Art & Culture


The 60th La Biennale di Venezia: review

Words by Bojana Popovic

18 April 2024


Our in-house art specialist gives her take on the Biennale before the official opening on 20th April.

The 60th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, titled Stranieri Ovunque Foreigners Everywhere, has now opened (or at least to its VIPs, with the public opening following on 20th April) and will run until 24th November 2024, at the Giardini and the Arsenale in Venice. Each year, a different curator is invited to orchestrate the concept for this vast, sprawling exhibition; this year's instalment is curated by Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art.

What stands out from the outset of 2024's Biennale is that artists who have never participated in the International Exhibition have been favoured, aptly because they are in some ways 'foreigners' in this space. Stranieri Ovunque Foreigners Everywhere, the title of the 2024 Biennale, is drawn from a series of works started in 2004 by the Palermo-based Claire Fontaine collective (these were made up of coloured neon phrases in many languages, each saying 'Foreigners Everywhere').

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The group was drawn to this phrase after seeing it used by the Turin collective of that name, which fought racism and xenophobia in Italy in the early 2000s. Perhaps today, more than ever, so many of us identify with the label 'foreigner', and Pedrosa himself stated, 'wherever you go and wherever you are, you will always encounter foreigners they/we are everywhere. Secondly, no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.

'The Italian straniero, the Portuguese estrangeiro, the French étranger, and the Spanish extranjero, are all etymologically connected to the strano, the estranho, the étrange, the extraño, respectively, which is precisely the stranger. According to the American Heritage and the Oxford Dictionaries, the first meaning of the word queer is precisely strange. Thus the exhibition unfolds and focuses on the production of other related 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, much like the self-taught artist, the folk artist and the artista popular; the indigenous artist, frequently treated as a foreigner in their own land. The productions of these four subjects are the interest of this Biennale,' Pedrosa says.

Working across two key locations can pose a challenge. Still, this divide has been used as the basis of Pedrosa's curatorial vision. He has divided the exhibition into two sections, the Nucleo Contemporaneo and the Nucleo Storico, roughly splitting the 20th-century artists and the ultra-contemporary ones. Prevalent themes run parallel in both locations, including global modernism, queer abstraction, and gender fluidity. Queer artists, such as Hong Kong-born photographer Isaac Chong Wai, American figurative painter Louis Fratino, Canadian artist and filmmaker Erica Rutherford, and Chinese abstract painter Evelyn Taocheng Wang, are presented at the Biennale this year, amongst others.

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Meanwhile, in the Central Pavilion, one room is titled Portraits (including works by over 100 artists) and one Abstractions, while the third is dedicated to the worldwide Italian artistic diaspora of the 20th century (presenting works by around 40 artists who are first- or second-generation Italians). Furthermore, organically emerging throughout the Biennale is the presence of textiles – with many artists choosing to showcase a deep-rooted interest in traditional craft, the hand-made, and the textural. This ties together with the growing representation of indigenous artists, whose works tend to highlight the practices and traditions passed down from generation to generation.

This year, the Biennale notably features a significant number of indigenous artists, including Native American landscape artist Kay WalkingStick, the Brazilian collective MAHKU (whose monumental mural on the Central Pavilion's façade greets visitors), and the Māori quartet Maataho collective from Aotearoa/New Zealand, which dominates the Central Pavilion's first room with its incredible, large-scale installation.

Another influential indigenous artist to be selected for this year's Biennale is South African treasure Esther Mahlangu, who is rocketing to prominence with some significant career milestones: foremost, the Iziko Museums of South Africa just launched Mahlangu's retrospective, which traces her 50-year-long career and her rise as a contemporary artist. The retrospective will be on view at the Iziko South African National Gallery from August 2024.

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From there, it will begin its global tour, stopping first at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, before moving to the United States in early 2026. Thames & Hudson will also release its major monograph on Mahlangu's practice this year, with contributors including London-based curator and director of the Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist. And, for those of you who might have been to Frieze LA, you might have even seen BMW's collaboration with Mahlangu, which was on show for the duration of the fair.

Great Britain's Pavilion presents art by John Akomfrah, who rose to fame in the early 1980s within the Black Audio Film Collective and first exhibited at the Biennale in 2015. That year, he presented a colossal film installation titled Vertigo Sea, which focused on whaling and environmental issues concerning the sea. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Gibson is the first indigenous artist to represent the US in its Pavilion at the Biennale. Working in a range of mediums, including painting, craft, and collage, Gibson dissects what characterises contemporary Native American culture. 

Australia, too, showcases an artist whose works discuss the tensions within Australia's colonial past, Archie Moore. Moore was born just three years after the Australian Aboriginals Referendum and exposes how issues of intercultural clashes and racism still shadow society in Australia. 

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This year, 90 countries participated in the national pavilions, and four countries will partake for the first time at the Biennale: the Republic of Benin, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste. Nicaragua, the Republic of Panama, and Senegal will also join for the first time with their own Pavilions.

Open to the public until November, The Biennale is a fantastic hub where artists and curators from across the globe contribute to one artistic forum and create a cultural dialogue for all to see. If you can find the time to stop in Venice for a few days over the next seven months – you won't regret it.

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Words by
Words by

Bojana Popovic

As our art correspondent, Bojana writes reviews of just-opened exhibitions, roundups of shows you should see, and advice about collecting art. She’s also an independent art advisor who worked at Christie’s for five years.

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