VENICE, ITALY---"Too political" was the criticism I heard from one critic of this year's 56th edition of the Venice International Art Exhibition, known as the Venice La Biennale. Founded over a century ago by a resolution of the Venice City Council to create a "biennial national artistic exhibition to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy. The first Venice Biennale was held April 30,1895. From the outset, "biennale," as it came to be know, was a showcase for both Italian and international artists, with a special invitation to previously uninvited painters and sculptors to display their works. The first pavilion was hastily constructed in the public gardens in Castello and the first International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice was an instant success with 200,000 visitors, sparked partially by a promotion in which anyone who bought a round trip train ticket to the exhibition would also get free admission.
La Biennale was a barometer of social and artistic trends and, especially with the advent of the twentieth century, affected by the politics of the time. Privileged relationships with the Seecession drew a preponderance of German art in the early biennales. French Impressionism, already an established trend in the art world, made its appearance in the early 1900s. By 1907, work had begun on the foreign pavilions which have been an ever-expanding component of La Biennale. The advent of World War I caused the interruption of the exhibition from 1914 to 1920.
La Biennale has not been without its controversies caused by political temperaments. There developed a particular relationship with Picasso. In 1905, the then General Secretary of the exhibition had one the artist's pieces removed from the Spanish Pavilion because he feared that the artist's controversial style might cause a public scandal. Things were smoothed over with the artist in 1948 when the exhibition mounted a major retrospective of his life's work.
This year's 56th La Biennale features pavilions from 53 countries with 136 artists from across the globe displayed in the Giardini and Arsenale. In total, there are 89 national participations which include exhibitions held off-site from the Giardini and Arsenale at both public and private venues throughout the city including cathedrals, concert halls, libraries, restaurants, schools, both within the city of Venice and its surrounding environs. The exhibition is massive and all-encompassing.
(Below) Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen relaxes outside the Central Pavilion where his film narrative installation "Ashes" won the Turner Award
An unprecedented and historic display of art and artistic commentary from Black artists and artists of color and from marginalized cultures from around the globe was in prominence at this year's Biennale. The show's Nigerian-born Curator Okwui Enwezor explains the motivation behind the project, which is entitled All The World's Futures. " The ruptures that surround and abound around every corner of the global landscape today recalls the evanescent debris of previous catastrophes piled at the seat of the angel of history. How can the current disquiet of our time be properly grasped, made comprehensible, examined and articulated?
"Over the course of the last two centuries the radical changes have made new and fascinating ideas subject matter for artists, writers, filmmakers, performers, composers and musicians. It is with this recognition that the 56th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, "All The World's Futures, project is devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things."
Carrying out the concept of "Liveness: On Epic Duration," the Art Biennale commissioned several new scores and artist's performances to presented continuously in the ARENA, located in the central area of the Giardini. Black British installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien attracted a great deal of attention in the ARENA within the Central Pavilion, which were all designed by award-winning Ghanaian/British architect David Adjaye by curating and directing DAS KAPITAL ORATORIO, a dramatic reading of the writings of Karl Marx with associated musical, vocal and spoken word performances. Additional vocal performances were created by the likes of Harlem jazz luminary Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran's "Work Songs" which mapped and investigated the tempos of work songs from the cotton fields, to prison chain gangs to the houses, docks and factories. Harlem chanteuse Rashida Bumbray gave an impassioned vocal reading of the work at rotating performances in the ARENA.
Presentations in the pavilions by black artists were prominent and noteworthy. In addition to the dramatic and all-encompassing "RAPTURE" installation at the Nordic Pavilion by Silver Springs, Maryland native Camille Norment, who now lives and works in Oslo, Norway, Academy Award winning Director Steve McQueen (Twelve Years A Slave) had a cinematic installation "Ashes," which told the story of a a young Granedan fisherman named Ashes who was murdered two months after McQueen and his cameraman filmed him at his craft of deep-sea fishing. McQueen discussed the film during the preview week leading to the opening of the 56th La Biennale. "I subsequently learned that Ashes had been murdered and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave, because he was not a member of a church. I decided to go back to Graneda and investigate the circumstances of his death and, in fact, resurrect his body, and bury him in a proper grave with a marker. The film shows the original footage I shot of him on the high seas and the subsequent exhumation of his body and a ceremonial burial. It's quite moving and dramatic."
Egyptian artist Gamal El Kheshen hosted an interactive display at the Egyptian Pavilion which was based on the theme "PEACE: Can You See?". The installation featured full sized sculptures of the Egyptian letter representations to the word "Peace" and at each letter station was an iPad that allowed visitors to respond to the concepts represented by the 3-dimensional forms that are covered with grass. "Each of us has our own interpretation of what the concept of Peace means. It can be both positive and negative. This interactive exhibit gives people, especially children, an opportunity to take a virtual journey through the concept of the two eternal choices for human life: light/virtue and dark/vice," Gamal said while demonstrating on the iPad.
"This gathering of practices from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Northland South America searches for new connections in the artist's commitment to examining the human condition, or exploring specific ideas and areas of production within the artist's oeuvre," said Curator Okwui Enwezor.
Installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien leads a private viewing of the Australian and South African Pavilion for a group of Black art dealers and collectors attending La Biennale
Below: Detail of Melvin Boyd's sculptures including Southern Portion 1991 and Igun Hammer 1981
Below: Detail of Daniel Boy'ds Untitled 2015
Below: Sierra Leone artist Abu Barr Mansaray
Inside the South African Pavilion
Working women on a bus in Johannesburg, South Africa