Sunday, May 31, 2015

56th Venice International Art Exhibition, La Biennale, addresses contemporary global realities of politics and unrest

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

VENICE, Italy--When Curator Okwui Enwezor was selected to oversee the 56th International Art Exhibition, he had a very clear vision. "All The World's Futures is informed by a layer of three intersecting filters. The three filters represent a constellation of parameters, which will be touched upon in order to image and realize a diversity of practices.

The goal of the three filters is to describe both the current state of things and the appearance of things. With each filter superimposed on the other, the 56th International Art Exhibition will delve into the contemporary global reality as one of constant realignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility, and shape-shifting. It will play host to what could be described as a Parliament of Forms whose orchestration and episodic unfolding will be broadly global in scope."

As such, the installations at the various national pavilions were overwhelming political in nature, with stunning social commentary and disturbing images. Almost to the letter, they reflected the shifting social tides and internal conflicts in their home nations and were uncompromising in their depictions of institutionalized brutality. The art is vivid and often violent.

Of the 89 participating countries, five are participating for the first time; Grenada, Mauritius, Mongolia, Republic of Mozambique and Republic of Seychelles. Ecuador, the Philippines and Guatamala are returning after years of absence (1966, 1964 and 1954, respectively). There are also 44 collateral events scattered in public and private sites throughout the city. Like the exhibits in the main pavilions, these are also fraught with controversy, such as a long-shuttered church which has been transformed into a Mosque.
 56th La Bienalle Curator Okwui Enwezor

And that's just the first room in the Arsenale, there are acres of art, most of it steeped in controversy, yet to come.

Unlike early La Biennale's, when French Impressionists ruled the day, there are no pastel colors, guazzy whimsical daubs of paint or pastoral images to sooth the eye. The images are hard-edged and the forms hard-edged and made from structural steel and discarded objects, including spent artillery shells!

There are knives planted in desks, images of whales harpooned to death on Japan's open sea and Christian Boltanski's film of a man coughing up blood.  This is not a biennale for the faint of heart or for those looking for pretty aesthetics and pastoral themes.

 Installation filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien
 Adel Abdessemed's "Nympheas" depicts a series of sugar cane machetes stuck in the floor in a pattern resembling a flower  burst. The name references  Claude Monet's Water Lily series, but machetes are anything but flowers. In the same room are Bruce Nauman's neon signs flashing the words "DEATH," "WAR," and "STICK IT IN YOUR EAR."  The installation is entitled "American Violence."
 Goncalo Mabunin from the Republic of Mozambique's installation is a series of ornamental thrones. They all look quite regal and ceremonial at first glance, until a closer look reveals that they are made from spent armaments and munitions; spent heavy artillery shells, firing pins, and pieces of decommissioned assault rifles.

 (Below) The next room proves the point. Walking through New York sculptor Melvin Edward's series of fist-sized steel sculptures is like walking the gauntlet. They are welded together pieces of manacles, axes and chains, all grim reminders of slavery.

A film installation in the Brazil Pavilion depicted a lone runner cruising through the poorest sections of Rio, which was made to resemble the inside of a prison. A photo exhibit showed closeup images of the faces and mangled bodies of young boys, who lived in the street, who had been brutally beaten, tortured and shot to death by police. Another series of outsized portraits, featured breast-feeding women wearing ISIS-type masks.

 Another photo exhibit by Keith Calhoun in the Central Pavilion showed black and white photos of prisoners working in the fields of Angola Prison. They are watched over by men with rifles on horseback. What is most disturbing about the images is that, without looking at the descriptive placard on the far wall, one would assume that the images were taken sometime in the early twentieth century, when lynchings were commonplace, or in someplace like apartheid South Africa, where subjugation of the indigenous  blacks was the norm. Instead, shockingly, the photos were taken in America, in Louisiana, specifically, in 1980.

 Steve McQueen's Turner Award winning narrative film, also shown in the Central Pavilion, entitled "Ashes," told the story of a young, charismatic fisherman, nicknamed Ash, who was killed shortly after the director's initial filming expedition in Grenada by a gang of drug smugglers. Because he was not a member of a Christian church,  according to Grenadan custom, the boy was buried in an unmarked paupers grave. McQueen, winner of the 2014 Academy Award for his film "Twelve Years A Slave," vowed to return to Grenada, investigate the cause of the boy's death and give him a proper burial. The film marries early footage of the young fisherman's carefree days and the subsequent ceremonial exhumation and entombment of his body. McQueen's production company paid the full expense of Ash's re-burial.

 Sierra Leone artists Abu Barr Mansaray's work depicts fighter planes, anti-aircraft weapons and other implements of war all assembled in cartoon-like garish images in a canvas series entitled "Sinister Project," an obvious reference to the internal conflict in his homeland.

 Center stage in the ARENA is a daily, live theatrical reading of Karl Marx's DAS KAPITAL (below) featuring live actors directed by Isaac Julien (above), a Black British installation filmmaker and artist.  Julien also has several films showing at the Giardini Central Pavilion; Territories (1984), Frantz Fanon: Black skin, white mask (1996), and 73' Stuart Hall Memorial (2014).

The Central Pavilion is emblazoned with the neon title "Blues, Blood, Bruises." Black drapery made of industrial rubber is illuminated at night for dramatic effect. The Central Pavilion was designed by Ghanaian-born architect David Adjaye, whose office is based in London.

Organized by Okwui Enwezor, Nigerian born and long-based in Europe, he is a veteran of the international art circuit  and is known for his topical and controversial exhibits. In addition to addressing the issues of institutionalized violence and labor inequality, Enwezor also gives free reign to the possibilities of political transformation and all of its inherent complexities.  He makes no apologies for the overtly political nature of the exhibition, which is brilliant in its execution. One walks away with the feeling of being hit by a sucker punch that knocks your wind out and leaves you
spent, but feeling that you'd like to see it all again, just to make sure you didn't miss anything. The 56th International Art Exhibition-La Biennale di Venezia, runs through November 22, 2015. For information, visit

Thursday, May 28, 2015

56th Annual Venice International Art Exhibition-La Biennale-"All The World's Futures" Becomes A Showplace for Black Artists on a Global Level

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

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.

The "class photo" from Venice La Biennale 2015. (l to r) Valerie Jo Bradley, Asake Bomani, Martella Taylor-Wilson, B. Ruby Rich

(Below) Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen relaxes outside the Central Pavilion where his film narrative installation "Ashes" won the Turner Award

The best ways to get around are by foot and by water taxi, with regular public water shuttles to the Isola (island) della Giudecca, Isola St. Servolo, home of the Cuban Pavilion, Isola of St. Lazaro deli Ameri and the Lido. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, located on the Grand Canal between the Academia Bridge and the Church of Santa Maria della Salute in the direction of Lido is also a prime destination for visitors to La Biennale.

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?
56th La Biennale Curator Okwui Enwezor addresses the international media on Opening Day

"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.
 Rashida Bumbray, Harlem vocal artist in Jason and Alicia Hall Moran's "Work Songs"
Julien's presence at La Biennale further heightened the presence of Black artists. Born in London's East End, his parents migrated from St. Lucia. He graduated from Saint Martin's School of Art, where he studied painting and fine art film. He came to prominence in 1989 with the drama-documentary "Looking for Langston Hughes" which attracted a cult following to this poetic exploration of the poetic vision of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. In 1991 he further expanded his fame by winning the Semained de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film "Young Soul Rebels." Thematically, much of his work relates to the experiences of Blacks and gay identity. including issues of class, sexuality in the context of artistic and cultural history. Also renowned as a documentary filmmaker, his work in the genre includes "BaadAssss Cinema,"  an exploration of the history and influence of blaxploitation films.

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.
 Egyptian artist Gamal El Kheshen with his interactive conceptual art project PEACE: Can You See? which encourages visitors to record their reactions and options on the iPad (Below)

This year's Biennale features an unprecedented ranged of projects exhibited for the first time by artists both living and deceased that encompass cultures and perspectives from across the globe, particularly cultural  and artistic themes that have been marginalized by the mainstream.  A series of text-base neon sculptures by Bruce Nauman reflect the pulsating energies of social dissatisfaction from 1972 to the early 1980s. An atlas of Harun Farocki's filmography totals 87 of his films. Artist and activist Inji Efflatoun is featured as is earthworks artist Robert Smithson. Film Director Ousmane Sembene is represented as is painter Emily Kngwarreye and coneptual artist Adrian Piper.

"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

Isaac Julien views the welded steel sculptures of New York African American artist Melvin Boyd. The pieces are all crafted from objects associated with slavery, such as pieces of shackles and chains
Below: Detail of Melvin Boyd's sculptures including Southern Portion 1991 and Igun Hammer 1981

Isaac Julien describing the untitled oil and charcoal paintings of Aboriginal artist Daniel Boyd of Sydney, Australia, Untitled 2015
Below: Detail of Daniel Boy'ds Untitled 2015

 Above and Below: Bruce Nauman's pulsating neon sculptures

Below: Sierra Leone artist Abu Barr Mansaray

A refugee, Abu Bakarr Mansaray's work reflects the conflicts in his native Sierra Leone

"Ashes" (Above and Below ), the film installation of Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen of Great Britain (Twelve Years A Slave)
 Preparing the gravesite in the Steve McQueen narrative "Ashes"

Venice La Biennale Curator Okwui Enwezor
 Installation inside the Russian Pavilion
 Above and Below: arresting images inside the Brazilian Pavilion

Muffled Drum from African American United States artist Terry Adkins (1952-2014)
Goncalo Mabunda of Mozambique's installation The Throne That Never Stops in Time 2014. made entirely of spent artillery shells, land mines and other munitions, a commentary on Imperialism and Colonialism

Inside the South African Pavilion

Working women on a bus in Johannesburg, South Africa

Dwight Cashmere with Isaac Julien outside the Arsenale

Rashida Bumbray of Harlem delivers an impassioned reading of Jason Moran's "Work Songs" in the ARENA
Camille Norment with her sound and sculpture installation RAPTURE with performances on the glass armonica (shown left) in the Nordic Pavilion
David Adjaye greets American visitors outside the Central Pavilion, which he designed
Keith Calhoun's photographs of Angola Prison in the installation series:Salvery, The Prison Industrial Complex. (Above) Man Going to Work in the Fields of Angola Prison 1981 and (Below) Mules and Men, Angola Prison 1981, The Chess Game and Lockdown                                  

More images inside the South African Pavilion


 Isaac Julien greeting New York sculptor Kerry James Marshall whose work is displayed in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini at Venice La Biennale

 Fellow artists from the African diaspora visited the international pavilions

 A tapestry of Ghanaian coffee burlap sacks drapes the entrance to the Arsenale

 Early morning in Saint Mark's Square

 The famous Bridge of Sighs
 The Christian Orthodox Church at St. Mark's Square
 St. Mark's Square just after dawn
A vaporetto water-taxi heads to the Grand Canal