Artistic provocations at the 2024 Venice Biennale

The ongoing Venice Biennale stands out for its focus on queer and indigenous artists while addressing points of daily friction

Bhavna Kakar
First Published3 May 2024
 ‘The Rooted Nomad’, on M.F. Husain’s practice by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
‘The Rooted Nomad’, on M.F. Husain’s practice by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

We live in a deeply conflicted world—one that is connected by ease of travel and technology and yet remains disconnected with the harsh realities faced by certain populations. The 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, or simply put, the Venice Biennale, looks at such fractures through its theme, Stranieri Ovunque—Foreigners Everywhere. The ongoing event offers artistic provocations in times of great geopolitical crises.

The title of the biennale draws from an ongoing series started in 2004 by Paris-born and Palermo-based feminist conceptual artist, Claire Fontaine. The set of neon sculptures feature the words, Foreigners Everywhere, in different languages.

Although India doesn’t have an official pavilion at the biennale this year, art from the country seems to be leaving a mark in different sections. Take the ambitious showcase by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), titled The Rooted Nomad, part-exhibition and part-immersive experience based on M.F. Husain’s practice.

Leading contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta is showing her work, Listening Air, as part of the collateral event, From Ukraine: Dare to Dream by the PinchukArtCentre at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac, on view till 1 August. “Interested in the potential of language, the artist brings together voices that have been passed on and persisted through generations. Throughout history, songs and poetry have been used as powerful critique against systems of control or as uplifting carriers of hope in times of struggle,” states the exhibition note.

Also read: Murakami in Bengali and Kenji in Malayalam

Focus on indigenous artists

One of the two main segments of the biennale put together by Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, the artistic director for this edition—the Nucleo Contemporaneo—focuses on four main subjects: “The queer artist, who has moved within different sexualities and genders, often being persecuted or outlawed; the outsider artist, who is located at the margins of the art world; the folk artist and the artist popular; the indigenous artist, frequently treated as a foreigner in his or her own land,” states the exhibition note. Nucleo Contemporaneo features works by artists like Pacita Abad, Giulia Andreani, Aravani Art Project and Unidentified Chilean artists, Arpilleristas.

Especially noteworthy is the work by Aravani Art Project, a trans-women and cis-women-led art collective from India, which depicts a vision for an inclusive world. The mural relates to representation of trans bodies, with a nod to the process of transition, and acceptance (or lack of) that trans people experience when acknowledging their identities.

Indigenous artists seem to be at the heart of Nucleo Contemporaneo. “There are postcard-sized scenes of life as an indigenous woman in Guatemala by the late Rosa Elena Curruchich; an image of a wise man emerging from a sacred pond by the Amazonian artist Aycoobo; and the timeless geometric wooden carvings of Māori artist Fred Graham,” states an April piece in The Guardian, titled Part protest, part rave: the Indigenous artists stunning the Venice Biennale.

A mural by Aravani Art Project depicts a vision for an inclusive world. Photos: courtesy Bhavna Kakar

In this context, the pavilions by The Republic of Benin and Senegal are extremely powerful for reflecting Africa’s vibrant artistic culture.

Also read: Another view of India: The curious foreigners online

Native American painter and sculptor Jeffrey Gibson has left an indelible mark by becoming the first indigenous artist to stage a solo at the US Pavilion, one of my favourites at the biennale.

The Migrant Art Gallery and Migrant Garden, developed by Sandra Gamarra Heshiki for the Spanish Pavilion, is also worth exploring. As the first migrant artist chosen to represent Spain, Gamarra Heshiki inverts the Western concept of the art gallery—which was exported to former colonies—exposing a series of silenced narratives.

Last month proved to be historic with Archie Moore becoming the first Australian artist to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the biennale, for his work, Kith and Kin. He has created a black pavilion with a family tree going back to 6,500 years drawn in chalk. It reflects time when the first Australians existed. “I’m trying to include everyone in the tree, because if you go back 3,000 years we all have a common ancestor,” Moore told The Guardian. “I’m saying we’re all connected and we’re all human beings living on Earth and we should have respect for each other and show kindness.” The number of indigenous and First Nations artists exhibiting in national pavilions for the first time is, to me, the single-most significant development at the Venice Biennale.

India in focus

The other section of the main exhibition, Nucleo Storico, features creative speculations on modernism. The focus firmly seems to be on the Global South, with works by F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza and Amrita Sher-Gil being shown at the Arsenale venue. By showcasing the myriad exchanges that took place during their travels to Europe, the section looks at the ways in which the artists interpreted the human figure in their work.

Another facet of modernism is shown in The Rooted Nomad at the Magazzini del Sale in Dorsoduro, which uncovers Husain’s life and work, and celebrates his versatility as an artist, thinker and writer. His wooden toys, paintings, photographs and letters are juxtaposed with film clips and poetry. The immersive experience, which has been two years in the making, draws on 160 works from the KNMA collection and weaves a story of the artist’s complex creative journey.

Then there is The Cosmic Garden, a collateral event at the Salone Verde Art & Social Club, which celebrates the oeuvre of senior artists Madhvi and Manu Parekh, alongside collaborative works with master textile artists of the Chanakya School of Craft. Paintings, sculptural and textile works challenge the distinctions between art and craft in India.

Artist Paresh Maity too is showcasing a powerful work at Venice. His bronze sculpture, Genesis, is being presented by Delhi-based Art Alive gallery at the Marinaressa Gardens, as part of Personal Structures 2024, a biennial contemporary art exhibition organised by the European Cultural Centre.

Also read: How Indian artists reinvented Impressionism

Celebrating womanhood

The Saudi Arabia Pavilion looks at the many ways in which women are treated as outsiders in the workspace and beyond. Titled Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, this multimedia installation paints a poignant image of womanhood in contemporary times.

Installation view of the Saudi Arabia Pavilion featuring Manal AlDowayan, 'Shifting Sands, A Battle Song', 2024

Another favourite is the collateral exhibition, Breasts, on view at the Palazzo Franchetti till 24 November. The show, organised in part to promote breast cancer awareness, features 30 works in a variety of mediums by Salvador Dali, Anna Weyant, Lakin Ogunbanwo, among others. It looks at how breasts in art have been censored and represented as symbols of motherhood, empowerment, sexuality and identity. The show presents an intense interdisciplinary and intimate dialogue on the subject by pairing each artwork with an adjective.

The Venice Biennale is on till 24 November

Bhavna Kakar is the founder of the Delhi-based art gallery, Latitude 28

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