What the Venice Biennale’s Flipped Art History Really Means

I think it will be remembered well. The 60th Venice Biennale, curated by Adriano Pedrosa and titled “Foreigners Everywhere,” has plenty of art to recommend it.

Hits for me, sticking to living artists, include the ghostly greyscale paintings of Giulia Andreani, the personality-rich outdoor sculptures of Leilah Babirye, the enchanted mountainscape tapestries of Liz Collins, the ambitious “Viva Palestina” altarpiece by Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, the slow-burn geometric loveliness of Mataaho Collective’s canopy that opens the show’s Arsenale section, the gleaming gold-plated portrait heads by Victor Fotso Nyie, the delicate gold-flecked stone fragments of 95-year-old Greta Schödl, the glowing abstract landscapes of Emmi Whitehorse, the ultra-contemporary mosaics by Omar Mismar, the dignified portraits of Afro-Brazilian leaders by Dalton Paula, and the slick but intensely emotional choreography of Kang Seung Lee.

Two paintings by Dalton Paula. Photo by Ben Davis.

Of course, as always with a big show like this, there are also things in it that do not work for me. I find Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture of an astronaut-as-refugee facile. Bárbara Sánchez-Kane’s giant shish kabob of army men in lingerie is a clunker. I’m familiar with Rindon Johnson’s work and the sculpture here, a suspended mass of rawhide—but with a text that just asserts that it is somehow about themes of identity, it falls flat and feels emblematic of a show that sometimes asks to be judged on good intentions.

There are many more works where I see their place, without them really sticking in my brain. However, overall, “Foreigners Everywhere” has more hits than misses, which in a show of this scale, makes it pretty good. It’s also a subtle show, with lots of curatorial thoughts that reveal themselves over time.

In the month since it has opened, opinion has ranged from airy affirmation to fiery dismissal of the show as the latest crime of political correctness against taste. For the bulk of this essay, I want to draw out what’s specifically at stake in Pedrosa’s vision of contemporary art, and what is significant about how it develops its themes. I think there’s a lot to say.

South as a State of Mind

Born and based in Brazil, curator Adriano Pedrosa came to Venice with the self-assigned task of proposing an ambitious rebalancing of the art canon toward the Global South. His title, “Foreigners Everywhere”—taken from a neon artwork by the collective Claire Fontaine that opens both major sections of the show—signposts the all-important political issue of migration, which is indeed a central theme.

Yet Pedrosa has also used the idea of the “foreigner” in the show as a much more general metaphor of “otherness,” also focusing on queer artists (“the first meaning of the word ‘queer’ is ‘strange’”), self-taught, visionary, or “outsider” artists (“located at the margins of the art world”), and, oddly, Indigenous artists (“treated as a foreigner in their own land”).

Madge Gill, Crucifixion of the Soul (1934). Photo by Ben Davis.

Thus, though the show is about the “Global South,” it is not about the actual geographic or even political South, not really. It is more about a kind of metaphor for what is farthest from power. Symptomatic of this, I think, is the fact that China, traditionally the most symbolically important country in the “Global South” bloc and once a huge presence on the global art stage, is even more marginal in this show than the United States.

The big images to remember from “Foreigners Everywhere” are undoubtedly what Pedrosa calls the “Nucleo Storico” (“Historical Nucleus”), set-piece rooms of non-Western abstraction and non-Western portraiture in the Padiglione Centrale building in the Giardini, which anchor the show as a gesture of art-historical recentering.

These are dense, delightful displays of dozens upon dozens of artists, all packed together, all hailing from the 20th century. The galleries feel like mini-museum surveys, almost as if Pedrosa took something on the scale of the Metropolitan Museum’s touring “Surrealism Beyond Borders” show of a few years ago and stuffed it all into a couple of large galleries.

The “Nucleo Storico: Abstraction” section of “Foreigners Everywhere.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Digging in, however, it becomes murky what Pedrosa’s gesture actually means as a rewriting of global art history. The selection of three dozen artists in the “Abstraction” section is wildly unbalanced geographically, weighted towards artists born in the Middle East and North Africa (though in terms of where artists work or worked, the most common sites are actually… the United States and France). What is the logic behind including, say, 5 Lebanese artists but just a single Iranian (Mohammad Ehsaei)—when Iran has a quite serious movement of calligraphic abstraction—or 4 representatives of Morocco’s recently much-celebrated Casablanca School, but only 1 artist who works in all of Sub-Saharan Africa (Esther Mahlangu)? Why represent all of Oceania with a single work of Maori art (Sandy Adsett), and none from Australia’s stellar schools of Aboriginal abstraction? If we’re going to include textile works by Monika Correa and Olga de Amaral as a rebuttal of the “widespread dismissal” of traditional fiber arts, why is everything else here painting?

Ernest Mancoba, Composition (1940) and Olga De Amaral, Muro tejido terruño 3 (1969). Photo by Ben Davis.

Is the geographic skew a statement about where significant movements happened? Is it a catalogue of what Pedrosa likes? Is it just what was available? It’s not clear! The most cynical read would be that the gesture depends on the same superficial audience engagement with non-Western art history that it claims to challenge, just switching gears from superficial dismissal to superficial celebration.

History Flipped, Not Expanded

It’s hard to create a coherent story from this “Abstraction” room; this is, in effect, “vibes-based” curating. What kind of vibe does it shoot for, though? The introductory text, written by Pedrosa himself, explains: “The focus is on a certain type of abstraction that detaches itself from the European tradition, with its rigid orthogonal grid of verticals and horizontals and its palette of primary colors, and its pretensions towards purity, in order to privilege more sinuous, curvilinear shapes and forms, bright colors, in striking compositions…”

I read this and I frown. Is Pedrosa conflating the whole “European tradition” with… Mondrian? Most of what the text goes on to define as particular to the interests of this alternative “Southern” tradition—from eccentric geometries and color combinations to an interest in spiritual and cosmic systems and even textiles—can be found in “the European tradition” of abstraction, starting literally with its most canonical origin point, the Bauhaus.

Installation view of “Nucleo Storico: Abstraction” room in “Foreigners Everywhere.” Photo by Ben Davis.

Chewing on this even more, however, I realize that something still stranger is going on. Because on reflection the most obvious artist that Pedrosa might be referring to is not Piet Mondrian. It is Max Bill.

The Swiss artist, who actually was attached to the Bauhaus, was unbelievably influential in Brazil, his 1950 retrospective at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art a touchstone for the most famous school of Brazilian painting at mid-century, Concretism. In a country looking for a national project of development, the clean geometry of Bill’s abstraction was associated with modernization, taken up enthusiastically and brilliantly elaborated by Brazilian artists. Pedrosa is, in other words, not just signaling disidentification from European modernism, but from Brazilian modernism.

This tic suggests that “Foreigners Everywhere” is not merely “paying a debt” to historic non-Western art worlds, proposing an expanded canon. Its atmosphere—and we’ll see this throughout the show—wants to dissent from “Westernization” in terms of historic associations with industry, design, and modernization. As a gesture of symbolic politics, you see the work this perspective does, flipping a system that over-valued proximity to Europe and the United States and downplayed local and craft associations as backwards. Yet its lyrical Third Worldism has depoliticizing effects that are worth watching out for as well.

The “Nucleo Storico: Abstraction” gallery, with Ione Saldanha’s “Bambus” (1960–70) in the foreground. Photo by Ben Davis.

Pedrosa’s “Abstractions” section makes a centerpiece of the Brazilian artist Ione Saldanha, via a suite of her undoubtedly magical painted bamboo hanging sculptures in the Padiglione Centrale’s main chamber. Certainly, Saldanha has remained relatively obscure, in part because her abstract work doesn’t quite fit in with Western critics’ ideas of the most recognized schools of Brazilian abstraction—but also because she broke the boycott of the 1969 São Paulo Bienal, which was a contentious attempt to put cultural pressure on the hardening Brazilian dictatorship after the passage of the frightening Fifth Institutional Act in late ’68. The boycott was led by an international alliance of critics and artists across the North-South divide, the French critic Pierre Restany teaming up with the great Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa. Famed Brazilian artists like Lygia Clark, Antonio Dias, and Hélio Oiticica, then living in exile in the France, Italy, and the U.K., all participated and no doubt gained in the light of art history for their stand.

Art historian Sérgio Martins remarks that Saldanha’s participation in the Bienal “likely contributed to her being sidelined by a younger and more politicized artistic generation.” We should at least complement the narrative of Western ignorance towards Brazilian art by recovering the history of the actual, lively climate of international solidarity with Brazilian artists, as well as the real and consequential debates within Brazil’s art world itself.

Indigeneity and Authenticity

Let’s turn, now, to the show’s “Nucleo Contemporaneo.” Basically, that’s the entire rest of the Biennale, the contemporary parts—though, in truth, this show has an unusually high number of dead artists throughout, almost always pairing present-day figures with ones from the past, so that it feels as if you are being removed into an ambiguous time.

The delightful façade of the Padiglione Centrale sets the tone for the show, telling in pictures and gorgeous tropical colors a myth that explains the origin of the separation of peoples, by MAHKU, a collective of artists from the Huni Kuin tribe in Brazil and Peru. This work announces Pedrosa’s intention to make contemporary Indigenous art central to the story he is telling.

Facade of the Central Pavilion for the 60th Venice Biennale, restyled by MAHKU (Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin). Photo by Ben Davis.

This is excellent, and ratifies the recent engagement on this front from a broad array of international art institutions. Yet I’d note that Pedrosa is offering a particular portrait of global Indigenous art, with absences as well as inclusions.

It’s important to say that, here too, there’s a history of superficial celebration as well as superficial dismissal to navigate. Particularly in times of spiritual crisis, Native American cultural production has been drafted to stand for an authenticity and community spirit that over-intellectual and hyper-individual modern culture lacks. This is not a minor tendency, and not totally innocent: It was arch-imperialist Teddy Roosevelt who attacked Cubism as inauthentic by comparing it unfavorably to the design of a Navajo blanket (whereas the recent TV show The Curse made fun of real estate developers and reality TV stars trying to market themselves by waxing poetic about the soulfulness of Pueblo pottery). Nor is this dynamic unique to the United States.

Scholar Vanine Borges Amaral’s 2021 dissertation about the market for Brazilian “popular art” (“Arte popular brasileira”) is sympathetic to the way it has opened up economic opportunities for artisans outside the metropolis and allowed for Indigenous culture to be treated as worthy of conservation. But she also notes the tensions at play as it is promoted both by private entrepreneurs and the Brazilian government looking to market the country. The hunger of collectors and museum-goers for “arte popular” isn’t only about interest in Brazil’s various Indigenous cultures; it “reflects feelings of disenchantment with the ethos of modern Western society that produces various forms of alienation.” And its celebration, Borges Amaral argues, can slip into “a simulation of equality between consumers and creators,” a way to duck addressing real inequalities though a purely symbolic communion. (She draws comparisons to similar discussions in Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico.)

Andrés Curruchich, Procesión: Patron de San Juan esta en su trono (1966). Photo by Ben Davis.

Pedrosa’s show creates an air where the audience never senses any of these dynamics. The timeline of its historic sections ends in 1990; jointing this to its contemporary selections, it’s as if an alternate world opens up where the entire period of critical postmodernism never happened. Amid ’90s debates over multiculturalism, Susan Bell Collins would write how the “overemphasis on authenticity” in a competitive cultural marketplace led to a perverse situation where “the actual ideas of the individual matter less than the person’s seemingly authentic performance as a member of the affected, ‘different’ group.” Forced to reckon with such pressures, a prominent type of work from artists with Native backgrounds has involved reflecting stereotypes back at the audience, forcing it to see its own desires, its commodification of “authenticity.”

But a work like James Luna’s Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1991) is far from where Pedrosa’s show’s head is. So for that matter is even a work like Martine Gutierrez’s Indigenous Woman magazine, shown at the 2019 Biennale—irony, pop culture, appropriated materials, technology, and imagery evoking the urban world are all out.

Instead, “Foreigners Everywhere” foregrounds artists working in traditional media, with mythological themes and scenes of village life. Most uniquely, Pedrosa pairs family members throughout, developing a symbolism of communal production. In galleries facing one another, you have both Santiago Yahuarcani (b. 1960) and Rember Yahuarcani (b. 1985), a father and son from the White Heron tribe of Peru, each with their own signature style of large 2-D work featuring miasmic constellations of creatures; Abel Rodríguez (b. 1944) and Aycoobo, a.k.a. Wilson Rodríguez (b. 1967), a father and son from Colombia’s Nonuya people, who make enchanting images of Amazonian flora and fauna; and from Guatemala, the Maya Kaqchikel artist Andrés Curruchich (1891-1969) and his granddaughter Rosa Elena Curruchich (1958-2005), who both did small folk paintings lovingly rendering traditional customs and festivities. (I should say: These are all highlights of the show for me.)

Abel Rodríguez and Aycoobo, Chorro de araracuara (2017). Photo by Ben Davis.

With the exception of the elder Curruchich, all these might be considered “contemporary artists,” if we are speaking simply of dates. Yet if the “Nucleo Storico” sections of “Foreigners Everywhere” present a modernism detached from associations with modernization, this aspect of the show is engineered to give us contemporary art removed from associations with globalization and consumer culture. It feels as if is meant to choreograph a picture of “Indigenous art” as far removed as possible from the frenetic and hyper-commodified art industry.

In fact, there may be something more deeper at play than symbolic contrition over art-world decadence and commercialism. Along with a lack of technology and irony, another striking absence from “Foreigners Everywhere” is the theme of environmental doom that has permeated most recent Biennales. To me, it feels as if the old “Ecological Indian” trope has covertly returned to serve as a balm, the affirmation of non-Western cosmologies and direct communion with nature taking the edge off of all the latent ecological anxiety that otherwise goes unvented.

This operation isn’t fully explicit—but then it couldn’t be, could it? Once it becomes so, it stirs the question of whether celebrating this kind of Indigenous art actually creates some kind of new environmental consciousness, or just helps it’s audience feel less guilty about participating in the whole catastrophic party. To be clear, I think it could go either way—but having to decide ruins the soothing effect.

There’s more to say about how all this relates to the other distinctive themes of “Foreigners Everywhere,” which I’ll go into in Part 2.

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