Venice Biennale's main show 'The Milk of Dreams' highlights great artists often overlooked

Curator Cecilia Alemani casts a wide net, bringing together striking works from Eritrea to Algeria, making a case for representation in the art world

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Sensual and surprising, Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition for the Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, thrums with beautiful work from artists who have been largely ignored by renowned art shows in the West throughout their careers. The shapes and forms of animals, the work of dreams — the title is taken from a surrealist short story by Leonora Carrington — the smells of plant life, and the worlds beyond gallery walls create a diverse, inviting terrain that Biennale goers slip quietly into.

The artworks are richly rewarding, in scenes of memory, imagination and anger.

Paintings by Portia Zvavahera from Zimbabwe balance block-printing techniques with stencilled swirls and arabesques that resemble delicate cosmogonies. Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died in 2012, painted large-scale memories of his youth in Eritrea, with figures, plants and animals superimposed against colourful textile-like patterns in the background. Myrlande Constant, from Port-au-Prince, continues this interest in textiles with her intricately beaded Voodoo flags, documents of a changing Haiti and its syncretic religions.

And this is all in the first few rooms of the exhibition at the Arsenale. It goes on to take in more direct contemporary art forms, such as the Colombian artist Delcy Morelos' installation of soil and its aromas inspired by Amerindian beliefs — a response to Walter De Maria’s minimalist The New York Earth Room (1977), which conflated the earth with the US — and Ali Cherri’s equally rooted, earthy sculptures, rising up like Kraken of the deep.

Five capsule presentations treat other subjects in depth, such as a well-researched mini-exhibition of female surrealists and a rather more slight examination of cybernetics. In the former, The Witch’s Cradle, Alemani again brought in a large geographic scope, allowing a varied but still intimate image of Surrealism to form, with presentations by Argentine-born British artist Eileen Agar, Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine and Antoinette Lubaki from Congo, among others.

Perhaps because of the sheer amount of space afforded to each presentation, Alemani evades the impression of this being a tokenistic biennial, simply paying lip service to non-western artists. The emphasis on widening representation also continues in the national pavilions, which are sited mostly in the Giardini at the eastern edge of Venice.

Black artists represent the UK and the US for the first time, and Barbadian-Scottish artist Alberta Whittle represents the offsite Scottish pavilion. Sonia Boyce, for the UK, won the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion, and Simone Leigh, who represents the US and is also included in The Milk of Dreams, won for the best presentation in the curated exhibition.

The Giardini also houses the second half of Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams, in the International Pavilion. Here, the show feels more chaotic, and the gallery’s warren of white cubes lacks the atmosphere that buoys the works in the Arsenale. It is notable that the International Pavilion’s showstopper is Paula Rego’s lurid, large-scale canvases of fleshy, wonderfully indolent women — paintings that are hung against dark walls. The Milk of Dreams is best seen in a moody setting, rather than in the stark white light of day.

In particular, the sensual works ably escape the academic formulations around the ideas of the “post-human” that are referenced in much of the exhibition texts. But like all group shows, the biennale has a flattening effect, ignoring the specificities of each artist's work over their formal similarities. Many pairings seem to be made because of the visual resemblance between the work, over and above any conceptual or contextual ties.

At the best of times, this pairing works to the betterment of all concerned: in the grandiose first room, visitors are greeted by Simone Leigh’s nearly five-metre-high sculpture of an eyeless black woman — a brilliantly strong statement of purpose. This piece, with its rounded, totemic aesthetic, is surrounded by equally striking prints from Cuban artist Belkis Ayon, who documents the secret Afro-Cuban society known as Abakua. Questions of forced and intentional visibility and invisibility, agency and subversion reverberate through the pairing.

At other times the formal juxtapositions are less successful. Ibrahim El-Salahi’s minute drawings, for example, are presented alongside the fantastical work by Brazilian artist Solange Pessoa, who depicts insects and creatures mid-metamorphosis. The influence of the Christian church on Pessoa, elsewhere, makes for a potentially fascinating link to El-Salahi’s own negotiations with his Islamic faith, which largely appears in his earlier canvases.

But this connection — an interesting avenue away from the idea of rational man — is not developed, and the show leaves a lingering fear that other similar specificities are elsewhere overridden, suppressed in favour of a good-looking exhibition.

It’s a funny thing to quibble with a show that presents so much great work. Flattening is also an effect of capitalism, in its reduction of everything to monetary exchange value — and the market hovers at the fringes of this exhibition, with the value of all of these “undiscovered” artists indubitably about to shoot up. Though many artists in The Milk of Dreams are outside of the mega-gallery system, with the exception of some New York painters, the galleries were far from absent in Venice. Collateral exhibitions include, for example, solos by Anselm Kiefer, Bruce Nauman, Ugo Rondinone, Anish Kapoor, Joseph Beuys and Marlene Dumas — a kind of Avengers-style return of the usual suspects with their big-pocketed galleries trailing behind, dropping dinners and exclusive invitations as they passed.

Though the biennial danced around it, with its focus on the human, the sensual and the animal, the real question of this Venice Biennale was globalisation. The “world of man” fantasy has always been Venice’s subject ― from Harald Szeemann’s Plateau of Humankind (2001) to Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds (2009), Massimiliano Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace (2013) and Okwui Enzwezor's All the World's Futures (2015) — and, excepting Enwezor, the complications of this ideation are rarely met.

Globalisation is the subject, too, of the national pavilions, for what is increased representation but an acknowledgement of migration and many identities within a nation-state? Several artists featured address the commingling of communities, against a backdrop — implicit or explicit — of the violence and precarity met by minority populations.

In its own way, Alemani’s biennial is also about the fantasy of a “world of man”, even if “man” here means woman or other gendered identity — the idea of a single human subjectivity, all changed in context-less ways by technology, shifting relations to animal species and plant life, and new anxieties. But technologies are not uniformly taken up across the world; attitudes towards animal species differ between Eritrea, Italy and Brazil; anxieties are still subordinate to socioeconomic circumstance. The Milk of Dreams leaves the category of “mankind” curiously unchallenged, despite filling the category with superb artists.

But these are minor gripes. Alemani’s exhibition takes on the changes that are winding through the intellectual subjectivity of the western art world and shows the overlooked lineages that have long been making work on these very subjects, beyond the limelight. Perhaps it is because there have been so few major group showings that this exhibition manages to feel timely and not simply trendy.

But more likely the bliss of The Milk of Dreams is simply in seeing what happens when the art world, finally, casts a wide net: there’s a lot of beauty to see.

Scroll through the gallery below for Emirati artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim's installation at the Venice Biennale 2022:

Updated: October 12, 2022, 10:12 AM