Venice Biennale: female artists outnumber men for the first time | Venice Biennale 2022

There is no shortage of great art beasts in Venice, as the world’s most prestigious international art event, the city’s Biennale, opens to the public.

Georg Baselitz made works to hang in the 18th century stucco frames that once held portraits of the Grimani family in their palace. Marc Quinn is on display at the National Archaeological Museum. Anselm Kiefer covered the walls of a colossal room in the Ducal Palace with paintings encrusted with shoes, clothes, metal and even a ladder.

Arguably, however, the overriding spirit of the event lies beyond these impressive exhibits. In the biennial’s main venues – the city’s Giardini and Arsenale – the prevailing sentiment is not that of the white, male, solitary artist. Instead, for the first time, female artists outnumbered males – and by a ratio of about nine to one.

Cecilia Alemani, artistic director of the Venice Biennale 2022. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

Of the more than 200 artists that curator Cecilia Alemani features in her huge main exhibition, the vast majority are women. One of its venues, the international pavilion of the Giardini, contains no male artists, only women and a small number of non-binary and trans artists.

“I’ve always worked with a lot of female artists – and I think some of the most talented artists working today are women,” said the US-based Italian curator.

Historically, around 10% of artists in the main exhibit have tended to be women, rising to 30% in recent years; in 2019, British curator Ralph Rugoff’s exhibition reached rough parity for the first time. Alemani’s show is approximately 90% female.

Re-enchanting the world of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas at the Polish Pavilion in Venice.
Re-enchanting the world of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas at the Polish Pavilion in Venice. Photography: Daniel Rumiancew/Zachęta National Gallery of Art

“I don’t care about quotas,” she added, “but it’s striking that people are obsessed with my exposure and have never found male dominance. [in previous editions] shocking.”

Characteristic of the atmosphere of the biennale is, for example, the Polish pavilion: the Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas covered the walls of the structure with quilts resembling tapestries, partly inspired by the frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara , which pay tribute to pioneering Roma women.

Right next to the Polish pavilion, the famous Romanian pavilion of Alina Pintilie, and her group of collaborators, who she described as “wonderful, courageous, soul seekers”, including gays, trans people and people with disabilities , challenge normative views of relationships, the body and intimacy. In her film work You Are Another Me – Cathedral of the Body she was interested, she said, in “opening up different ways of relating to different bodies, different beauties”.

You are another me - A cathedral of the body, by Adina Pintilie, Romanian Pavilion, Giardini, Venice.
You are another me – A cathedral of the body, by Adina Pintilie, Romanian Pavilion, Venice. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

Black women occupy some of the most prominent national pavilions: sculptor Simone Leigh for the United States; Sonia Boyce for Great Britain; and Zineb Sedira, of Algerian origin, for France.

Sedira, whose exhibition meditates on the history of Algerian, French and Italian cinema, said: “I am a female artist who works in a world dominated by men. The film world of the 1960s and 1970s was definitely a man’s world. I really wanted to reclaim this space as a woman, as an Algerian, as a Muslim, as a Frenchwoman, as a British.

Like Boyce’s exhibition, which highlights black female musicians, Sedira’s show is strongly rooted in ideas of friendship. The same goes for Alberta Whittle’s exhibition for Scotland, which reflects on the traumatic history of the slave trade and colonialism between Africa, Scotland and Barbados, where she was born.

Dreams Have No Titles by Zineb Sedira, French Pavilion, Giardini, Venice.
Dreams Have No Titles by Zineb Sedira, French Pavilion, Venice. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

“I find it interesting that so many of us – Sonia Boyce, Simone Leigh – are members of the Caribbean diaspora,” said Glasgow-based Whittle. “It’s a prospect that has long been ignored.” Tender and touching despite everything, his work is made, says Whittle, “by a spirit of hope and rage.” It was, she said, “a tiring position” to be the first black woman to represent her country, along with Boyce, Leigh and Sedira. “Having said that, I feel honoured. It’s like showing my work in the big leagues.

“The world is waking up and realizing it’s finally time,” Alemani said. “I think it is puzzling that although the American Pavilion was built in 1930 and the British Pavilion was built in 1912, it has taken until now for black women to occupy them. But we have to go beyond the shock and use this time to reflect on the past and reinterpret history and understand how we got here.

Alberta Whittle in front of her works in Venice
Alberta Whittle’s work reflects the traumatic history of slave trade and colonialism between Africa, Scotland and Barbados. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

Her exhibition, titled The Milk of Dreams, “reconsidered the centrality of man, to celebrate a different relationship with the planet, nature and different species”, she said. This involved “decentering the western, usually white male perspective”. She cited as an example the work of Colombian artist Delcy Morelos, whose work was a discovery for her in her research on her exhibition, and whose large earthen “maze” occupies one of the large spaces of the Arsenale.

The Morelos facility is “infused with tobacco, cocoa powder, cloves,” she explained. “You experience art with the fullness of the body – something I’ve missed a lot during the pandemic.”

The Venice Biennale continues until November 27.

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