BY Chloe Stead in Critic's Guides | 18 APR 24

Arsenale Review: ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ Treads Familiar Ground

A textile- and painting-heavy edition of the Venice Biennale follows a tried and tested method of curation

BY Chloe Stead in Critic's Guides | 18 APR 24

How else could artistic director Adriano Pedrosa have kicked off his edition of the Venice Biennale than with the work that inspired its title? Presented in the first room of the Arsenale alongside Yinka Shonibare’s Refugee Astronaut VIII (2024) – a life-sized figure wearing Dutch wax-printed textiles and carrying a net filled with suitcases – Claire Fontaine’s suspended neon Foreigners Everywhere (Self-Portrait) (2004–ongoing) might be a predictable opener, but it does make the Brazilian curator’s intentions clear from the outset. His is an exhibition which – unlike the right-wing government of the country it is staged in – celebrates migration, recognizing it not just within the clichéd framework of individuals from the Global South searching for a ‘better life’ in the more prosperous West, but as a vital way in which ideas, cultures and traditions have crisscrossed the globe for centuries.

Claire Fontaine, Foreigners Everywhere (Stranieri Ovunque), 2004-24 and Yinka Shonibare, Refugee Astronaut VIII, 2024, exhibition view, ‘Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere’. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

It's not the first time Pedrosa has made such a statement: when invited to curate the 2009 edition of Panorama da Arte Brasileira, the Latin American curator chose to include only non-Brazilians, arguing that foreigners could also make work on Brazilian themes. Recognizing the difference in scope between Panorama da Arte Brasileira and the Venice Biennale, Pedrosa has wisely opted to widen the focus to include queer, Indigenous and outsider artists whose works seamlessly intermingle throughout the cavernous spaces of the Arsenale and the more modest rooms of the Giardini’s central pavilion. Worries about the number of artists and collectives – 331 in total – are largely unfounded, with no real sense of overcrowding.

Pre-opening, there was also concern that, as the first Venice Biennale to showcase more works by dead artists than living ones, contemporary art was being sidelined. Yet, these historical pieces are largely contained within three rooms under the subheading ‘Historical Nucleus’. At the Arsenale, this section is entirely dedicated to Italian emigrants, whose works are shown on glass easels originally made for the São Paulo Museum of Art by architect Lina Bo Bardi. There is a neatness to this choice, which places artists such as Waldemar Cordeiro – who migrated to Brazil in 1946 and became a key proponent of the concrete art movement in São Paulo – within a system created by Bo Bardi, herself an Italian immigrant to Brazil. No matter how stunning the install, however, it feels like a less successful repeat of the gesture that curator Cecilia Alemani already made. At the Venice Biennale in 2022, she presented historical works by overlooked artists in ‘capsules’ that linked artworks from the past with those of the present.

Waldemar Cordeiro, Untitled, 1963, oil on canvas, 75 × 74.5 cm, exhibition view, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

Passing through the rooms on opening day induces a creeping sense of curatorial familiarity: outsider and Indigenous artists are front and centre, with just enough young, emerging artists included to show that the organizers are paying attention to current trends in contemporary art. By now a tried and tested approach to mounting large-scale exhibitions – from the 2023 Sharjah Biennial to Documenta 14 – it can be a hugely successful tactic. Here, I loved the pairing of Mexican-German artist Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s huge, multi-panel painting featuring embroidered sections depicting women fucking (Rage Is a Machine in Times of Senselessness, 2024) with an untitled large-scale embroidered canvas (shown opposite) made by Las Bordadoras de Isla Negra, a group of self-taught women working from 1967 to 1980, whose imagery tells the story of their daily lives in a Chilean village. This is the first time both collective and artist have been presented at the Venice Biennale.

Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, Rage Is a Machine in Times of Senselessness, 2024, oil and embroidery on canvas 15 × 4.8 m, installation view, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

Textiles have featured prominently in at least the last three biennials, but fabric – whether dyed, sewn or woven – is the dominant medium here. Many of these works are stunning in their complexity. Mataaho Collective’s Takapau (2022), for instance, is a room-sized installation of polyester hi-vis tie-downs that intersect to create an angular roof whose shadows cascade down the walls. Susanne Wenger’s batik canvases utilize a technique rarely seen in contemporary art to create detailed scenes inspired – so the wall text informs us – by Yoruba cosmology and Jungian primordial archetypes. An Austrian who moved to Nigeria in the 1950s and became a Yoruba priestess, Wenger typifies Pedrosa’s concept of the foreigner par excellence.

Mataaho Collective, Takapau, 2022, polyester hi-vis tie-downs, stainless steel buckles and j-hooks, dimensions variable, installation view, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024.Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

Another fabric-based highlight is Palestinian-Saudi artist Dana Awartani’s Come, Let Me Heal Your Wounds. Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones (2024). Created with medicinally dyed silk, which the artist has torn up in places and sewn back together, the work represents, according to the wall panel, ‘the destruction of historical and cultural sites in the Arab world during wars and acts of terror […] this edition adds testimony to the devastation in Gaza and sites that have been flattened indiscriminately through bombings and bulldozers’. With the artists in the national pavilions mostly keeping mum about the Israel-Gaza war, Awartani’s work – along with the hand-scrawled message on Jaeger’s canvas, ‘Viva! Viva! Palestina!’ – is one of the few direct references to the conflict in Venice beyond pro-Palestine demonstrators in the Giardini protesting outside the shuttered Israeli pavilion during the press preview.

Dana Awartani, Come, let me heal your wounds. Let me mend your broken bones, 2024, darning on medicinally dyed silk, 5.2 × 12.5 × 2.9 m, installation view, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

This focus on textiles and paintings throws into sharp relief the smaller selection of videos on display. A whole room is given to the multi-screen installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) by Bouchra Khalili, in which migrants mark the journey from their homeland to their current place of residence on a world map. I also enjoyed Karimah Ashadu’s slick and sexy Machine Boys (2024), which follows a group of okada riders illegally transporting people via motorbike in Lagos. After what feels like a decade of curators boasting about the length of their film programmes, I was pleasantly surprised that everything I saw had a runtime of under 15 minutes. I hope this signifies a positive new trend for biennials in which it actually becomes possible to see all the work on show within one or two days.

Bouchra Khalili, The Mapping Journey Project, 2008-11, video installation, 8 single-channel videos, colour, sound, dimensions variable, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

In a recent New York Times profile of Pedrosa, art historian Claire Bishop notes that ‘griping about biennials is one of the art world’s favourite hobbies: not enough young artists, too many young artists; not enough local artists, too many local artists. You can’t please everyone all the time.’ While I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, especially when it comes to regional focus – it is hardly surprising, for instance, that the Venice Biennale’s first Latin American curator should highlight artists from Latin America – I do still feel that the exhibition has one glaring omission: the internet, which has been a vital way for migrant, Indigenous and queer voices to find community and be heard. Here, however, the only piece that speaks to emergent media technologies is WangShui’s pulsating multichannel simulation Lipid Muse (2024). While the desire to address the widespread historic neglect of textile practices is both comprehensible and justifiable, should we ignore the present day in order to do so? And what of the future?

Claire Fontaine, Foreigners Everywhere / Stranieri Ovunque, 2004-24, sixty suspended, wall or window mounted neons, framework, transformers, cables and fittings, dimensions and colours variable, installation view, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

In circular fashion, Pedrosa’s exhibition closes with more of Claire Fontaine’s suspended neons. The installation Foreigners Everywhere (60th International Art Exhibition) (2024)  includes 60 iterations of the titular phrase, each in one of the languages spoken in the countries where members of the collective were born. Given that, as Pedrosa pointed out in an interview with this magazine, the Venice Biennale took more than a century to appoint its first non-Euro-American curator, Okwui Enwezor, the presence of these multiple voices is significant. Yet, how great can their impact truly be if they are all saying the same thing? With ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ unquestionably the most diverse biennial to date, I remain hopeful that, two years from now, we’ll get an exhibition that includes all these nationalities under a theme that doesn’t reduce them to the languages they speak and the places they were born or moved to.

Main image: Dana Awartani, Come, let me heal your wounds. Let me mend your broken bones (detail), 2024, darning on medicinally dyed silk, 5.2 × 12.5 × 2.9 m, installation view, 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere', 2024. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Marco Zorzanello

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.