Foreigners Everywhere: The Venice Biennale of the outsiders

The first impressions of Foreigners Everywhere, Adriano Pedrosa’s Biennale, which explores the theme of movements and exchanges between peoples and individuals from the point of view of the Global South

“Foreigners everywhere!”: this is probably the first thought that crosses the mind of anyone who sets foot in Venice, especially in a period that is frenetic and full of events like the Biennale Arte. It is certainly a consolidated slogan for the 50,000 residents of the city, as also stated by the curator Adriano Pedrosa during the press conference when he presented his Biennale: one which is dedicated to outsiders and, indeed, foreigners. Venice offers a perfect setting for this type of investigation due to its illustrious history as a Marine Republic and its ability to attract and welcome – in this it is a little less capable – up to 40,000 tourists every day, many of whom are foreigners. Not a true multiculturalism, a term that would presuppose a mixture and coexistence of different people, languages, traditions and, indeed, cultures, but a continuous incoming and outgoing flow of tourists who bring little value to the social fabric of the city. The 60th Venice Art Biennale titled Foreigners Everywhere, inspired by the work of the Palermo-based collective Claire Fontaine, wants to shed light on the multifaceted crises affecting the movement and existence of people within countries, nations, territories, and borders – a topic that today is more relevant than ever – by offering an international platform to artists who, for various reasons, deviate from the classic canons: immigrants, queer people, self-taught artists, and members of indigenous communities.

The exhibition in the Corderie dell’Arsenale opens with one of the collective’s famous neon signs in English and Italian, rigorously with the “ə”, the extreme frontier of social inclusiveness in countries where language is characterized by binary genders. Below it is Refugee Astronaut VIII (2024) by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare: a life-size astronaut dressed in African clothing and equipped with all the earthly goods that, most likely, he will not need on his space journey. And in fact, the journey designed by Pedrosa is an invitation to strip ourselves of much of our certainties and deconstruct what we have studied in art books, still very focused on the art produced in the West and the North of the world. In the first room, the large installation by the Mataaho Collective, made up of Maori women, anticipates one of the great themes of this Biennial: textile art and fabric, which in itself is a metaphor for the intertwining of lives, peoples, and cultures.

Biennale Arte 2024, ph. Andrea Avezzù

Painting and embroidery are undoubtedly the undisputed protagonists of Pedrosa’s Biennale, coherently with the themes it aims to bring to light such as Western colonialism, identity, and the demand for freedom and self-determination of peoples, and the tools and practices mostly widespread across the cultures it tries to give representation to. The abundant use of technological tools in Cecilia Alemani’s Biennale gives way to rough aesthetics, linked to the natural realm and raw materials. The art selected by Pedrosa is visceral and enveloping, the colors are saturated, and the subjects describe with a striking honesty a distant and unfamiliar reality – at least for the western audience. The sections dedicated to Abstractionism and Portraits in the central pavilion of the Giardini bring together the experiences of a twentieth century which seems to have traveled on parallel tracks with respect to Europe and North America. By favoring sinuous shapes and bright colors, these artists have distanced themselves from the Western modernist tradition made of geometries and primary colors. Other languages and mediums, such as sculpture, installation art, and video art, occupy an apparently more marginal position, but they actually enrich the debate – interrupting at the right moments the tight succession of figurative works which, from time to time, risks being redundant. Among these the Disobedience Archive stands out, an archive started by Marco Scotini which intends to collect testimonies of the intricate relationship between artistic practices and political action, with particular attention to the diaspora and the claims of the LGBTQ+ community in the world.

Also worthy of mention is The Mapping Journey Project (2008-2011), by Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili, developed together with refugees and stateless citizens of Africa who showed the artist the Mediterranean migratory routes they followed on their journey to Europe. The eight videos, composed of fixed shots without cuts, are projected on as many screens in a large dark room which makes protagonists – finally! – the stories and experiences that have been populating our television news for too long now. Pedrosa’s remarkable curation of the video art works also emerges from Falling Reversely (2021-2024) by Berlin and Hong Kong-based artist Isaac Chong Wai, where performance, dance and video come together to recount the acts of violence suffered by Asian communities abroad and by queer communities around the world.

Biennale Arte 2024, ph. Andrea Avezzù

But the section that most of all is worth a visit to the Biennale is the historical nucleus in the Corderie dell’Arsenale dedicated to Italians Everywhere, artists born in Italy who for personal, political, or economic reasons emigrated abroad or were born to Italian families in a foreign land. Among these are Tina Modotti (Udine 1896 – Mexico City 1942), Lidy Prati (Resistencia, 1921 – 2008, Buenos Aires, Argentina), Domenico Gnoli (Rome, 1933 – New York, 1970), Gino Severini (Cortona, 1883 – 1966, Paris), Anna Maria Maiolino (lives and works in Sao Paulo) and many others. This bold selection is enhanced by the legendary glass trestles by Lina Bo Bardi, an architect born in Rome and who moved to Brazil in 1946, where she created her most famous projects, such as the Casa de Vidro and the MASP headquarters in Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo.

In summary, Pedrosa’s Biennale does exactly what the title prophesies: it fills the exhibition spaces and the eyes of visitors with “foreign art”, not in a purely literal sense, but also symbolically. Most of the participants are in fact taking part in the Biennale for the first time – including the two who were awarded the Leone d’Oro for Lifetime Achievement, Anna Maria Maiolino and Nil Yalter – and are spokespersons for underrepresented minorities and victims of inequality for issues related to identity, citizenship, race, gender, sexuality, and wealth. Whether this edition will actually mark a break with the past, it is still too early to say, but it certainly leaves us with the desire to delve deeper into these corners of the artistic realm that are still largely unexplored.

Agnese Torres
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