BY frieze in Opinion | 29 APR 22

Editors’ Picks: The 5 Best Showings at the 59th Venice Biennale

From the Cecilia Vicuña’s paintings celebrating Indigenous forms at the Giardini to Marlene Dumas’s groundbreaking exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, these are the highlights from the 59th Venice Biennale

BY frieze in Opinion | 29 APR 22

Ali Cherri


23 April – 27 November 2022

Ali Cherri, Titans, 2022, installation view, Arsenale. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; photograph Roberto Marossi

Combining the animal and the human, the three figurative mud sculptures of Titans (2022), by Ali Cherri – who won the Biennale’s Silver Lion for Promising Young Participant – constitute a particularly strong evocation of the biennial’s theme of the earthy surreal. They appear adjacent to Cherri’s three-channel film Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022), which lyrically considers our lives in relation to water, mud and stars. At one point, a voiceover in the film announces: ‘If the gods made us in their own image, then the gods, too, must have been made of mud.’ The image of interspecies life fashioned by Titans suggests that our own bodies are more entangled with the natural world than they might seem. Wall text relates the work to Donna Haraway’s notion of slime from When Species Meet (2007), which she defines as a substance that ‘lubricate[s] passages for living beings and their parts’.

Andrew Durbin, Editor-in-Chief

Cecilia Vicuña


23 April – 27 November 2022

All works Cecilia Vicuña; foreground: NAUfraga, 2022; background, left to right: Martillo y Repollo, 1973; Paro Nacional, 1977–78; Llaverito (Blue), 2019; Bendígame Mamita, 1977; La Comegente (The People Eater), 2019; and Leoparda de Ojitos, 1977. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Ela Bialkowska

One of my favourite configurations in the Giardini is the room containing Cecilia Vicuña’s paintings, which celebrate Indigenous forms of knowledge and heritage, as well as her newly commissioned installation featuring detritus from the Venetian lagoon, NAUFraga (2022), part of an ongoing series of precarios sculptures, which she started in 1966. It seems fitting that Vicuña is one of the recipients of this year’s Golden Lion award: her work is playful yet deeply serious about our responsibilities to the planet – and to each other. 

— Vanessa Peterson, Associate Editor

Sonia Boyce

The British Pavilion

23 April – 27 November 2022

Sonia Boyce, ‘Feeling Her Way’, 2022, exhibition view, British Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: © Sonia Boyce/DACS, London and the British Council; photograph: Cristiano Corte

Sonia Boyce, the first Black woman to represent Great Britain in Venice and the winner of this year's Golden Lion, also used her platform to divert attention onto others. The exhibition’s central video, Feeling Her Way (2022), unites five Black female musicians to improvise a discordant, ethereal chorus that greets visitors as they enter the pavilion. ‘My desire in bringing you together is to explore […] what conditions you need to feel free to express yourself,’ Boyce says in the exhibition literature, ‘when not constricted by what others feel you should be or could be’. The artist, who has expressed her reservations about ‘carrying the flag’ for Great Britain in a number of recent interviews, could well be talking about her own participation. And, while this central idea struggles to keep its momentum across the pavilion’s six rooms – the tessellated wallpaper and gold geometric sculptures intended to link the different spaces dedicated to each musician feel like an afterthought – Boyce’s celebratory act of defiance means her installation is likely to be remembered as a success.  

— Chloe Stead, Assistant Editor

Simone Leigh

The American Pavilion

23 April – 27 November 2022

Simone Leigh, Façade, 2022, thatch, steel and wood, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles/New York; photograph: Timothy Schenck

Although there is little live performance at this year’s Biennale, Simone Leigh’s new body of work at the US Pavilion, ‘Sovereignty’, relies on performance as well as fiction-making – or what African-American scholar Saidiya Hartman defined in Venus in Two Acts (2008) as ‘critical fabulation’ – as a form of resistance and truth-seeking. The exhibition starts with Façade (2022), a complete transformation of William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich’s 1930 neoclassical pavilion, with the addition of a thatch roof and wood columns – hallmarks of West African vernacular architecture. In part inspired by the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, which saw the controversial recreation of the Khmer temple Angkor Wat, the work disrupts our understanding of modernist architecture, creating a more hybrid and fluid history of the site’s building. As you enter the pavilion, you are greeted by a selection of large-scale glazed stoneware works and bronze sculptures, including Jug (2022), a massive white vessel fashioned with large, sculpted cowrie shells; and Sentinel (2022), an elongated power-object sitting at the centre of the pavilion with its parabola-shaped head reaching the ceiling.

— Terence Trouillot, Senior Editor

Marlene Dumas

Palazzo Grassi

27 March – 08 January 2023

Marlene Dumas, Fingers, 1999. Courtesy: © Marlene Dumas; photograph: Peter Cox

Marlene Dumas at Palazzo Grassi is a spectacular meeting of decadence (the palazzo) and depravity (the paintings). Her arch sarcasm is at play amidst the severity of her subject matter. It feels particularly pertinent to see her portrait series ‘Great Men’ (2014): a roll call of gay heroes, including Francis Bacon and James Baldwin, made in response to Russia’s anti-homosexual legislation. Dumas combines allyship with a manner that inflects all her work: unfussy empathy infused with unforced reverence. Her paintings have a similar quality to Bacon’s: they pull back the oppressive veil of polite society to reveal the base sexual carnality that resides just beneath the surface. As curator Caroline Bourgeois told me: ‘Dumas is not afraid to go where the fear is,’ which is a tremendous dictum for young artists to aspire to.

Sean Burns, Assistant Editor

For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Merikokeb Berhanum, all works Untitled, 2021–22, acrylic on canvas, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and La Biennale di Venezia; Marco Cappelletti

Contemporary Art and Culture