Jo Noero’s Common Ground / Different Worlds at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennial

Brett Petzer writes about Jo Noero’s exhibit at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition la Biennale di Venezia.

Jo Noero’s revalorisation of simple, painstaking work – the artisanship in Art – resonates powerfully with the Keiskamma Guernica, itself a muscular comparison between Spain of the 1930s and contemporary South Africa. Both made a considerable impression at the Venice Biennale this year, as part of an exhibition called Common Ground/Different Worlds.

Both Noero’s work, and the tapestry made by the Hamburg Women’s Cooperative of the rural Eastern Cape, are monuments to the fine grain of everyday life. Both pieces share a quality that is increasingly rare in the art and design world: they capture the makers’ working days in an obvious way. Patient, traditional methods and the lavish investment of days and weeks – Noero spent six months on his 9m-long hand drawing of the Location, while the complexity of the Keiskamma piece holds its magic even from close up – make a point about design that is quite separate from the thematic ground of township life, the Struggle and the HIV/Aids pandemic. Jo Noero and the Hamburg Women’s Cooperative have sent South African artisanship to Italy, and it is iterative, bold, simple and demonstrably humble in the midst of an art show at which it is the most brazen, zeitgeisty pieces that most make the news.

This is the sort of art that is easily understood by the average South African – the kind that speaks instinctively to the lived experience of ordinary working people. It is the kind of ‘gateway art’ that could transform public art in this country – and the public spaces that it beautifies, or fails to beautify – because this art, in which time has been so demonstrably lavished – does not depend on abstraction for its effect. The simple act of drawing a shack, and threading coloured yarn through coloured yarn, done thousands of times over without machine intervention, is a symbol as well as a strategy in the hands of such as Noero and the Women’s Collective.

These pieces ask South Africans whether they, too, might not begin to speak art about their lives and about their perspectives on our national conversation.

The film simply titled “Red Location Precinct” was made in support of the Venice Architecture Biennale. It gives viewers a deeper understanding of the context of Red Location and takes a journey through each of the buildings completed to date, namely a digital library, an archive, an art gallery and the Museum of Struggle.

Jo Noero’s exhibition titled Common Ground / Different Worlds.
The 9.4×3.5m hand-drawn plan of the Red Location Precinct and the 7.8×3.5m tapestry made by the Hamburg Women’s Cooperative in the Eastern Cape.

Detailed view of the tapestry.
The Tapestry was made by a co-operative of 50 women from the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is based on and is the same size as Picasso’s Guernica. The theme is different – the Keiskamma Guernica tackles AIDS/HIV and its impact on South African women.


Film created by- Stretch (Stephen Hitchcock and David Long)

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at

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