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

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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. …