID Biennale saw two local editions hosted in Cape Town.

From the history, it seems that these type of events are expensive, difficult to organise and sustain and sometimes started with a big fanfare but then petering out after a short lifespan.

“Kawuuwo” by Ugandan artist Ellen Nabukenya hangs in front of Voorgelegen, 112 Dorp Street, a building that has burned down twice. It is on display until April 2019.

So why a Stellenbosch Triennale at this time?

It has been 26 years since the first democratic elections in South Africa and with daily revelations of corruption and reports of violence threatening to destabilise the country, artists are stepping forward in an attempt to use creativity, imagination and public space as a meeting point in engaging with the past, present and future. The Stellenbosch Triennale, which will kick off in 2020, aims to “place creativity at the centre of society, as a convergence point where we are deliberate about imagining ourselves.”

In our country today we are grappling with so many issues, including transformation, the resources available to us and how to access it. Our society seems to be fragmenting and conservative and liberal viewpoints are moving further apart. Is it time to place art at the centre of debate and examine what it can do to heal the rifts and build the nation into a coherent whole?

At a time when art education has been severely neglected, this event comes at an opportune time. Art can be used as a tool to imagine how individuals and groups of people can come up with new ideas to transform our society into the dream we had in 1994 which has turned into a nightmare in recent years.


Chief Curator Khanyisile Mbongwa during the launch of the Stellenbosch Triennale

The old and the new

According to Chief Curator Khanyisile Mbngwa the event will have two specific projects, namely On The Cusp, where African artists in who are fresh, young and on the cutting edge will have space to explore, while The Vault will feature what already is in museums, so as to facilitate a conversation between the old and the new. She also stressed the intersectionality of the event, queering the event by having complex and nuanced conversations about gender, how we socialise and our perspective on gender and sexuality.

When will it take place?

The Stellenbosch Triennale will take place from February through April 2020. At the launch a few weeks ago, the Stellenbosch Outdoor Sculpture Trust (SOST) introduced Khanyisile Mbongwa, the Chief Curator, Rashieda Witter, who is the researcher, and Curator Bernard Akio Jackson.

Researcher for the Stellenbosch Triennale, Rashieda Witter

The SOST has been operational in Stellenbosch since 2012 and has hosted a number of public art exhibits in and around the town. There are more than 150 outdoor artworks placed around the town, showcasing the work of artists and school children. The Triennale promises to take art in Stellenbosch and South Africa to the next level.