Frames Blog Federico Serrani

Disheveled Notes on the Sixtieth Venice Biennale (and a Photographic Appendix)

26 April 2024

by Jasmina Trifoni



Over ten years ago, at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, I saw an exhibition that had a profound impact on me. The title was ‘Human Zoos – The Invention of the Savage’, and through photographs, video materials, and objects, it recounted the time from the late nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century when people in Europe and America flocked to see so-called colonial fairs, cabarets, and freak shows that displayed, live, exotic sideshow phenomena. There was the famous Hottentot Venus, a woman brought in a cage from her homeland, now South Africa, who became famous for her exaggerated posterior, and there were other ‘sub-human’ attractions, from Zulus to Pygmies, from Eskimos to Aboriginals. The exhibition – intentionally provoking a sense of discomfort and shame – strongly and clearly narrated how these forms of entertainment played a crucial role in cementing the white man’s racism towards those who were not white.

During the press preview days of the 60th Venice Biennale of Art, I was powerfully reminded of that Parisian exhibition. With noble intuition and intention, its curator, Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa, aimed the spotlight on artists living and expressing their creativity in the peripheries of the Earth, and its darkest nooks. The title of this Biennale, ‘Foreigners Everywhere’, confronts us with the fact that we all are, or have been, foreigners at some point. For someone, for something, even sometimes for ourselves. The themes are urgent, very serious but also fashionable – identity, colonial heritage, minorities, the protection of the planet’s resources. But the curator’s choices, displayed at the Giardini and the Arsenale Corderie, seem redundant and, between embroideries, batik, patchwork, naïve figurines, and paintings on the edge of the primitive, they fail to strike at the heart (although there are some exceptions which I will mention shortly) and miss the conceptual target. Everything seems overly benevolent, too polite. Even the measured protest on April 17 in front of the Israeli pavilion at the Giardini, when the protesters discovered that it had self-censored and was closed (‘until there is a ceasefire and the hostages are freed’, reads a sign at the entrance), seemed like a gathering of schoolgirls, all moreover equipped with the coveted VIP pass.

Nil Yalter

During the preview days, everyone, as they meet through alleys and squares, exchanges impressions on what they liked and what they did not, while friends who will visit in the coming days and months send WhatsApp messages thinly veiled with urgency asking what is worth seeing. Well, at the beginning of the central exhibition at Giardini I loved the installation ‘Exile is a Hard Job’ (from a line of a poem by Nazim Hikmet) by the over eighty-year-old Turkish artist Nil Yalter, honored this year with the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. In the center of the circular room is a yurt, the private space of nomadic women, while all around, a series of screens loops a series of interviews the artist conducted in the 1970s with immigrant women in France, Germany, and the United States. She herself an exile, Yalter had first exhibited this work forty years ago in Paris, at a major contemporary art gallery. And then, the critics and the public did not understand it, dismissing it as an exhibition suited for the Musée de l’Homme, which, dedicated to anthropology, is – incidentally – today merged into the larger Quai Branly. The one about the Human Zoos mentioned earlier. I then found the Polish Pavilion touching, with the installation ‘Repeat After Me’ by the Open Group collective, with a video where Ukrainian refugees narrate the sound of grenades, air raid sirens, and machine guns, inviting visitors to repeat them, in a sinister karaoke. And, unexpectedly, the pavilion of the United Arab Emirates at the Arsenale is not to be missed, with the intimate account of the travels of the artist Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim. I won’t spoil it, but know that you should take the time to experience an absolute lyrical journey.


Among the things I did not like, my personal Golden Lion (for cynicism) goes to the Russian pavilion which, already closed in 2022 due to the invasion of Ukraine, was ‘generously’ handed over to Bolivia: it is rumored to be a prize for the agreement that the Kremlin signed with the Andean country for the exploitation of its lithium mines. The curator is Esperanza Guevara (nomen omen), who holds the role of Minister of Culture, Decolonization, and Depatriarchalization of Bolivia and presents the work of 25 indigenous artists. On the day of the inauguration, there were Quechua women in traditional attire spinning wool.

kiluanji kia Kenda.


Coming to photography, very little represented both at the Giardini and the Arsenale. In the latter stands out the work ‘The Geometric Ballad of Fear’ by the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Kenda, a series of nine stylistically impeccable photographs that document the white-painted metal railings that are a constant in all the cities of the South of the world, characterized by vertiginous disparities and social tensions.

Hujar, Susan Sontag

However, truly unmissable is the exhibition, part of the Biennale’s collateral events (and at the Institute of Santa Maria della Pietà, a stone’s throw from San Zaccaria on the Riva degli Schiavoni), which brings together the 41 photographs that the American Peter Hujar (1934-1987) gathered in ‘Portraits in Life and Death’, the only book he published in his lifetime, in the mid-1970s With an aesthetic and poetic approach that lies between Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, Hujar took photographs of the skeletons preserved in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo and of those he called the brainy bohemians, the prominent figures of the New York cultural avant-garde of his time. Poised but not too much, the portraits of playwright Robert Wilson, writer William S. Burroughs, actress Fran Liebovitz, drag queen Divine, and critic Susan Sontag, among others, are extraordinary. Sontag, who wrote the introduction to the book, defined Hujar as a master at revealing, in each of his subjects, the inner conflict between eros and thanatos, and went further, noting that ‘photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also, consciously or unconsciously, angels of death’.


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