Female, Gender Nonconforming Artists Rule at Venice Biennale

VENICE, Italy — For the first time in the 127-year history of the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most important contemporary art fair features a majority of female and gender non-conforming artists, under the curatorial direction of Cecilia Alemani.

Biennales like this one highlight artists that have long been overlooked, even though they are prolific, and also investigate themes such as gender norms, colonialism, climate change, and colonialism.

Alemani’s main show, titled “The Milk of Dreams,” alongside 80 national pavilions opens Saturday after a one-year pandemic delay. Through Nov. 27, the art fair will be open. It is only the fourth of the Biennale’s 59 editions under female curation.

Sonia Boyce, a British artist and pavilion owner, won the Golden Lion award for the best national pavilion. Simone Leigh, a U.S. sculptor was awarded the title of best participant at the main exhibition.

The predominance of women among the more than 200 artists that Alemani chose for the main show “was not a choice, but a process,’’ Alemani, a New York-based Italian curator, said this week.

“I think some of the best artists today are women 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 have not solved many issues that pertain to gender,” Alemani said.

Conceived during the coronavirus pandemic and opening as war rages in Europe, Alemani acknowledged that art in such times may seem “superficial.” But she also asserted the Biennale’s role over the decades as a “sort of seismographer of history … to absorb and record also the traumas and the crises that go well beyond the contemporary art world.”

In a potent reminder, the Russian pavilion remains locked this year, after the artists withdrew following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The curators of Ukraine Pavilion have placed sandbags in the middle of Giardini. They are surrounded with stylized posters featuring fresh art by Ukrainian artists that depict the horrors of two months-old war.

Leigh from the United States is one of many American artists who will be receiving recognition for her work in middle-career at the Biennale. Both she is the headlining of the U.S. pavilion as well as setting the tone at main exhibit, with an impressive bust representing a Black woman Alemani commissioned originally for New York City’s High Line urban park.

Füsun Onur, a pioneer of conceptual art in Turkey, at age 85 has filled the Turkish pavilion with wiry cats and mice set up in storyboard tableaus that confront modern-day threats like the pandemic and climate change. Although she was proud of the role she played in representing Turkey, and for the amazing work that she did during the Pandemic at her house overlooking the Bosphorus in 2011, she admitted that it wasn’t her turn.

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“Why it is so I don’t know,” Onur said by phone from Istanbul. “Women artists are working hard, but they are not always recognized. It is always men first.”

New Zealand is represented by third gender artist Yuki Kihara, whose installation “Paradise Camp,” tells the story of Samoa’s Fa’afafine community of people who don’t accept the gender they were assigned at birth.

The exhibition features photos of the Fa’afafine mimicking paintings of Pacific islanders by post-impressionist French artist Paul Gaugin, reclaiming the images in a process the artist refers to as “upcycling.”

“Paradise Camp is really about imagining a Fa’afafine utopia, where it shutters colonial hetero-normality to make way for an Indigenous world view that is inclusive and sensitive to the changes in the environment,’’ Kihara said.

UffeIsolotto has created a disturbing post-apocalyptic image at the Danish Pavilion with the hyper-realistic picture of a female futuristic satyr giving life to her partner.

The Nordic nations of Norway, Sweden and Finland this year turned over their shared pavilion to the Sami, one of Europe’s oldest Indigenous groups, touching on a different idea of nation as the Sami ancestral arctic homeland now spans four nations.

The Sami Pavilion was a hopeful alternative to the apocalypse. It featured artwork and performances depicting Sami resistance against colonialism, as well as celebrating Sami traditions.

“We have in a way discovered how to live within the apocalyptic world and do it while, you know, maintaining our spirits and our beliefs and systems of value,” said co-curator Liisa-Ravna Finbog.

This year’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement awards go to German artist Katherina Fritsch, whose life-like Elephant sculpture stands in the rotunda of the main exhibit building in the Giardini, and Chilean poet, artist and filmmaker Cecilia Vicuna, whose portrait of her mother’s eyes graces the Biennale catalog cover.

Vicuna created the portrait during exile in Chile after the military coup against President Salvador Allende. Her mother, now 97 years old, accompanied Vicuna to the Biennale.

“You see that her spirit is still present, so in a way that painting is like a triumph of love against dictatorship, against repression, against hatred,’’ Vicuna said.

Charlene Peele contributed to the report

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