VENICE, Italy — For the first time in the 127-year history of the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and largest contemporary art fair, features a majority of female and gender-nonconforming artists, under the curatorial direction by Cecilia Alemani.
The result is a Biennale that spotlights artists long overlooked despite prolific careers, while exploring themes such as gender norms, colonialism and climate change.
Alemani’s main show, titled “The Milk of Dreams,” alongside 80 national pavilions, opens on Saturday after a year-long pandemic delay. The art fair runs until November 27. This is only the fourth of the 59 editions of the Biennale under the direction of a woman.
The predominance of women among the more than 200 artists chosen by Alemani for the main exhibition “was not a choice, but a process,” Alemani, an Italian curator based in New York, said this week.
“I think some of the best artists today are female artists,” she told The Associated Press. “But also, let’s not forget, that in the long history of the Venice Biennale, the preponderance of male artists in previous editions has been astonishing.”
“Unfortunately, we still haven’t resolved many gender-related issues,” Alemani said.
Conceived during the coronavirus pandemic and opening as war rages in Europe, Alemani acknowledged that art in these times can feel “shallow”. But she also affirmed the Biennale’s role over the decades as a “kind of seismograph of history…to absorb and also record the traumas and crises that go far beyond the world of contemporary art. “.
In a powerful reminder, the Russian pavilion remains closed this year, following the withdrawal of artists following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nearby, sandbags have been erected in the center of the Giardini by Ukrainian pavilion curators and surrounded by stylized posters of fresh artwork by Ukrainian artists depicting the horrors of the two-month war.
Among the women achieving long-awaited recognition this Biennale is American sculptor Simone Leigh, who in her mid-career is both the headliner of the American pavilion and sets the tone for the main exhibition with a imposing bust of a black woman that Alemani had originally commissioned for the High Line Urban Park in New York.
Fusun Onur, an 85-year-old pioneer of conceptual art in Turkey, has filled the Turkish pavilion with nervous cats and mice set in storyboard tableaux that confront modern threats like the pandemic and climate change. Although proud of her role as a representative of Turkey and the work she produced during the pandemic in her home overlooking the Bosphorus, she acknowledged that the honor was long in coming.
“Why is it like this, I don’t know,” Fusan said by phone from Istanbul. “Women artists work hard, but they don’t always get recognition. It’s always the men first.”
New Zealand is represented by third gender artist Yuki Kihara, whose installation “Paradise Camp” tells the story of the Fa’afafine community of Samoa made up of people who do not accept the sex that has been given to them assigned at birth.
The exhibit features photos of Fa’afafine mimicking paintings of Pacific Islanders by French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin, reclaiming the images in a process the artist calls “upcycling.”
“Paradise Camp is really about imagining a Fa’afafine utopia, where she shuts down colonial hetero-normality to make way for an Indigenous worldview that is inclusive and sensitive to changes in the environment,” Kihara said.
The image of a hyper-realistic sculpture of a futuristic satyr woman giving birth opposite her satyr partner, who has hanged himself, gives a dark post-apocalyptic feel to the Danish pavilion, created by Uffe Isolotto.
The Nordic Pavilion offers a more hopeful path out of the apocalypse, with artwork and performances depicting the struggle against colonialism by the Sami people, who inhabit a large swath of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland in the Murmansk oblast in Russia, while celebrating their traditions.
“We kind of figured out how to live in the apocalyptic world and do it while maintaining, you know, our spirit and our beliefs and our value systems,” co-curator Liisa-Ravna Finbog said.
This year’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement goes to German artist Katherina Fritsch, whose lifelike elephant sculpture stands in the rotunda of the Giardini’s main exhibition building, and poet , Chilean artist and filmmaker Cecilia Vicuna, whose portrait of her mother’s eyes graces the cover of the Biennale catalog.
Vicuna painted the portrait while the family was in exile after Chile’s violent military coup against President Salvador Allende. Now 97 years old, her mother accompanied her to the Biennale.
“You see his spirit is still there, in a way that the painting is like a triumph of love against dictatorship, against repression, against hate,” Vicuna said.
Charlene Pele contributed to this report.