Here at the world’s longest-running contemporary art show, the Venice Biennale, women in their 40s, 50s and beyond are sweeping the table. And I don’t mean that as a domestic chore.
This year women have won the top prizes, as well as taking over more exhibition space than ever before. And that is a very big deal because the Venice Biennale, which happens every two years, is a very big show.
Alemani has made “a deliberate rethinking of men’s centrality.”
The show runs a long time, not ending until November 27. And it comes in three parts, fanning out all over this jewel box of a city. There’s the flagship group show curated by one specially appointed creative director; the national pavilions, which number 80 this time; and the independent exhibitions in places like parks, galleries and palazzos. You get lost finding parts of it, and you walk miles and miles along the way.
There’s nothing like it in all the world.
Hundreds of thousands of culture vultures are flocking here yet again, looking to see art being defined anew. This year’s expressions include everything from painting and sculpture to videos, songs, movie sets, and symbols, such as the sorrowful heap of sandbags from Ukraine that is bringing visitors to tears.
At the two previous Biennales I attended, men seemed to win all the laurel wreaths. And what a shame to overlook women, since they are particularly good at telling their own stories through their art. This year’s Biennale took three years to produce, delayed because of COVID, and I have to say it was worth the wait to see women both telling their stories and winning so many firsts. But what has made the difference this time?
Cecilia Alemani. She has played a significant part in this refreshing new take on art. She is the curator of the main, flagship art show, meaning she was the final say on who was exhibited. Alemani has already earned the gratitude of New Yorkers and tourists alike for directing the High Line, an artful, elevated park in western Manhattan. Here in Venice she’s the first Italian woman and only the fifth female ever to be named the Biennale’s artistic director.
Nearly nine out of 10 artists chosen for the prestigious group show are women.
Alemani has said she used “a deliberate rethinking of men’s centrality” to help end 127 years of male dominance. Indeed, a majority of the artists she chose for her prestigious group show here—in fact, nearly 9 out of 10—are women. Many are first-timers here. It’s quite the turnaround.
Another change for the better is that at home in their own countries, more women have begun to participate in the selection process determining which artists get to fill national pavilion spaces with their work. And more diversity appears to be among the positive results.
For the first time ever, a woman of color represented Britain this year and won the top prize for her country, a Golden Lion for best national participation. Also for the first time, an African-American woman was chosen to represent the U.S., and captured her own Golden Lion for best artist in the Biennale’s flagship show. The sought-after prize is a sleek golden statuette in the form of a winged lion.
But less heralded women artists caught my eye and won my heart too. And what a delightfully diverse group they are! From Venezuela, a self-taught indigenous painter. From Poland, a Romani fabric artist. And from France, an Algerian-French memoirist who reflects on her own life through her love of movies. Want to see? Come with me.
A Subversive Take on Monticello
At the British pavilion we find “Feeling Her Way,” Sonia Boyce’s prize-winning sound installation featuring five black British women vocalists singing a cappella at the Abbey Road Studios. Boyce, 62, uses the women’s joyful discovery of each other’s voices to explore an overall sense of freedom.
As a music lover, I was drawn right in by the line-up of video screens and the sights and sounds of women vocalizing together. Who were these strong and gifted musicians? What had they contributed to British and world music that I’d never heard about?
I was already feeling I’d learned something about spontaneity and playfulness from her inventive installation.
I felt that Boyce would want me to ask these questions. And as I left the British pavilion I was already feeling I’d learned something about spontaneity and playfulness from her inventive installation.
At the U.S. pavilion, 55-year-old Simone Leigh has a show of her own that starts before you even go inside. Called “Façade,” it’s her highly imaginative way of taking our country to task for slavery.
Ordinarily the U.S. pavilion looks like a smaller version of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. But to remind us that more than 400 slaves made the grandeur of Monticello possible, Leigh gives the place an African facelift. She completely conceals the Jeffersonian domed roof with thatch. She’s also hidden the pavilion’s brick exterior behind wooden columns. Reigning above her transformation: a 23-foot bronze sculpture, inspired by an African headdress.
But as cool and striking as “Façade” is, it’s not what won Leigh her prize for best individual artist. To see that work, we need to go to the flagship show curated by Alemani.
Upon entering, there’s Leigh’s 16-foot bronze sculpture of a black woman called “Brick House,” pictured above. Her hair is in cornrows. Her bell-shaped skirt is made of bricks. And as she towers above us, we’re reminded of the resilience and resourcefulness that people of color brought to the nation that enslaved them.
Re-enchanting the World
At the Venezuelan pavilion we find the exuberant paintings of 74-year-old Palmira Correa, a self-taught folk artist who gets around on crutches. Correa’s mobility issues will only worsen as time goes by, we’re told in her artist’s statement. But folk painting has become her refuge. Hence, “La Casa de Palmira” is the name of her exhibit.
The artist uses a super-bright palette to celebrate her indigenous community—children on a school bus, a swaying grandma dancing in her slippers. And how can you not smile when you see her fantastical painting of a mermaid awash in sunflowers?
She set about making floor-to-ceiling collages that aim to reverse stereotypes and tell a positive Roma story.
In the Polish pavilion we find a picture palace created by 44-year-old artist and activist Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, the first Romani artist to represent her country at one of the national pavilions here.
Mirga-Tas traces her roots back to nomadic wanderers from the Punjab region of northern India who entered Europe some 400 years ago. Due to the mistaken idea that they’d come from Egypt, they were called gypsies. But they prefer to be called Roma, or human, and they are the largest minority group in Europe.
Inspired by calendar-themed frescoes from a palazzo in Ferrara, Mirga-Tas, a textile artist, created a 12-panel version of her own, using fabric collected from family, friends, and neighbors. Then, working communally with other women as she likes to do, she set about making floor-to-ceiling collages that aim to reverse stereotypes and tell a positive Roma story.
Each of the 12 collages has three different tiers. Up near the ceiling we find depictions of the first Roma, dashing figures on horseback, arriving in Europe from Punjab. On the second level are tender portraits of strong Romani women, including a poet, a heroine of the Holocaust who saved Romani and Jewish children, and the artist’s own mother. Finally, at eye level we get pulled in by the biggest and showiest collages. Here, we see modern Romani doing everyday things like playing cards, chasing after children and pinning up laundry.
The name of Mirga-Tas’s exhibit is “Re-enchanting the World.” A bold promise for sure, but one that she keeps by taking us into her community at the foot of the Tatra Mountains and making us feel at home.
Dreams and Rude Awakenings
At France’s pavilion, we enter a world of dreams and rude awakenings. French-Algerian filmmaker and photographer Zineb Sedira, 59, has filled the space with evocative sets and decors intended to trigger our memories and encourage daydreams.
First we step into a café with mirrored disco balls above the dance floor. Then there’s a modest living room where we can see ourselves through a camera lens sitting on a couch surrounded by the artist’s family photos and knickknacks. There’s a dressing table, too, where the artist says she goes to “make up and act up.”
Next we head for a screening room with a marquee that reads, “Dreams have no titles.” Inside we watch an autobiographical film and learn more about the many kinds of movies Sedira has been influenced by, from Hollywood pot-boilers to militant films from Algeria. We learn that as both a transplanted Muslim and a woman working in a man’s world, she has known racism, discrimination, disappointment. But she has also been replenished by her art, her friends, music, dancing.
In one of the last film sequences, we see the irrepressible Sedira doing the tango under the mirrored balls. The man she’s dancing with appears bedazzled, even lovesick. And Sedira, smiling and serene, simply dances on.
Susan Lapinski, former editor of Sesame Street Parents and Working Mother, does her writing and watercolor painting in Manhattan. Her last piece for NextTribe was “Painting My Way through Grief.”