/ 17 October 2022

Women are taking the lead at the Venice Biennale

 Venice Jadé Fadojutimi
The Prolific Beauty of Our Panicked Landscape, 2022 by Jadé Fadojutimi pic by Marco Cappelletti Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

If you want to make a statement about art, and upturn its history, by staging the largest exhibition of art by women, Venice and its celebrated Biennale is the place. The many museums in this dreamy city surrounded by water, are brimming with classical paintings produced by men – such as the Gallerie dell ’Accademia di Venezia – capturing this Italian city’s mythology and parading as the cornerstone of western art history. The Biennale often described as the Olympics of the art world – due to different nations taking up pavilions and competing for attention – now in its 59th year, it is also one of the most prominent art events in the Western world. Reputations are solidified here. As such Cecelia Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams, the first of the main exhibitions at this event to be dominated by over 127 female artists – since its inception in 1895, presents a significant turning point, not only for the art world but society. 

Due to its long history and prominence, this event has become a barometer of political or social shifts. The abundance of artworks on exhibit during the Biennale produced by artists from around the world reflects the status quo.

As such the female-centric nature of Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams loudly announces that female expression and identity are no longer relegated to the sidelines but have taken up centre stage. This was insinuated from the start when this Italian curator announced the title of the exhibition, which is taken from a book by Leonora Carrington, a British writer and artist, often dubbed a surrealist, whose artistic contributions have until recently been viewed as a footnote to a history of art or literature. Through her selection of historical works – such as those by Ovartaci, the Danish visual artist Louis Marcussen, who spent most of her life in a psychiatric hospital – Alemani’s exhibition reminds us that Carrington, like many women with a strong creative imagination, was deemed psychologically imbalanced. Not that male artists aren’t associated with mental illness, however, a certain level of irrationality is appreciated in men; this quality has allowed them to be seen as visionaries while this streak in women has seen them locked up in mental institutions and their artistic expression rarely appreciated or viewed. 

Irrationality sits at the core of this rambling exhibition that colonises two venues – the Giardini and Arsenale. You need a pair of good shoes, a solid breakfast and an open mind to take in this exhibition. It’s the surrealist streak in Carrington’s work that sets the tone for art in which anything is possible. In the surrealist mode bodies are hybrid – half animal, half machine, or deeply embedded in the natural world. In the section of the exhibition titled The Witch’s Cradle, early photographic performative artworks – from the early 1920s by Claire Kahun and video footage of Josephine Baker and others, show women, using their bodies as the canvas to project a different set of identities, a thread that South African artists would pick up on in the 2000s. The surrealist tact is broad enough to tease out all different strands of the subconscious, not just a space to play with the body, and identity but to luxuriate in colour and form and fantasy such as Jadé Fadojutimi vibrantly coloured abstract works.  

Alemani doesn’t, therefore, embark on retelling the history of the surrealist movement, which women were part of all along. She doesn’t abide by labels or periods. Instead, she presents a multiplicity of expression by threading contemporary works into this large and fascinating show with abstract works too, which are drawn from different movements and approaches, such as some notable works by the Ethiopian artist Merikokeb Berhanu.   

In this way, Alemani cunningly demonstrates that women aren’t just making art about or with their bodies. The surrealist nod only serves to bring to attention that at its foundation the subconscious is the source of art, the creative act, in which female artists have been engaged despite a lack of validation. Some commentators have bemoaned the sheer excess of art on display. Milk of Dreams is sort of an explosion of expression over time, a veritable overflowing fountain, that is at times a little frothy (taking the milk metaphor to heart) – with works that appear so tangentially linked you wonder why they are there at all. And then you remember the point Alemani is ultimately making with this show; the hidden history of art produced by women from around the world is so vast, this is the tip of the iceberg. 

“The Milk of Dreams, the first of the main exhibitions at this event to be dominated by over 127 female artists”

Alemani also hasn’t set out to focus on European female artists – though they probably do dominate – female and male artists (Igshaan Adams has a work in the exhibition) from around the world and of colour are included in this resetting of history. Simone Leigh’s enormous minimalist sculptures of African women, which won her the main Gold Lion Award, exemplify this female-centric turn, where it’s not simply the female form at the centre but the female artist. 

As the theme for the 59 Venice Biennale was announced at least a year in advance, many curators of the national pavilions responded to the theme as is the tradition. Most notably the US, British and French, German, Hungarian pavilions all dedicated their exhibitions to female artists – Leigh, Sonia Boyce, Zineb Sedira, Maria Eichorn and Zsófia Keresztes respectively. This impacted the medium – several artists opted for clay, ceramic and textile works. The Hungarian pavilion created by Keresztes stood out with the seemingly incongruent juxtaposition of body parts rendered in pink mosaic intertwined around steel industrial equipment. 

Mostly, the pavilions pivot on a concept put forward by one artist. This manifests as a visual statement underpinned by an idea that is given space and room to manifest into several works or a large installation with different mediums such as Estonia’s, which consisted of archival documents and video works presenting contemporary dance works and a documentary, looking at how the trade of orchids can be traced back to a colonial fascination for exotic plants. 

Untitled works (2021) by Merikokeb Berhanu pic by Marco Cappelletti Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

For some reason, this isn’t the case with the African pavilions, which generally featured around three or more artists. Some commentators have suggested that the expense of staging a pavilion here and the exposure that artists receive on this world stage should be ‘shared’ among as many artists as possible. However, many countries from the global South, such as Turkey or Brazil for example, are in the same position yet their commissioning bodies and curators have the confidence to contract a single artist to apply a concept to the pavilion. 

This wasn’t able to manifest at South Africa’s Pavilion due to a young and inexperienced curator – Amé Bell – being appointed and due to three artists – Lebohang Kganye, Roger Ballen and Phumalani Ntuli – being selected. Ntuli, is at the beginning of his career and is not ready to conceive of a concept for a national pavilion. Kganye might have – her almost life-size cut-out installation of photographs were a highlight of the exhibition Currency, Photography Beyond Capture at the 8th Triennale of Photography in Hamburg. In dialogue with an experienced curator, it is possible Kganye could have turned heads with one larger installation. Of course, this might have also meant that the Department of Sports and Culture (DSAC) would need to appoint the team far in advance of the event to enable the works to be shipped to Italy in time. 

If there is a world stage where our country can punch above its weight, art is one of them given the artists we have produced – Zanele Muholi, Nicholas Hlobo, Penny Siopis, Lisa Brice, Billie Zangewa, Serge Alain Ntgeka, Robin Rhode and what of a new generation of art stars from Bronwyn Katz to Simphiwe Ndzube, Thenjiwe Nkosi to Portia Zvahera, Meleko Mokgosi, to Athi-Patra Ruga, Chris Soal, Usha Seejarim, Frances Goodman, Georgina Gratrix, Marlene Steyn or those working in ceramics Zizipho Poswa or Andile Dyalvane. And while some of them have perhaps been ‘over-exposed’ at an international level, you can’t help wondering what some may have produced with one strong concept guided by an experienced curator. The fact that none of the artists representing our country are aligned to any of our major galleries speaks volumes of the artist selection and the final result – the artist’s best interests were not served here.  

So why did we get so wrong? The DSAC clearly regarded the Venice Biennale as a ‘job’ like any other applying the same tendering process. Most in the art world believe that it is the cheapest bid that wins the bid to stage the pavillion. Often this is only possible due to financial assistance whether from a gallery or an individual. It is rumoured that Ballen supported this bid financially and thus sealed his selection. However, this is an unsubstantiated view. 

Treasury Rules and the timeline are apparently at the heart of the problem. The only way around the red tape might be for a tender for a five-year contract for a service provider to implement the pavilion year on year for the art and architecture pavilions, suggested an art industry insider. The onus would then be on this company for the tendering of the pavilion and the running the logistics. This company would need to have a team of art specialists on hand who are aware of the experienced curators and artists in our country. Would this be possible? 

We can dream. Alemani’s exhibition evinces the power of considered curation, though even her show has its flaws and loses the plot in places. This is particularly the case at the Arsenale venue, where the narrative folds uneasily back on itself, picking up on threads relating to the future, the cyborg body, which isn’t sufficiently explored. Alemani tends to look backwards rather than forwards. This might not be surprising given the current situation in the world. Some artists forsee a dystopian future. Most notably Denmark’s pavillion where Uffe Isolotto presents hyperreal hybrid animal-human cadavers amid piles of debris. 

Visit https://www.labiennale.org to view all the works in the National Pavilions and the Milk of Dreams. The Biennale closes at the end of November