VENICE, Italy — Sculptor Fusun Onur never laid eyes on her installation at the Turkey pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Coronavirus restrictions forced her to cancel travel plans and to instead scout the setting and install the work over Zoom, exemplifying the challenge of staging the world’s premier art event during the pandemic.
The Venice Biennale, which concludes this weekend, has attracted more than 300,000 visitors since it opened in April after a yearlong delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s show was a breakthrough, curated by an Italian woman for the first time, and overwhelmingly featured female artists from around the world, correcting a long record of overrepresenting male artists and curators.
Much of the 59th edition, called “The Milk of Dreams,” explored the margins, showing work by or about the dispossessed, the nonconformers and those unsanctioned by the canon. Curator Cecilia Alemani described her decision to make 90% of the featured work by women “a deliberate rethinking of man’s centrality in the history of art and contemporary culture.” That feminist ethos was reflected in work from the Middle East, both in the international exhibition and many of the national pavilions.
Onur, 84, spent a half-century expanding the boundaries of contemporary art in Turkey before she was given the distinction of representing her country in Venice. In “Once Upon a Time … ,” Onur invites the viewer into her inner world while confronting some of the pressing problems of our age.
Tiny wire sculptures of cats and mice with ping pong ball heads stand atop 21 pedestals that appeared like pages of a book and hovered throughout the space, each a discrete scene of a great voyage from Istanbul to Venice during a plague.
“Migration, pollution, climate change have all caused a great panic. But the [characters] make peace and become one, without a leader to dominate them but by working together, talking to everyone, speaking their minds. It’s a fable for adults,” Onur told Al-Monitor.
To bring the work to Venice, Onur relied on curator Bige Orer as “her eyes and ears,” connecting on video calls to experiment with how to place the miniature figures in Turkey’s cavernous space in the Arsenale, a former shipyard.
“It was very brave to create such a contrast with the scale, in all its fragility, without being tempted like others in Venice to go big,” Orer told Al-Monitor. It also required trust. “Throughout her practice, Fusun prefers to create her own work,” Orer said. “To show in Venice, she had to rely on others, but mostly on her faith in the work.”
Other Middle Eastern pavilions that shared the stage with female artists included Oman at its debut appearance at the biennale, featuring multimedia artist Budoor al-Riyami and textile artist Radhika Khimji among the six artists.
Duality was at the heart of Lebanon’s “The World in the Image of Man.” Danielle Arbid’s split-screen video and Ayman Baalbaki’s monumental sculpture show a nation in conflict with itself: young, creative and eager to build a future, the Mediterranean state remains mired in the quicksand of economic crisis and corruption. The soundtrack for a film of a frenetic drive through Beirut’s streets is provided by Arbid‘s mother as she recounts desperate efforts to withdraw money from a bank in phone calls that the artist recorded.
Zineb Sidera, born to Algerian parents near Paris in 1963, became the first person from France’s diaspora community to represent her country. “Dreams Have No Titles” marries the personal and political: She recreated her London home to look like a film set, while a long-lost Algerian-Italian film that Sidera restored pays homage to post-colonial Algeria.
"Queendom,” by Berlin-based Ilit Azoulay, was a collection of photomontages and audio at the Israeli venue, a metaphor for a system crash in the patriarchal world order. The feminist theme practically hit visitors over the head in Egypt’s “The Promised Land,” created by two male and one female artist, in which giant udders dangle from the ceiling.
Some pavilions from the Middle East apparently didn’t get the memo, instead choosing to display overtly masculine work. “The Teaching Tree” by Muhannad Shono is a serpent-like appendage that slithers across the floor of the Saudi pavilion, representing the social changes in the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In “Between Sunrise and Sunset” at the United Arab Emirates home, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, from Sharjah, reimagined the path of the sun across his homeland; the changing light is reflected on dozens of anthropomorphic columns that shift from bright hues to earth tones to the black and white of night.
In the international exhibition spaces were Palestinian artist Noor Abuarafeh’s videos of zoos in Palestine, Egypt and Switzerland that explore what is missing in our historical narratives. Iranian-American photographer Sheree Hovsepian transformed her prints into three-dimensional art as images of body parts expand with manufactured material.
Damascus-born Simone Fattal's stone and bronze sculptures offered a respite beside a small pool, and the voluminous tapestries of Safia Farhat, a Tunisian artist and activist who died in 2004, reappropriates textile work long relegated to women’s labor.
A highlight of the biennale was “The Witch’s Cradle,” a show-within-a-show of Surrealists from the 20th century to reveal the roots of much of the contemporary art that is on display. Among the treasures are the late Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine’s warm, wild gouache paintings of strange beasts and flamboyant women.
Hand-carved, wooden fantastical creatures by Muge Yilmaz, who is from Istanbul and now works in the Netherlands, evoke the Neolithic figures etched onto walls of Anatolian caves. They also served as display shelves in the biennale library for science fiction written by women, sometimes under male pseudonyms. Among them was a book by sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin, who argued that the birth of civilization is not traced to men taking up weapons but to the receptacles women devised for food. “The Milk of Dreams” makes a powerful argument that women continue to deliver the sustenance of art.