Venice Biennale 2024: Alserkal exhibition explores the true meaning of solidarity

Exhibition in Italy this weekend brings together work of creatives who incorporate the practice and engagement of solidarity into their art

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An exhibition in Venice is exploring the nature of solidarity, weeding out its entanglements as a buzzword to show that, in the shadow of aggravating political and environmental issues, it cannot be a one-time gesture or act. In both art and activism, it is a constant and evolving practice.

Solidarity is Not a Metaphor is organised by Alserkal Initiatives in partnership with France's Cite internationale des arts. It brings together works by artists who have been previously involved in some capacity with either, or both, of the institutions. The exhibiting artists have also all incorporated the concept of solidarity in some form to their art. For most, it is the bedrock to their craft.

“All these artists practices are grounded in solidarity,” says Vilma Jurkute, executive director of Alserkal Initiatives. “We are living in times of multiple crises. We have genocides, domicides, and ecocides occurring in different parts of the world. We are questioning what solidarity should look like. What are the efforts we need to make and to defend it?”

The exhibition at My Art Guides Venice Meeting Point in the Navy Officer’s Club runs until Sunday. It is taking place in the run-up of the Venice Biennale.

The title Solidarity is Not a Metaphor is drawn from a 2012 article by Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang. In Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor, the two authors examine violent cases of colonialism and land theft. They write that the term decolonisation cannot be used in contexts outside of the actual repatriation of the land to its indigenous population. The term cannot be simply “grafted on to pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical,” claim the authors.

They continue: “The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonisation is yet another form of settler appropriation.”

The exhibition in Venice aims to bring a similar value system to the term of solidarity, says curator Natasa Petresin-Bachelez. She adds: “With Solidarity Is Not a Metaphor, we tried to say that it is actually about practice, long-term engagement and not a one-time act.”

Each of the 18 creatives participating in the exhibition have a unique take of how they take solidarity into account within their artistic practice. “It was important to bring into this project artists who on the one side have had [the capacity] to do research on solidarity practices, and on the other hand, artists who are currently experiencing extreme living conditions,” Petresin-Bachelez says. “We have artists from Ukraine, Myanmar, Sudan and Gaza.”

The artists, she adds, are still managing to transform their practice so “that you transmit something for future generations or even contemporary generations”.

For instance, Palestinian artist Rehab Al-Batniji presents a series of photographs that capture life in Gaza a day before the start of the conflict between Hamas and Israel. The series titled On October 6, 2023 features people walking alongside the city’s coast. In the background, the Mediterranean Sea is tucked serenely to the horizon.

While the images don’t actively reflect on the exhibition’s focus of solidarity like most of the others, Petresin-Bachelez says it still provides an important insight to a city that has been tragically transformed over the past few months. “This is daily life of something that is forever changed,” Petresin-Bachelez says.

The works of another Palestinian artist in the exhibition perhaps more acutely represents how solidarity is incorporated within an artist’s methodology.

Majd Abdel Hamid's series of works take inspiration from the traditional Palestinian embroidery of tatreez. However, Abdel Hamid’s pieces are woven in white and are devoid of the bold colours usually associated with the art form. The absence of colour offers a symbolic layer to the work, bringing to mind the Palestinian struggle to preserve their culture and identity in the face of bloodshed and systematic erasure.

The works in Venice are meticulously woven. For the artist, creating them are at once a meditative practice of digesting the events unfolding in Palestine and around the world. They are also a means, he says, to “transcribe time”.

“I feel like this is such an interesting way to think about how 100 hours would look materially, becoming a piece of fabric,” he says. “The starting point was about thinking about embroidery as form rather than as motif.”

In Between Presentation and Representation, Tehran-born artist Koushna Navabi presents a sculptural work that is immediately evocative, even before delving into the story that led to its form.

A pair of hands are hoisted on two pillars and reach out towards the viewer. A thick red woollen twine runs across the hands and bundles on the floor. Its colour resembles that of blood. The wool is bundled on each end in a form that brings to mind respiratory organs.

The work, Navabi says, came about as she reflected on the 2022 women-led protests in Iran. “They were the Generation Z of Iran,” she says. Even schoolgirls, in their capacity, joined by protesting in their classrooms.

“They took down [Iran’s first supreme leader Ruhollah] Khomeini’s picture, they yelled slogans for freedom, they braided with each other, and put all of this on social media and it went viral,” Navabi says.

When the government quelled the protests, the schoolgirls were not spare. “This piece is about that,” Navabi says.

Spanish artist Paula Valero Comin, on the other hand, presents plants as symbols of resistance in Herbier Resistant Rosa Luxemburg and Manifestation Vegetale. The installation takes its cue from the botanical practice that Polish-German activist Rosa Luxemburg kept while imprisoned in Berlin between 1913 and 1918.

The metaphor of the plants is underscored as the installation is set up alongside images from the Nepal Picture Library, which showcases a selection from their Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project. The series portrays key feminist movements in Nepal’s history, including the 1981 rally in Kathmandu that protested against the rape and murder of two sisters in Pokhara.

Another arresting piece brings the concept of solidarity to the exhibition’s location in Venice. Museum of Breath by Olivier Marboeuf is a sprawling map of various migrant experiences. The work is composed on an ultramarine blue, a colour choice that has become idiosyncratic of Marboeuf.

“He always uses this blue colour, which in English is ultramarine blue, but ultramarine [in French] is also used to [describe] people who come from overseas,” Petresin-Bachelez says. “Or the overseas territories of France.”

Marboeuf takes claim the hue in Museum of Breath to highlight key historical moments in the Afro-Caribbean migrant experience. The Guadeloupe-born artist depicts The Middle Passage within the slave trade route, the myth of Drexciya – an underwater city populated by the unborn children of pregnant women who were thrown from the slave ships, as well as the story of Pateh Sabally.

The Gambian man drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal in 2017. He was a street vendor who sold bags and belts on the streets of Venice. “He was running away from the police when he jumped into the water,” Petresin-Bachelez says. “He did not know how to swim. Nobody helped him.”

While the artworks within Solidarity is Not a Metaphor serve as powerful testaments to the practice of solidarity, the exhibition is also hosting a vibrant programme of site-specific performances and conversations. The Charging Station, for instance, is led by US poet Saul Williams and Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman.

The space will let people recite poetry and share messages of resistance and solidarity. In Join for Coffee: We Need to Talk, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti from Decolonising Architecture Art Research will invite visitors to a coffee-ritual while discussing Palestine.

“I hope this will be a moment for all practitioners, multidisciplinary practitioners, the members of global art community can come together to reimagine solidarity for practice,” Jurkute says, adding that she hopes the exhibition paves the way “for a new research to evolve” and cross-communal solidarities to develop.

Solidarity is Not a Metaphor is running until Sunday at My Art Guides Venice Meeting Point at the Navy Officer’s Club

Updated: April 24, 2024, 5:48 AM