Ibrahim El-Salahi

Venice Biennale kicks off with brightness and joy amid global tensions
The GuardianCharlotte Higgins
 

A choir of joyful, experimental, virtuosic Black female voices greets visitors to the British pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, the world’s most prominent international art event – delayed a year by the Covid pandemic.

Sonia Boyce, 60, the artist who is representing Britain at the Biennale, invited four Black singers of different generations – jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram, blues-influenced artist Poppy Ajudha and experimental vocalist Sofia Jernberg – to improvise, at first together under the direction of the composer Errollyn Wallen, then alone.

The resulting videos of the singers play out in an immersive, bright environment full of colourful “wallpaper” and golden embellishment. 

Boyce also shows items from her Devotional project, an ever-expanding archive begun in 1999, of vinyl, CDs and memorabilia of an often hidden history of Black female musicianship. It is, she said, “a collective attempt against amnesia”.

As is characteristic for Boyce, who often collaborates with others, she did not direct or instruct the musicians or her film crew after she brought them together. Rather, during the daylong session at Abbey Road Studios, she allowed them to “play”.

“One of my most abiding memories of the day was watching Tanita Tikaram improvising five different songs on the spot,” said the artist. 

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“For me that is the answer to why the Devotional project might be important. There is all this incredible, skilful knowledge in these performers who, by being reduced to being ‘female’ or ‘Black’ – if we only focus on that – we can miss what they can do. Even when we are actually surrounded by it.”

The statement may be a warning to remember that Boyce, whose long career began when she was associated with the Blk Art Group in the early 1980s, is not to be reduced to being the first Black woman to occupy the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale – or to being the first Black British woman elected a Royal Academician, or to being the first Black British woman to have a painting collected by Tate, in 1987.

Nevertheless, representing your country at a cultural event that is unusually embroiled in geopolitics is a heavily freighted experience for any artist. 

Just down the wide avenue from the British pavilion in Venice’s Giardini, one of the two main venues for the Biennale, is the Russian pavilion. 

The Lithuanian curator of Russia’s project, as well as its artists, resigned shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the art nouveau Russian pavilion is lying empty, conspicuously patrolled on Tuesday morning by an armed guard. Like embassies, each national pavilion is officially the property of its own country.

By contrast, the Ukrainian pavilion, featuring artist Pavlo Makov – who managed to make it out of Kharkiv and to Venice along with his team – will be very much present, with all eyes too on a last-minute exhibition in the Giardini, titled Piazza Ucraina and staged in solidarity with the country.

On what she referred to as “the burden of representation” in her occupation of the British pavilion this year, Boyce said: “I cannot represent all the Black artists in Britain, and all the female artists, and I wouldn’t want even to suggest I was doing that.” 

Aside from 80 national pavilions, each Biennale, which runs from Saturday until 27 November, features a large central exhibition organised by an invited curator, this year Cecilia Alemani, chief curator of New York’s High Line. 

Occupying the large International pavilion in the Giardini, and the huge acreage of the city’s former naval Arsenale, Alemani’s show is titled The Milk of Dreams, after a children’s story by the British surrealist artist and author Leonora Carrington.

Of the 213 artists from 58 countries in Alemani’s exhibition, most of them, for the first time in the Biennale’s history, are women. Alemani said she was aiming to de-centre the post-Renaissance idea of the male human as the dominant artistic viewpoint. Indeed, in the International pavilion work only by women, as well as by a scattering of non-binary and trans artists, is on show.

Full of metamorphosing bodies, animals and technological fantasies, the exhibition begins with German artist Katharina Fritsch’s hyperreal sculpture of an elephant atop a pedestal and – a last-minute inclusion – a gouache of a fantastical creature by the 20th-century Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, a museum of whose work was bombarded in February.

With a wide range of new and contemporary work, including an entire room of paintings by Paula Rego, a Covid “diary” in drawings on the back of medicine packets by Sudanese-born Ibrahim El-Salahi, and a beautiful, disturbing film work by British-born artist P Staff, Alemani’s exhibition also contains “time capsules” of work by historical artists, with an emphasis on female surrealists such as Ithell Colquhoun and Dorothea Tanning.

The Venice Biennale was founded in 1895 as a single international art exhibition in the Giardini. In the years that followed, national pavilions were erected in the gardens to showcase art from different countries. 

Always highly politicised, the Biennale was the scene of a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in 1934. The Russian pavilion was built in 1914 by Alexey Shchusev, a great survivor who later designed Lenin’s mausoleum.