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  • Writer's pictureAlexia Walker

Woman Artists Dominate at the Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale is one of the most important events on the international art calendar. Started in 1895, it is the oldest of its kind too. It takes place annually and alternates every second year between art and architecture. This year’s art biennale, which should have been in 2021 but was postponed because of Covid-19, marks its 59th iteration.

As one of the first big art events to happen in person since the beginning of the pandemic, the energy during the opening week was palpable. The combined excitement of viewing art physically, being with others and traveling again filled the air.

Pavilion of SOUTH AFRICA, Into the Light (Lebohang Kganye), Image Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The Venice Biennale is staged all around the city. The main show, curated this year by the Italian Cecilia Alemani, takes place over two venues, the Giardini and the Arsenale. In 2015, the curator was the African born Okwui Enwezor. The Giardini also houses permanent national pavilions many of which were built in the beginning of the 20th century. The pavilions reflect the politics of the time and include Western super powers such as the US, Great Britain, Germany and France.

As more countries started participating in the Biennale, new national pavilions took over another venue, the Arsenale, which was originally the site of shipyards and armories dating back to the 12th century. The South African pavilion is in the Arsenale. The department of arts and culture obtained a permanent exhibition space in 2012 for a period of 20 years. Other pavilions at the Arsenale include China and Mexico.

The Biennale runs from April until end November. While the art world and legions of art enthusiasts descend on Venice for the occasion, there are many unofficial pavilions too alongside a multitude of exhibitions, big and small. This year includes a notable retrospective of the South Africa born artist Marlene Dumas at the Palazzo Grassi.

The Biennale is a condensed reflection of current discourses and of the world we live in and this year’s is a momentous show. The focus is on women artists, artists of colour and artists from indigenous communities. In the traditionally white male dominated art world and the establishment that Venice is, this is an important moment.

In the main exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani, about 90% of the artists are women. It is a careful selection which brings together rarely seen works by Surrealist women from the past century and by artists working today across the globe including lesser known parts of it. The show demonstrates a deliberate effort to redress the art canon.

Pavilion of UNITED STATE OF AMERICA, Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, Image Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Many national pavilions choose a solo artist to represent their country. This year we are seeing quite a few ‘first times’. For the first time, the US has invited an African American woman artist, Simone Leigh, to fly their flag. Leigh has created a powerful sculpture-based exhibition that gives Black women centre stage.

Also a first, the British pavilion presents the African British woman artist Sonia Boyce whose piece is about the erasure of Black women artists. Boyce has won the Venice Biennale's top Golden Lion prize for her installation work, Feeling Her Way, a tribute to forgotten British female singers of African, Caribbean and Asian descent.

Pavilion of GREAT BRITAIN, Sonia Boyce: Feeling Her Way, Image Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Zineb Sedira is the first Franco-Algerian artist to represent France at the Biennale and she is a woman too. Sedira’s series of installations and the film Dreams Have No Titles center on the Algerian independence movement of the 1960s, a part of its history France still has not honestly faced up.

Pavilion of FRANCE, Zaneb Zedira: Dreams have no titles, Image Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Next to these historic firsts, a number of pavilions are breaking the mold in other interesting ways. The Nordic pavilion, which comprises Sweden, Norway and Finland, is renamed The Sámi Pavilion and features Sámi artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna. The Sámi people are indigenous of the Fennoscandian region which extends across the Nordic countries and into the Kola Peninsula in Russia. They have lived since time immemorial, respectfully harvesting from nature by fishing, farming, hunting and following reindeer.

It is the first time Sámi artists are recognized and given a platform at the Biennale. Similarly, the Polish pavilion has invited a Roma artist. Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ solo presentation consists of twelve large-format textile installations depicting the story of the mythical journey of the Roma to Europe and is an attempt to find the place of the Roma community in Western art history.

The Dutch pavilion is located in a prime position in the Giardiani. In a meaningful move, the Dutch have ceded their well-placed building to Estonia which does not have a permanent exhibition space in Venice. Instead the Dutch are hosting their show is an offsite location way out of the traditional locations of the Biennale.

Pavilion of NORDIC COUNTRIES, The Sami Pavilion, Image Marco Cappelletti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The Russian pavilion which is also in the Giardini is closed this year under the watchful eye of the Italian Carabinieri and their dogs.

A bit disappointingly, there are only 8 African pavilions out of 80 national pavilions. The participating African countries are Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Namibia cancelled their Venice debut at 11th hour amidst controversy.

The South African pavilion is curated by Amé Bell and presents photography and new media works by three artists, Lebohang Kganye, Phumulani Ntuli and American born Roger Ballen. The theme of the exhibition, Into the Light, speaks about how the solitude and separation of Covid-19 lockdown can be a vehicle for artists to embark on a process of self-discovery.

The highly anticipated Ghanaian pavilion, which first participated in the previous Biennale to much applause, invites three artists, Na Chainkua Reindorf, Afroscope and Diego Araúja to reflect on and respond to the multiplicity of meanings associated with the country’s iconic Black Star. The Black Star symbolises Ghana through its flag, national football team, and most important monument. It has also become a symbol of the connection of Africa with its diasporas and the Back-to-Africa movement.

The main curated show features a small number of artists of African descent including Igshaan Adams (South Africa), Monira Al Qadiri (Sudan/Denmark), Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudan/United Kingdom), Kudzanai-Violet Hwami (Zimbabwe/United Kingdom), Bronwyn Katz (South Africa), Antoinette Lubaki (Democratic Republic Congo), Amy Nimr (Egypt/France), Magdalene Odundo (Kenya/United Kingdom), Elias Sime (Ethiopia) and Portia Zvavahera (Zimbabwe).

Overall, the unprecedented representation of women artists, artists of colour and from indigenous communities are augurs of a better world. Let’s only hope for better African representation for 2024.

Pavilion of UGANDA, Radiance: They dream In Time, Image Andrea Avezzù, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

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