After a year’s delay due to the Covid pandemic, the 59th Venice Biennale is a triumph for women artists, who heavily outnumber men in both Cecilia Alemani’s curated exhibition “The Milk of Dreams” and the national pavilion displays. Amid the celebration, however, the shadow of Russia’s war on Ukraine cast a heavy pall—Russia’s shuttered pavilion a symbol for the kind of anachronistic imperialism that prevailed when the Biennale was born in 1895. There is a lot to see, but four national pavilions offer sculptural highlights worth visiting.
Simone Leigh, the first Black woman to represent the United States, titled her exhibition “Sovereignty,” underscoring the importance of self-determination for the Black female subject (her primary focus) while also taking an oblique swipe at the nationalist structure of the Biennale. The theme of independence becomes evident even before entering the show. Leigh covered the neo-Palladian façade of the pavilion with a thatched roof that references both a 1930s African palace and the controversial 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition—an ethnographic display of France’s colonized lands. Throughout the show, Leigh draws a thread from past to present, from the artistic traditions of African and its diaspora to early Black American material culture. A massive bronze figure with pendant breasts and a satellite dish for a head (Satellite), inspired by a D’mba, or headdress used by the Baga peoples of Guinea in ritual performances, dominates the forecourt. Leigh’s sculptures often collate the female body with architecture through form and scale, and several of the works here exemplify that tendency. Cupboard, consisting of a stoneware cowrie shell atop a raffia dome, formally echoes the thatched roof of the exterior, recalling a woman’s skirt and an African hut.
All of the sculptures have a grounding monumentality, occupying space vertically or through their mass with dignified resolve. Sentinel, a 16-foot-tall, sleek bronze inspired by African power objects, looms imposingly in the central rotunda, its watchful, bowl-like head suggesting a continual gathering of knowledge. Other, more naturalistic sculptures pay tribute to specific women. A gigantic bronze figure after the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—Leigh’s first portrait—leans against the wall looking down, hands resting on her skirt, yet her posture suggests resistance rather than subjugation.
Two sculptures liberate Black female subjects from the racist framing of historical photographs taken by white men. The first room is devoted to a sculpture of a Jamaican laundress bent over her washing. Emphasizing the idea of care through touch, Leigh sculpted the figure in clay from a live model before casting it in bronze. Set within a reflecting pool, the figure’s presence is doubled. Another life-size sculpture, Anonymous, memorializes a woman photographed next to an Edgefield face jug of the type made by enslaved and freed African Americans in South Carolina. Leigh empowers her subjects by endowing them with physical heft and by excavating alternative histories for them through a combination of factual research and fictional elements. “In order to tell the truth,” she says, “you need to invent what might be missing from the archive.”
Sovereignty also emerges as the underlying theme of the Nordic pavilion, which has been transformed—in a historic first—into the “Sámi pavilion,” featuring works in various media by three Sámi artists. In the face of ongoing Nordic colonization, these artists assert the right of the Sámi, Europe’s only Indigenous people, to determine their language, religion, and way of life based on their belief in the interconnectedness of humans and nature. Máret Ánne Sara, an artist and reindeer herder from the Norwegian Sámi heartland, has created amorphous suspended hide forms, some stitched closed and resembling bulbous bodily organs, others splayed wide to catch the light. All have a frail beauty. Made from reindeer stomachs, these works allude to that organ’s role as a receptacle for emotional trauma while celebrating Sámi traditions and culture—the reindeer being fundamental to Sámi cosmology. For Sara, the stomachs also refer to her brother’s unsuccessful legal challenge of Norway’s forced culling of reindeer herds. As part of a four-year artistic campaign on her brother’s behalf, Sara presented a dramatic curtain of 400 reindeer skulls at Documenta 14 in 2017; the Venice sculptures represent the aftermath, she explained.
Her second pavilion work is a large metal spiral mobile hung with grasses and birch branches. Peering closer, viewers can distinguish the desiccated corpses of baby reindeer, which seem to be prancing among the grasses. After the devastation of her brother’s defeat, Sara drew inspiration from a herder who described the unbridled thrill of seeing a newborn reindeer, despite the many obstacles to their survival. There is something elemental about these small corpses, caught in a merry-go-round of life and death. With habitats, including our own, increasingly threatened by climate change and human intervention, these forms, which hover between animate and inanimate, offer a stark reminder of life’s fragility.
In the Latvian pavilion, the duo Skuja Braden (Latvian and Californian artists Ingūna Skuja and Melissa D. Braden) meditates on the concept/meaning of home. For the partners, home becomes their Biennale show. Viewers are invited into their intimate domestic space, reimagined in lavish ceramic works including an altar-like bed, displayed vertically with the artists painted on it as entwined figures, a dressing room with mirror and chair, and guest tables and studio shelves laden with erotic sculptures decorated with genitalia. Living in Latvia, where attitudes to LGBTQ+ rights are conservative, the artists have used their platform in Venice to celebrate their relationship with ebullience and playfulness.
Kitsch and caricature mix with bold formal innovations in a euphoric orgy of body parts. One wall holds jars adorned with female torsos—black breasts, white breasts, breasts decorated with zebras, giraffes, and tigers. Other highlights include a chandelier of cascading penises, a wall game of solitaire featuring dishes painted with vulvas and crosses (or crucifixes) made from phalluses, and an urn decorated with a corset and skirts—with two pairs of lips and tongues lustily kissing beneath the painted folds. References to Eastern philosophies and culture abound in imagery of Buddhas, Hokusai waves, and geishas—the artists have spent time in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. The show’s title, “Selling Water by the River,” is taken from a text written by a Zen master, which suggests that all we need is already within us. Serious messages about inclusivity and challenges to the patriarchy are inherent in the presentation, but they are conveyed with a light exuberance that makes one want to smile and dance.
Füsun Onur’s “Once Upon a Time…” at the Turkish pavilion offers a sharp contrast to the colossal forms and multimedia displays in other pavilions. The exhibition consists of delicate tableaux peopled with tiny characters handcrafted from wire. In place of plinths, these theatrical miniature worlds inhabit spotlit white squares suspended from the ceiling at different heights, their arrangement marking a rhythm across the vast darkened space of the Arsenale. A fairytale plays out on these floating squares, featuring a love story between mice set against a backdrop of animal harmony as cats and mice come together to try to save a planet pillaged and destroyed by humans. This is the narrative described on a wall panel, but the sculptural scenes are not definitive and allow viewers to invent their own scenarios.
Born in 1937, Onur has long been acclaimed in Turkey for her simple, poetic sculptures using everyday and found materials, but she is under-recognized internationally. Here, she has fashioned her protagonists from colored wire, like three-dimensional sketches, adding ping pong balls, crepe paper, and other materials to make faces, clothes, furniture, and houses. Created in the artist’s home studio during the Covid pandemic, these ephemeral sculptures raise questions about value yet hold their own in the grandeur of the Biennale. Onur has conjured a dreamlike narrative set in the future that places animals rather than humans at its center and leaves the ending open.