Female artists dominate the Venice Biennale for the first time

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, under the curatorial direction of Cecilia Alemani, presents a majority of female and gender-neutral artists.

The result is a biennial that shines a spotlight on artists who have long been overlooked despite prolific careers, while exploring issues such as gender norms, colonialism and climate change.

Alemani’s main show, titled “The Milk of Dreams” alongside 80 national pavilions, opens Saturday after a year-long pandemic delay. The art fair runs until November 27th. It is only the fourth of the 59 editions of the Biennale under female curation.

Women won the top Golden Lions for Best National Pavilion announced on Saturday, which went to the British Pavilion and artist Sonia Boyce. The American sculptor Simone Leigh was honored as the best participant in the main exhibition.

The dominance of women among the more than 200 artists Alemani selected for the main exhibition “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 let’s also not forget that in the long history of the Venice Biennale, the predominance of male artists in previous editions has been astounding.”

“Unfortunately, we still haven’t solved many issues related to gender,” Alemani said.

Conceived during the coronavirus pandemic and opened during the war in Europe, Alemani acknowledged that art can appear “perfunctory” in times like this. But she also emphasized the Biennale’s role over the decades as “a kind of seismograph of history…to also take in and record the traumas and crises that go far beyond the contemporary art world“.

As a reminder, the Russian Pavilion will remain closed this year after the artists withdrew following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nearby, sandbags have been placed in the center of the Giardini by the Ukrainian Pavilion’s curators and surrounded by stylized posters with fresh artwork by Ukrainian artists depicting the horrors of the two-month-old war.

American artist Leigh is among the women receiving long-overdue recognition at this mid-career biennial. She is both headlining the US Pavilion and setting the tone for the main exhibit with a towering bust of a black woman that Alemani originally commissioned for the High Line urban park in New York City.

Fusun Onur, a pioneer of conceptual art in Turkey, at the age of 85 has filled the Turkish Pavilion with wiry cats and mice placed in storyboarded tableaus that grapple with modern day threats such as the pandemic and climate change. While proud of her role as Turkey’s representative and the work she’s been doing at her home overlooking the Bosphorus during the pandemic, she acknowledged the honor came late.

“I don’t know why that is,” Fusan said over the phone from Istanbul. “Female artists work hard, but they are not always recognized. Men always come first.”

Representing New Zealand is third gender artist Yuki Kihara, whose installation “Paradise Camp” tells the story of Samoa’s Fa’afafine community of people who do not accept the gender assigned to them at birth.

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

“Paradise Camp is really about imagining a Fa’afafine utopia in which it closes colonial heteronormality to make way for an indigenous worldview that is inclusive and sensitive to the changes in the environment,” Kihara said .

The image of a hyper-realistic sculpture of a futuristic satyr woman confronting her satyric partner who has hanged himself sets a somber post-apocalyptic tone in Uffe Isolotto’s Danish Pavilion.

Nordic nations Norway, Sweden and Finland this year donated their joint pavilion to the Sami, one of Europe’s oldest indigenous groups, touching on a different notion of nation as the Sami’s Arctic homeland now spans four nations.

The Sami Pavilion offered a more hopeful way out of the apocalypse, with artworks and performances depicting the Sami struggle against colonialism while celebrating their traditions.

“We sort of figured out how to live in the apocalyptic world while preserving our spirit and our beliefs and value systems,” said co-curator Liisa-Ravna Finbog.

This year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement goes to German artist Katherina Fritsch, whose lifelike elephant sculpture stands in the rotunda of the main exhibition building in the Giardini, and Chilean poet, artist and filmmaker Cecilia Vicuna, whose portrait of her mother’s eyes graces the cover of the Biennale catalogue.

Vicuna painted the portrait while the family was in exile following the violent military coup in Chile against President Salvador Allende. Her mother accompanied her to the Biennale at the age of 97.

“You see that her spirit is still there, so in a way painting is like a triumph of love against dictatorship, against oppression, against hate,” Vicuna said.

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Charlene Pele contributed to this report.

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