Whose Biennale is it anyway?

The theme for this year’s Venice Biennale, the ‘olympics of the art world’ is ‘Foreigners Everywhere.’ But beyond representation, what are the barriers to participation?

Venice. Image credit Kronberger4 via Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0 Deed.

The 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia will host a pre-opening to a selected public, before opening its doors to ordinary people on April 20. As happens every two years, the art world goes into fibrillation to be there: secure invitations to inaugurations and parties; show their faces; participate in the great binge.

The following reflections arise from reading the full version of Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa’s Statement on the biennale Stranieri Ovunque—Foreigners Everywhere. The reflections bring the statement into dialogue with the testimonies and voices collected with the Southern Thoughts on a Northern Biennale project conducted during the opening days of the 59th edition in 2022, titled The Milk of Dream, curated by the Italian Cecilia Alemani, and during the long period of incubation and maturation of the podcast series (June 2022-January 2024). While the podcast series has a narrative structure, the contents are the direct voices of the people involved in the event, artists and curators interviewed during the duration of the project. As the reopening of the Biennale approaches, thanks also to the relationships established in those days in Venice in 2022 and to the support shown for the idea, the interviews have resumed and will continue as a research project, with findings made accessible to those interested.

Stranieri Ovunque—Foreigners Everywhere, the title chosen by Pedrosa, is drawn from a series of neon sculptures made by Claire Fontaine, the Paris-born and Palermo-based collective. The expression was in turn appropriated from the name of a collective from Turin that in the early 2000s fought racism and xenophobia in Italy: Stranieri Ovunque. According to the statement:

The backdrop for the work is a world rife with multifarious crises concerning the movement and existence of people across countries, nations, territories, and borders, which reflect the perils and pitfalls of language, translation, nationality, expressing differences and disparities conditioned by identity, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, freedom, and wealth.”

“Foreigners everywhere” can be read as “wherever you go and wherever you are you will always encounter foreigners”—but also as “no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.” 

Pedrosa invites the use of the title “as a slogan, a call to action, a cry—of excitement, joy or fear: Foreigners Everywhere!” This call for action appears to be linked to a timid denunciation of the racist and criminal treatment of migrants by the international community of the West. As a response to those policies, the Biennale “[…] will focus on artists who are themselves foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, diasporic, émigrés, exiled, and refugees—especially those who have moved between the global South and the global North.” 

Unfortunately, the call for action of the Venice Biennale is not enough to overcome structural barriers such as visas and resources. As noted by Colin Sekajugo, a Ugandan artist at Venice 2022: “Our differences between the global South from the North are always drawn by needs or wants, versus the existence of resources and adequate infrastructure.” This is a reflection reiterated by his colleague Acaye Kerunen: “My experience of artmaking has been to struggle looking for budgets and everything. So, to get there and see the level of funding of finance that is put towards some work, and how I keep thinking how that money would be used differently.” The South African artist Roger Ballen puts it bluntly: 

If they want to make it a really open-ended festival, then they need to allocate the funds and organization to most of the countries in the world that don’t have any money and shift the emphasis on a real basis to these places. […]  So then, if they really wanted to do something in a real way, they would take everybody who is at Giardini and say “sorry, for this year or for the next ten years, you’re moving to Arsenale, and we’re going to allocate, on a fair basis, countries that don’t have money to your pavilions.” And that would be the way to do this. Yeah, that’s real. Everything is about words and talk.

African countries experience limited representation, and Egypt is the only African country with a permanent national pavilion, while South Africa has a permanent spot at Arsenale. The 2024 edition features 90 national pavilions: 13 from Africa (54); 12 from Latin America and the Caribbean (33); 17 from Asia (44); and one from Oceania (14). The Venice Biennale has never reflected the full diversity and strength of the globe—even less the global South. Asking if he feels included or annoyed by the  “foreigners everywhere” definition, Kombo Chapfika, one of the artists representing Zimbabwe this year, replies:

What do we mean by foreigners? From my assumption, when I read that, it’s like I think of foreigners from a Venice perspective, from an Italian perspective. So we’re thinking of people that aren’t Italian or aren’t European as the foreigners everywhere.

According to the Johannesburg-based MADEYOULOOK collective:

This idea of “foreigners everywhere,” is not just this notion of “because you have some kind of status,” that being in another state equates to being foreigners, but rather thinking about foreigners as related to belonging. In the South African context, it questions what it means to call a place home and to belong, under the kind of political conditions most of the country still lives under, particularly regarding land, and the fact that most people don’t have land to call home here.

The current international exhibition is organized into two cores, the Nucleo Contemporaneo (Contemporary Core) and the Nucleo Storico (Historical Core). The latter is divided into three rooms: (1) portraits and representations of the human figure; (2) abstractions; and (3) worldwide Italian artistic diaspora in the 20th century. Two are the leitmotivs throughout the International Exhibition: textiles that have been explored by many artists in the show as well as family of artists, artists related by blood, many of them Indigenous.

While the themes of craft, tradition, and materials are nothing new for Indigenous and African artists, Pedrosa’s statement underlines how the 2024 Biennial will give ample space to “interest in craft, tradition, and the handmade, and in techniques that were at times considered other or foreign, outsider or strange in the larger field of fine arts.”

He seems to confirm the new trend, where “craft” is beginning to compete with the massive presence of figurative art in the current art world, especially Afro and Afro-diasporic.

An example of this trend might be the recently closed show Unravel, The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art, co-curated by the Barbican, London, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and described thus: “a major group exhibition, 50 international, intergenerational artists use textiles to communicate vital ideas about power, resistance, and survival.” Two artists present at the 2022 Biennial were part of the show—Acaye Kerunen (who represented Uganda together with Collin Sekajugo in the 2022 Biennial and takes over the curatorship of the pavilion in 2024) and Solange Pessoa, a Brazilian who was part of the main show. Antonio Jose Guzman, Iva Jankovic, Teresa Margolles, and Yinka Shonibare who are participating in the 2024 Venice Biennale were also part of the London show. The Uganda Pavilion was awarded a special mention for the Golden Lion in 2022 and attracted the attention of art critics and commentators for their specific use and choice of materials and for their confidence in affirming their aesthetics. Commenting on her work Kerunen says:

… there were a lot of comments during the Biennale from some people. “Oh, she does craft. She blah, blah, blah” and everything. You learn to just brush that away because you cannot go on a rampage trying to educate those who are stuck in their ignorance, or their point of view, that there is a different view about women in the artistic stories of Africa and everything here. […] I think, as happens in many societies, patriarchal societies, women’s labor force or women’s work is not considered with the same value as men’s work. And the same applies to crafting and women’s work in food production and in domestic labor, and not for the first time. But I am repositioning the idea that their work is as important and has to be valued […] most of the women weavers are the breadwinners of their homes, of their various homes.

Materials are also important for Victor Nyakauru, a Zimbabwean artist participating in the Biennale this year: “I work mainly in Zimbabwe. That’s where my stories, my inspiration, much of my materials are …”

The Nucleo Contemporaneo gathers the works of artists organized into four groups: The queer artist, who has moved within different sexualities and genders, often being persecuted or outlawed; the outsider artist, who is located at the margins of the art world, much like the autodidact and the so-called folk artist; as well as the Indigenous artist, frequently treated as a foreigner in their own land.

According to the statement, the queer artists appear throughout the entire exhibition and are the subject of a large section in Arsenale and the Central Pavilion. Indigenous artists will occupy both the main venues of Giardini and Arsenale. The Indigenous Makhu collective from Brazil will paint a monumental mural on the façade of the Central Pavilion’s façade at Giardini, while the Maataho collective from Aotearoa (New Zealand) will present a large-scale installation in the first room of the Arsenale.

The outsiders and folk artists section includes the Disobedience Archive, a project by Marco Scotini, who since 2005 has been developing a video archive focusing on the relationships between artistic practices and activism. Without disrespecting the historical work of this well-known white Italian curator, and acknowledging a vibrant presence of women and an increasingly affirmative Afro-Italian community in Italy, should the Biennale be commissioning Scotini to curate this contemporary community of “strangers?” 

Like a matryoshka, the outsider section is divided into two parts—diaspora activism and gender disobedience, and will include works by 39 artists and collectives made between 1975 and 2023. If we intend to be outsiders as geographically defined—referring to the global South mentioned by Pedrosa—the section seems to respond to the claim made by Ame Bell, curator of the 2022 South African pavilion who said: “The Biennale is an opportunity for visibility for artists in so-called isolated countries to become visible where they would otherwise not be exposed to such a large and interested audience.”

The group of the outsiders/folk artists is completed by “three of its most remarkable female figures from Europe: Madge Gill, from the United Kingdom, Anna Zemánková, from the Czech Republic, and Aloïse, from Switzerland.” While the 2022 Cecilia Alemani Biennial was highly praised for having the largest number of women, which is an important step toward addressing gender inequality, Alemani declared that for the first 100 years, the percentage of women artists in the show was less than 10%, and in the last 20 years, it was around 30%. It is worth paying attention to observations regarding gender representation by the female protagonists of the 2022 Biennale. According to the Ghanaian artist Na Chainkua Reindorf, “I think there is always this disconnection of the experience on the ground and the reality. In my perspective, I was the minority in my pavilion.” Fadzai Veronica Muchemwa, curator of the Zimbabwean pavilion, echoes this sentiment, observing:

… it may [have] been the influence of the main exhibition and the curator was female, but when you look at each pavilion: Zimbabwe has me as curator female and has three male artists, South Africa the same. More must be done if we want to give a real representation and not a token representation for showing equality.

The Biennale gender reality is noted by Solange Pessoa: “After so long, there is now an Italian female curator. It is because she lives in NY and has a more cosmopolitan life. Italy is a very conservative country, very patriarchal, very Catholic.”

Yes, it is. 

The premise of the Nucleo Storico section is a strong one: 

We are all too familiar with the histories of modernism in Euroamerica, yet the modernisms in the global South remain largely unknown. Knowledge about these is limited to the specialists in each individual country or region at best, yet connecting and exhibiting these works together will be revealing. It is this sense that these histories assume a truly contemporary relevance—we urgently need to learn more about and from them. Additionally, European modernism traveled far beyond Europe throughout the 20th century, often intertwined with colonialism, and many artists in the global South traveled to Europe to be exposed to it. In this process, modernism was appropriated and devoured in the global South.

Here, a clear reference to Oswald de Andrade’s notion of antropofagy, which betrays the curator’s Brazilian origins. We can be all foreigners, but we always bring pieces of home with us. The Oswaldian Anthropophagic Manifesto (1928) is an appropriation of Tupinambá anthropophagy, which in turn has recently been re-appropriated by indigenous and black Brazilian artists. In private correspondence (use of which was authorized) in 2019 between myself, the author, and Denilson Baniwa, one of the indigenous co-curators of the Hãhãwpuá Pavilion (Brazil) 2024, he declares: 

I think it’s brilliant (the anthropophagic movement’s desire to devour everything) and that’s why we need to see where all that became meaningless today. It was modified to the point that it had little of that initial idea. We have to take up the discourse about how anthropophagy is necessary so that today we can rethink colonization, and seek ways through art to find ourselves in Brazil. It is a request for the original anthropophagous meaning.

If the Anthropophagic Manifesto kept the discussion between white people, it is therefore a question of “practicing a logic of vomiting” as the artist Jota Mombaça (of the Disobedience Archive) says. Or, in the words of Baniwa “the devouring of everything that exists without using French cutlery.”

The Portraits room includes works by 112 artists from 39 countries of the global South. Here, according to Pedrosa: “Most works depict non-white characters, which in Venice, at the heart of the Biennale, becomes an eloquent feature of this large and heterogenous group and the Exhibition itself.”

The Abstractions room includes works by 37 artists from 21 countries, including Palestine. As noted by Pedrosa:

What is of interest here is a certain type of abstraction that detaches itself from the European constructivist abstract geometric tradition, with its rigid orthogonal grid of verticals and horizontals and its palette of primary colors, in order to privilege more organic, curvilinear shapes and forms, bright and vivid colors, in striking compositions… Most of these artists are being exhibited together for the first time […] With the inclusion of the vast majority of these artists in the Nucleo Storico at the Biennale Arte for the first time, a historical debt is paid to them.

The worldwide Italian artistic diaspora room will feature works by 40 artists who are first or second-generation Italians. In the end, we cannot escape the fact that this is the edition that celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Biennial institution and that some Italian-centric tendencies must be tolerated. Among them Lina Bo Bardi who won the 2021 Biennale Architettura’s Special Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Memoriam; and Anna Maria Maiolino who, together with the Turkish artist Nil Yalter, will receive the Golden Lions Award for Lifetime Achievement. Once again, without failing to recognize the contributions of these admirable women, couldn’t we promote an intergenerational dialogue that could bring together artists across generations and particulary young artists of the Italian diaspora? The Sámi Pavilion, which made history two years ago by replacing the national representation of the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, and Norway) with the indigenous Sámi, entrusted the guide of their pavilion to three generations: in addition to the artists, all born around the 1970s and 1980s, the elders (as mentors), and the pathfinders, teenager students responsible for the visitors’ introduction to Sámi culture. While we preach new ways of understanding the world we live in, and new practices, particularly praising the Indigenous world, we demonstrate little capacity to overcome our fixed system and take examples from them. 

The  Foreigners Everywhere Biennale elects the experiences of transit, both genders but also from one’s place of origin, a trend that the statement highlights: “Artists have always traveled and moved about, under various circumstances, through cities, countries and continents, something that has only accelerated since the late 20th century.”  So why be limited to the 20th century (1900) and not give space to more recent diasporas? If attention must rightly focus on the movements from the global South to the global North, there is also an opposite movement that may suggest to be as a strong signal of restlessness, of intolerance for what the global North represents.  Since the Biennale has a room that talks about North-South diasporas (the worldwide Italian artistic diaspora room), I believe that talking about it even in its contemporaneity would have enriched Pedrosa’s statement:  “Migration and decolonization are key themes here.”

This is the shining part of the story. The reality is enormous resources are required to participate. Money occupies a central place in the discussion of the Venice Biennale. It connects directly with the elitism, the inaccessibility, and the exclusivity that Venice blatantly expresses, but also directly to financial and geopolitical issues. As Roger Ballen argues:

Just go take a look yourself at some of those pavilions and see who sponsored those pavilions. These are some of the largest companies in the world, the largest and most wealthy individuals and companies in the world, and governments sponsoring some of these things. Now, if you go to some of the countries, say, in Africa, you’re not going to find this.

For countries where art schools are underfunded, where museums do not have budgets and a national gallery system does not exist, the question of whether it is worth investing large amounts of money to be at the Venice Biennale for a few months is glaring. 

As if economic challenges weren’t enough, it is not uncommon to witness the hijacking of African pavilions by unscrupulous European curators, mainly Italian, acting in cooperation with African representatives. The most striking case in the 2022 edition was that of the Namibian pavilion curated by an Italian curator who was a promoter of luxury tourism in the African continent; and the Cameroon pavilion which, once again, included among its curators Sandro Orlandi Stagl who caused a scandal in 2013 and 2015 for curating the Kenyan pavilion without including the Kenyans. The same curator—Stagl— is again part of the curatorial team of the Cameroon pavilion. In a 2022 interview, an anonymous Namibian artist wondered: 

How is it possible for somebody to walk into the scene and take over without any regard for what is happening in the country and what is happening to people? How is it possible that the same guy from the Kenyan fiasco comes back as a curator and acts in the same way, representing Cameroon without any Cameroonian artists? 

Although there is a difference between the art projects presented by national representatives and those directly invited by the artistic director and the Board of Directors of the Biennale Foundation, the repetition of these curatorial kidnappings is too frequent to think that the Institution Venice Biennale is completely unaware. Especially considering that these proponents have to pay to use the Biennale logo and to be included in the catalog. As Phumulani Ntuli from South Africa reminds us:

… the biennale has its political agenda in relation to different countries but it’s more about big budgets and really about exerting a kind of ambition, or presence. Within this context, it speaks more about what happens globally rather than just the art itself, which is quite weird.

These are just some observations and comments around representation, inclusion, power imbalances, and ongoing coloniality at the Venice Biennale, raised during the conversations in the Southern Thought on a Northern Biennale podcast series.

As suggested by Katya Garcia Antón, the co-curator of the Sami Pavilion in 2022: 

Venice is a massively international place. The way I saw the Sámi pavilion was a way to influence the international world, because if we were just there for the Sámi, we stay in Sápmi (indigenous land in northern Europe), we do not have to go hell way down using that carbon footprint and spend that money. From my perspective, we were there to influence and hopefully to contribute to some kind of transformation to move forward and create a network. ​​

Two years later the Hãhãwpuá pavilion becomes the demonstration of this inevitable transformation. If the Sámi pavilion had made history by transforming a national to Indigenous representation by bringing three Sámi artists (Anders Sunna, Máret Ánne Sara and Pauliina Feodoroff), this year Brazil is not only represented by three Indigenous artists (Glicéria Tupinambá, Olinda Tupinambá e Ziel Karapotó) but also curated by three Indigenous curators: Arissana Pataxó, Denilson Baniwa e Gustavo Caboco Wapichana. 

It is important to understand how to use Venice. Sekajugo affirmed: “I ultimately got the desire to replace these predominantly white people’s images with black ones […] That’s my way of hacking the identity of white stock imagery that you see in most of my paintings at the Venice Biennale.” Garcia Antón concurs:

Resources help the artists to not only amplify their stories but also to expand them. This is something that Venice can do because you have the opportunity to put the resources on the table. and it is a responsibility from a commissioner’s perspective. 

The South African MADEYOULOOK collective seems to have understood this before landing in Venice: “It’s really important for us to finally be able to bring something back. [Venezia] gives us the opportunity to make the work and then, once the work is made, it’s a lot easier to bring it home.” Biennials can be a strategic tool.

Onkar Kular and Christina Zetterlund, the curators of the Luleå Biennial 2022 Craft & Art, agree that the Biennale format has become “sometimes unsustainable for organizing, showing and thinking about art,” and argue that “imagined in another way, the Biennale can also be a place not only to showcase work but also as a resource for collaborating artists, artisans, places and organizations to develop their ongoing research and practices.” Curated by the collective of Diane Lima e Hélio Menezes (Brazil), Manuel Borja-Villel (Spain) and Grada Kilomba (Portugal), the past edition of the 35th São Paulo Biennial, Choreography of the Impossible, had the greatest representation of Black and Indigenous artists in the institution’s history and was characterized by an intense public program. A team of educators and facilitators offered the most varied activities and thematic visits capable of including the most diverse realities. Who knows if Adriano Pedrosa’s Biennale will be able to Brazilianize the plastered Venice a little. 

The first, and most obvious, insurmountable difference is free access to the venue and knowledge. If shows of this size intend to be seen, they must guarantee free access. It is humanly impossible to receive all the information that these shows concentrate on. The venues appear to be emergency storage facilities, and repeated visits are necessary to get through the material. Furthermore, the Choreography of the Impossible planned a traveling program after its closure in December 2023. What is also noteworthy is the remarkable effort made on its social media to circulate all its content. While the catalog of the São Paulo Biennale can be downloaded for free on the Biennial site, the Catalogue and the Short Guide of the Venice Biennale costs 90 euros.

In recent days, the announcement of the appointment of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung as the next curator of the São Paulo Biennial was welcomed with great jubilation by the international art community. Again, without taking anything away from Dr. Ndikung, the return to a single curator perhaps represents a demotion. Commenting on her experience as an Indigenous curator at the Museum of Art of São Paulo, together with Edson Kayapó and Ferdinanda Tupinambá, Kassia Borges, underlines that:

… it’s good that we are in a collective because it’s not just one person thinking. The three of us get together and think about research because curating is also doing research. We research the artists, what their poetics are, what they want to say to society out there.

Baniwa, co-curator of the Hãhãwpuá pavilion states: “this art space that we are entering is super violent. […] So we talked about establishing our strategy in which we are always supporting each other, not leaving anyone alone anymore.”

Perhaps these defensive spaces must be kept shared, even institutionally.

Further Reading

Milking the dream

The 2022 Venice Biennale shows that despite the lack of investment from African nations or the occasional hijacking by mercenary curators, African artists are finding ways to be seen.