Venice Biennale: female artists dominate art fair for first time

The event puts the spotlight on creatives who have been long overlooked despite prolific careers

Artwork on display at the Sovereignty exhibition featuring works by Simone Leigh at the United States' pavilion. The American sculptor was awarded the Golden Lion for best participating artist at the 59th Venice Biennale. EPA
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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.

The result is a biennale that puts the spotlight on artists who have been long overlooked despite prolific careers, while also investigating themes including gender norms, colonialism and climate change.

Alemani’s main show, titled The Milk of Dreams, alongside 80 national pavilions opened on Saturday after a one-year pandemic delay. The art fair runs until November 27. It is only the fourth of the biennale’s 59 events to be curated by a woman.

 Cecilia Alemani, the Italian curator of the 59th Venice Biennale. AFP

Women took the top Golden Lion awards announced on Saturday for best national pavilion, which went to the UK pavilion and artist Sonia Boyce. Best participant in the main exhibition was won by US sculptor Simone Leigh.

The predominance of women among the more than 200 artists chosen for the main show “was not a choice, but a process”, Alemani, an Italian curator who lives in New York, said.

“I think some of the best artists today are women artists. 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.

With the event conceived during the coronavirus pandemic and having opened 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. Nearby, sandbags have been erected in the centre of the Giardini by the curators of the Ukrainian Pavilion, and surrounded by stylised posters of fresh artwork by Ukrainian artists representing the horrors of the two-month-old war.

Artist Leigh is among the women getting long-overdue recognition mid-career at this Biennale. She is headlining the US pavilion and setting the tone at the main exhibition with a towering bust of a black woman that Alemani originally commissioned for the High Line urban park in New York City.

The installation Once Upon a Time by artist Fusun Onur at Turkey's pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. AP

Fusun Onur, a pioneer of conceptual art in Turkey, at the age of 85 has filled the Turkish pavilion with wiry cats and mice set up in storyboard tableaux that confront modern-day threats such as the pandemic and climate change. While proud of her role representing Turkey and the work she produced during the pandemic in her home overlooking the Bosphorus, she acknowledged that the honour was late in coming.

“Why it is so I don’t know,” Fusan said. “Women artists are working hard, but they are not always recognised. 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 installation Paradise Camp by artist Yuki Kihara at New Zealand's pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. AP

The exhibition features photos of the Fa’afafine mimicking paintings of Pacific Islanders by post-impressionist French artist Paul Gauguin, 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.

The image of a hyper-realistic sculpture of a futuristic female satyr giving birth opposite her satyr partner, who has hung himself, sets a grim post-apocalyptic tone at the Danish Pavilion, created by Uffe Isolotto.

Queen Sonja of Norway opens the exhibition at the Sami pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Getty Images

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 offered a more hopeful path out of the apocalypse, with artwork and performances depicting the struggle against colonialism by the Sami people, while also celebrating their 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 awards for lifetime achievement go to German artist Katharina Fritsch, whose life-like 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 biennale catalog cover.

Vicuna painted the portrait while the family was in exile after the violent military coup in Chile against president Salvador Allende in 1973. Her mother, now aged 97, accompanied her to the biennale.

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

Updated: April 24, 2022, 6:42 AM