Introduction to the Issue

by Deanna Sirlin

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Sonia Boyce, Room 1 in the British Pavilion featuring four performers - Errollyn Wallen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha, Jackie Dankworth, British Pavilion 2022, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy.

Photo: Cristiano Corte © British Council

Artist Activist

                       

 by Floriana Piqué

Sonia Boyce,  in the British Pavilion featuring four performers - Errollyn Wallen, Tanita

Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way, with items from Boyce’s archive of memorabilia relating to black women in the British music industry. Photo: Cristiano Corte © British Council

Art and Politics--it all started in the ‘30s and reemerges time and again with different characteristics and expressions, linked each time to the reality of the historical moment. The Surrealist movement’s premise can be summarized as collective activity based on the social and revolutionary engagement of the artist. Now, the artist is deeply involved in movements and the artwork is mainly the research of an identity, both historical and personal, a development that is well represented at the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale.

This kind of commitment produces not a cold archival work, but a work rich in emotions that asks for responses. Feeling Her Way by Sonia Boyce at the British Pavilion, which won the prestigious Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation, is the perfect synthesis of this moment in time.

“My desire in bringing you together is to explore how you might feel free…” Boyce’s desire becomes our guide through the six rooms of the Pavilion. Boyce’s career has been centered on Black British female subjectivity and the entire installation, a new multi-media project, is a declaration of her intent.

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Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way, British Pavilion 2022,

Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy. Photo: Cristiano Corte © British Council

Collaboration and sharing of creativity are central to Boyce’s work. The instrumental and vocal performances of five Black female singers, musicians and composers appear in different combinations in videos in the six spaces unified by common wallpaper. The emotional responses of the participants are heightened by the sound, in which one feels utterly wrapped up.

From the video shot at London’s Abbey Road Studios, a jam session where the performers met for the first time and improvised, to the videos where a single musician gives a solo performance of high intensity and great skill, we feel a sense of joy and hope for the future.

An entire room is dedicated to Devotional Collection, Boyce’s ongoing project, an ever-growing archive which documents the significant contributions of Black British female musicians.The archive results from a vast collaboration of members of the public who interacted with Boyce’s initial idea. More than 300 performers have been nominated; this constitutes a political manifesto, a way of claiming cultural identity.

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 Zineb Sedira, Les rêves n'ont pas de titre, Pavillon Français Biennale de Venise © Thierry Bal et © Zineb Sedira

In Zineb Sedira’s immersive installation at the French Pavilion, we perceive the same quest for a cultural identity, but in a different context. 

The French artist of Algerian descent is fascinated by the ‘60s: on one side the painful process of decolonization, displacement and discrimination, and on the other the strong and positive cultural response, which is mainly embodied in movies like La Battaglia Di Algeri by Gillo Pontecorvo. The impressive black and white images of Pontecorvo are inserted in Sedira’s film Les Reves N’ont Pas De Titre/Dreams Have No Title, a mise en abyme that employs the technique of inserting one narrative inside of another.

Sedira’s work takes many forms, including film, music, and dance. Her complex creativity highlights the ongoing fight for freedom and against discrimination and racism. She communicates her message through light and enjoyable moments such as the staged reconstruction of Le Bal by Ettore Scola, an Italian-Franco-Algerian film of 1983, where a couple reenacts a tango

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 Zineb Sedira, Les rêves n'ont pas de titre, Pavillon Français Biennale de Venise © Thierry Bal et © Zineb Sedira

Between the Giardini and the Arsenale, in a former Venetian boat yard, the Scotland + Venice partnership presents deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory, a new multi-media installation with tapestry, film, and sculpture by Alberta Whittle. Starting from her Barbadian heritage, she asks the audience to confront themes of police brutality, colonization, gender and race discrimination, and climate change, while, at the same time, she creates a space for healing and meditation. Whittle, like Boyce and Sedira, loves to work in collaboration with other artists; the tapestry Entanglement is more than blood is an example. On the purple washed wall, we read Invest In Love and, following the artist’s suggestion, we take time to pause, sit, reflect and meditate. Lagareh, The Last Born, a 40-minute film shot in various countries, including Scotland, England, Italy, Sierra Leone and Barbados, addresses the risk of falling into a state of apathy that leads to acceptance of the status quo. The strength of regaining traditions and rituals of the past helps us to feel free and break the apathy. 

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Alberta Whittle, deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory, 2022 Installation Shot Photographer Cristiano Corte © Alberta Whittle. Courtesy the artist, Scotland + Venice & Forma London

Themes of daily hardship, violence, and injustice inform and are integral parts of Jonathas De Andrade’s multi-media installation at the Brazilian Pavilion. The artist speaks to his own country, Brazil, but his message is universal, conveyed here in a playful and colorful way.

Com o curacao saindo pela boca (With the heart coming out of the mouth) is an installation of sculpture, film and language.

Asked to go in one ear and out the other, we play the play of the body. Inspired by science fairs he visited as a child, De Andrade scatters body parts all over the Pavilion, including its ceiling, floor, and walls. At the center of the Pavilion, a red heart inflates and expands to occupy the entire space, pushing the viewers against the walls, a metaphor of the living conditions of the disadvantaged.

To amplify emotions, the artist adds language. He put on the walls a string of statements, idiomatic phrases referring to body parts.

 

Amongst them:

“For those who have the rope around the neck, any moment is fatal.”

 “It seems like being poor is a pity, a shame. I never hurt anyone, and yet I’ve been kicked while I slept, been called a tramp, wretched, a flip-flop foot. What’s the reason for so much hate? Why do I bring such discomfort?”

“She felt a twinge in the stomach’s mouth when she learned she was going to be evicted.”

“We are constantly being watched. Don’t make the mistake of believing that there’s somewhere safe, because there might always be someone spying, even the walls have ears.”

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Jonathas De Andrade, Images of the installation With the heart coming out of the mouth / Con il cuore che esce dalla bocca at the 2022 Brazilian Pavilion Photo: Daniele Frison

Art and politics. Sonia Boyce, Zineb Sedira, Alberta Whittle, Jonathas De Andrade are able to vehiculate their strong messages in today’s social and historical context and, at the same time, provoke intense, deep emotions with their artworks.

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Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London, UK