Female artists dominate country pavilions at the Venice Biennale

Traveling around the world in one day: it was the slogan that attracted 8 million visitors to the International Colony Exhibition in Paris in 1931. Cameroon and the Togo division had a village full of thatched huts and wooden poles on the doorstep. More than ninety years later, visitors to the Venice Biennale face a comparable hut: the US pavilion has been transformed into a ‘colonial world exhibition’ building for this 59th edition.

Sovereignty is the name of the work of the American artist Simone Leigh. In addition to the building, which she has turned into a work of art, in front of the ‘hut’ stands a seven meter high bronze statue of a woman referring to D’mbas: a statue used for religious purposes but especially useful for European artists was as material for art. While outside the colonial gaze, you become acquainted with the background as you enter: a sculpture of a washerwoman, a fantasy of a photo The wild woman from Aiken taken on a plantation in South Carolina (with which the photographer would show in 1882 that Oscar Wilde was wrong and that everything could not be ‘beautiful’), processing a diaspora image representing spirituality and fertility, and a picture of Sharifa Rhodes – Pitts (American author of a trilogy about African Americans and utopia).

The image of D’mbas refers to many things at this Biennale: The head, resembling a dish in which sound waves and echoes from the past resonate, symbolizes what is happening at this Biennale. The past was also looked at in the French, English, Japanese, Israeli, Estonian and Polish pavilions in, for example, the Giardini. Also typical of this Biennale: Simone Leigh is the first black female American artist ever to represent the United States at the Biennale. The same goes for England: there is Sonia Boyce the first black female artist to represent the country with her ode to black women as a source of pop music. France presents for the first time a French-Algerian artist, Zineb Sedira.


The voice that is less frequently heard, but now loud and clear, is also found in Poland, which has chosen large wall hangings by the Polish Roma artist Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, who depicts images of and about ‘the largest minority in Europe’, which Poland describes it. The names of the countries in the Nordic pavilion are covered, and the pavilion is exclusively dedicated to the Sami. Meanwhile, for the first time in the history of the Biennale, more female artists than male artists have been represented. And five countries have also been added to the ranks: Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda.

While a pile of white sandbags lies in the heart of the pavilion as a reference to the war in Ukraine – a reference to the wrapped statues in Odessa – the Russian pavilion is empty, with only guards standing in front of it. In the Ukrainian pavilion you can see Pavlo Makov’s ‘Fountain of Exhaustion’, an energetic jet of water flowing in droplets through a pyramid of inverted funnels.

The Russian pavilion. Photo by Vincenzo Pinto / AFP

When the world is dominated by war, nationalism, misanthropy and pandemic, art has the answer clearly here.

In a total of about 80 country pavilions, divided between the Giardini and the Arsenale, the sovereignty of the body is celebrated remarkably often. For example, in the Venezuelan, Brazilian, Omani, South African, Romanian, Austrian and Hungarian pavilions, the body is central and its acceptance, just like in the Dutch contribution of Melanie Bonajo. Here, two years of lockdowns and distance seem to have their effect: In many of these works, the need for intimacy, and the search for protection, acceptance, and sexuality are central.

Also read: Melanie Bonajo regains the femininity that made the church impossible. ‘I’m a Catholic, but I’m a born heretic’

children’s games

In the Oman Pavilion, an artist collective protects the physical from the emergence of robots. The beautiful Lebanese pavilion is also about the contrast between the technological future of man and those who are in danger of being crushed by that rise. Japan and Korea integrate past and present in futuristic technological installations, and in the Danish contribution, the body has been reduced to an apocalyptic vision of hybrid human-animal beings.

It all sounds heavy and stressful, but it does not always go that way. Turkey presents minimalist figures by Füsun Onur that tell an autobiographical story in artisanal format. One can hear children laughing outside in front of the Belgian pavilion. Francis Alÿs has made films of children playing around the world: flying kites in Afghanistan, rolling down a coal mine with car tires in Congo, skipping ropes in Hong Kong, playing in the snow in Switzerland and organizing a snail race in Belgium. Alÿs’ project was partly already shown in Eye in 2019, here it delivers a fantastic, optimistic, universal whole. In the British pavilion there is singing and the pavilion has been renovated in eighties disco moods with lots of glitter. The French Pavilion welcomes you with tango dancers who together set in motion a film scene from the sixties, where Zineb Sedira not only reconstructs a film from his youth, but also sets racism up against freedom, pride and humor.

In France itself, discussions about her participation had arisen two years ago, and French-Jewish communities felt that France would rather withdraw the entrance from this biennial because it would be too Palestinian-friendly. That invitation was fortunately not followed, for the French pavilion is the highlight of this Biennale, which on the whole stands out for its many colors and a rich search for intimacy and protection. Suppose these elements are the result of world exhibitions in which female artists make up the majority: place even more women.

Also read: How Estonian art broke up from Germans and Soviets

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