by Devanshi ShahJul 05, 2022
I was still reconstituting myself after having been swallowed by Bendígame Mamita (Bless me Mommy),C ecilia Vicuña’s oil on canvas portrait of her mother, painted in Bogotá in 1977, when my milk let down. I should have been besotted by the more obviously arresting detail—the maternal eye that occupies the guitar’s sound hole, the abstracted form of which has been reproduced countlessly, reappearing all over the Venetian lagoon as though it were a panopticon, serving as the graphic identity of the 59th edition of the Venice Art Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani. What had consumed me, instead, was the figurative assemblage in the top-right corner. Its sighting had baited, hooked, and lined not only my gaze but my entire being, enveloped as it was in the aura of what Amber Jamilla Musser refers to as brown jouissance. A maternal body lies on surgical white sheets in the throes of birth, blood oozing into a pile that contrasts against the painting’s aqueous-blue background. A still un-severed umbilical cord connects this body to the infant that has been delivered, face down, through the vaginal canal, that is in the process of being received by a uniformed nurse; implying an invisible, yet-to-be-expelled placenta is still performing its nutritive, immunological function.
This detail seemed to visually embody the term, ‘Placenta Politics’, coined by the feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti “to indicate the materialist feminist biopolitics of the relation between the material maternal body, the placenta and the foetus”. Braidotti insists that bio-political thinkers consider the maternal body and the placental assemblage: “If we focus on insemination, gestation and birth... what are we to make of the fact that the female body actually hosts and cares for the egg, then embryo, then foetus, then baby? The placenta is the operative factor of immunologically compatibility: it is formed by the extension of the maternal body’s blood vessels into another tissue that both connects and separates the embryo from the maternal organism. It is ejected as an extra entity about thirty minutes after the birth has taken place. This is a far cry from the thanato-political or necro-political discourse of the tactical expulsion of alien elements or the aggressive elimination of the alien other. The paradigm of placenta politics presents instead a model of generative relationality.”
Within the painting’s realm, this figurative assemblage is the fourth ‘scene’ in the life of its subject, the artist’s mother. The accompanying wall caption offered more context: “Before Cecilia Vicuña’s departure from Chile to study in London, the artist’s mother arrived at her daughter’s apartment, playacting as a journalist to interview her about leaving the country during an extended period of unrest.” Soon after she left, the president, Salvador Allende, was ousted by a violent coup, altering the country’s temperament, and apparently precluding her from returning to Chile. The text mentioned the potency of her mother’s gaze, which the artist has described as ‘a connection to the awareness of life itself’. “The painting is both a call to expand our perception and an homage to the transformative wisdom and power of a mother’s love,” it read.
The edible nature of my contact with the painting was undoubtedly primed by my ongoing speculative-feminist-investigative research, In the Name of the Mother, focussed on canonising matrilineal “outsider” artistic legacies. Here was an artist depicting her own birth, placing herself in umbilical dialogue with her mother’s creative body. As I hastily exited the central pavilion of the Giardini to locate my partner and our hungry infant who were awaiting me at the entrance, I felt thrilled by the acknowledgement that the watchful eye that had been trailing my body since I entered Venice was a maternal one, in the same way as the knowledge that the Biennale’s title, The Milk of Dreams, traced its provenance to the consequence of the artist-writer Leonora Carrington’s creative output as mother, a series of zany illustrations drawn by her on the walls of her son’s room in Mexico, which later survived in diaristic form. I placed my three-month-old in the carrier so I could continue viewing (working) while he breastfed, thus inventing time, and ventured back in through the entrance, past Katharina Fritsch’s pedestalized 1987 sculpture, Elefant/Elephant, cast in dark chromium oxide green polyester from the mould of a stuffed elephant named ‘Bibi’, housed in the collection of the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig in Bonn. Could it really be that the world’s oldest biennale was indeed canonising, however belatedly, artistic practices that were invested in maternal-metabolic-materialist methodologies?
I noted a surprisingly literary quality to the curatorial language and architecture, designed by Alemani in collaboration with Formafantasma. Each room I walked into, out of, through, and between contained the tension of an erotic paragraph, with each artwork arranged preciously in relation to another, achieving the economy of interleaved sentences. The works spill out of the ‘time capsules’ they were programmed into, often oozing their way into a conceptual entanglement with a painting or an embroidery or a sculpture in the other hosting venue, the Arsenale, thus enabling numerous generative assemblages while facilitating cross-species conversations. The visitor’s seeing eye serves as vantage point, allowing for a host of meanings to emerge depending on where its gaze is directed.
For instance, Fritsch’s elephant, which subverts the monumental through its meticulous detailing of skin and its resurrection of a forgotten taxidermic being once in possession of sentience, is followed by a punctuating period—Maria Prymachenko’s 1967 gouache work, Scarecrow, an anthropomorphic being whose depiction is tailored in the registers of folk art. I read later that the work was a last-minute addition, which explains my inability to locate it within the catalogue. Alemani confessed to becoming aware of the artist’s work only when the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum in Kyiv, which housed several of her artworks, was burned down in February by the invading Russian forces in Ukraine. The last-minute inclusion reads like an act of resistance against the necro-politics of war.
This visual articulation then leads us to a massive room in which the mesmerising thread-based works of Rosemarie Trockel dance with Andra Ursuţa’s sculptures of hybrid beings made by casting elements of her own body. I was reminded of the link an artist friend, Monica LoCascio, recently drew between thread, SCOBY, fascia—the thin casing of connective tissue that surrounds and holds every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fibre, and muscle in place—and shards of pottery ubiquitous to archaeological excavation sites, which stand testimony to the cross-cultural domestic significance of urns. All of these material elements, Monica argued, are rarely ever spoken about with the reverence they deserve. If you had your back to the wall behind which Prymachenko’s painting was displayed and looked diagonally to the left, the vista opened up to include three hemp figures by Mrinalini Mukherjee, which took me by surprise, reactivating her voice within my head. I re-heard her referring to them as ‘the rope things’ in our interview in 2013, telling me how she took a break from working in hemp when her mother, the artist Leela Mukherjee, was ill. “After she passed away, I didn’t feel like sitting at home and knotting this rope,” she had told me, explaining how she subsequently began working in the lost-wax process because of its immediacy, speaking of her reliance on bronze as a way of preserving the delicacy of moulded touch. When I had asked her how she contextualised her practise within the landscape of contemporary art, she said, “I am just a practising artist who wants to continue practising” and spoke of the whimsical nature of critical appraisal, how, when she first began making ‘the rope things’, her artist peers were overly hung up about whether it was art or craft, and how, when she moved on to bronze, they seemed to want her to continue doing the hemp works. Mukherjee died during the installation of her belated first retrospective in India, and although she had her friend circles, she had an air of loneliness about her that came from her work never receiving the validation it so richly deserved. I dwelled on the resentment she sometimes felt when I read the last line of the biography of Valentine de Saint-Point, whose woodcut series, Metachoric Gestures (1914-1923), was part of the The Witch’s Cradle capsule—“Having drawn heavy criticism from her former Futurist allies, she moved to Egypt, converted to Sufism, and died in Cairo in 1953, alone and forgotten.”
Even though there is obviously an architectural logic that allows for fluid movement between rooms, the curatorial language is nutritiously rhizomatic, reminding one of the fungal structures that is the holding ground for the fermented food, tempeh. The taut looseness allows for trans-temporal alignments to surface, like the video of a subversively dancing Josephine Baker resonates with Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz (Witch dance), which similarly revels in its embrace of the grotesque and a sense of self-delight. There are stand-alone moments too, like suspended paragraphs that have the aura of indulgence. One room with Paula Rego’s paintings and sculptures at the central pavilion at Giardini is an excellent example, as is Precious Okoyomon’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2022), which occupies the final room at the Arsenale in which the lushly ‘invasive’ kudzu vine that the artist uses as visual code is host to an ecosystem. A sign at its entrance reported the presence of live butterflies. All sorts of similarly flourishing topographies were brought into the spectatorial realm, from Candice Lin’s Xternesta (2022), which eludes description, but which plays with the delicacy of botanical study, healing practices, and a form of shamanism, to Delcy Morelos’s Earthly Paradise, which is meant to remind viewers of the Latin etymology of the word human—humus. “Visitors can smell the earth’s aroma mixed with hay, cassava flour, cacao powder, and spices like cloves and cinnamon, while sensing the soil’s moisture, temperature, texture, and darkness,” the caption informs.
One superlative moment involves the evocation of Ursula Le Guin’s 1986 essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, which builds from a seed planted in Elizabeth Fisher’s, Women’s Creation, that the first cultural device was probably a recipient, most likely a container, sling, or net carrier. Le Guin reminds us that the earliest humans most likely ate gathered seeds, roots, sprouts, shoots, leaves, nuts, berries, fruits and grains, possibly adding bugs and mollusks, birds, fish, rats, rabbits and other small fry to up the protein. But foraging didn’t make for riveting fiction. Stories of the male hunter outsmarting his prey were seen as more compelling, explaining their persistence in the oldest stories and on the walls of caves. Le Guin reminds us that human civilisation would never have evolved had it not been for the food that was foraged for, primarily by women, who used some form of ‘recipient’ to collect, store, and serve it. Alemani revisits these ideas within the capsule, “A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container.” One of the most exquisite works nestled within the display was a series of uteri depicting various stages of pregnancy, made by the company, Auzoux with papier mache. They are credited to Aletta Jacobs, the first woman to be admitted to a Dutch university, for many years the only female doctor in the Netherlands, who also wrote one of the first books that described the female body in detail, including the reproductive system. The catalogue contains a moving essay by Christina Sharpe, titled What Could a Vessel Be? which links the objects on display with the many poetic and political implications of vessel-hood, from the Transatlantic ships that transported slaves, displacing and dislocating so many lives to the boats containing migrants hoping to arrive on Mediterranean shores that frequently sink to cruise and cargo ships. Sharpe asks questions like, “What is a vessel for holding a skin? A membrane? A life?”; “Is a nest a vessel? Is an egg?”; “What is a vessel when another one of the world’s richest men finances a supersonic space plane? More colonisation, more settlement, more violence, more brutal logistics of removal and moving people from one place to another.” In Afro-Cuban artist Belkis Ayón’s marvellous collographic prints, the magnificent sight of which I am still recovering from, the eyes appear as vessels, while Gabriel Chaile’s work literally manifests as five sculptural art ovens, each one portraying a member of his family based on descriptions handed to him through word of mouth, the most astonishing being Rosario Liendro, after his maternal grandmother. It exerts a presence that seems to exceed and distend the boundaries of space and time.
Overall, the curatorial gesture operates within the domain of an exceedingly generous hospitality that is daringly inclusive in terms of the artists it implicates and whose practices are given room to breathe, sing, and soliloquize, from art that is rooted in indigenous cosmologies to art made by queer people forced to inhabit mental asylums to the art of mystics, healers, prophets, witches, dreamers and lovers. I was reminded of the sentiment the protagonist expresses in Clarice Lispector’s story, The Sharing of Loaves, which begins with the narrator ranting about having to share their Saturday with strangers at an obligatory luncheon thrown by a patient host who seemed not to be thrown off guard by her guests’ desire to be elsewhere. When the narrator finally enters the living room for the lunch “that lacked the blessing of hunger”, they are surprised at the feast on offer. “Saving nothing for the next day, there and then I made an offering of what I was feeling to what was making me feel. It was a way of living that I hadn’t paid in advance with the suffering of waiting, a hunger born when the mouth is already nearing the food. Because now we were hungry, a complete hunger that encompassed everything down to the crumbs.”
It feels a shame for me to demand more from a first-world curator, after the sumptuousness of the spread that was laid out, and yet, as a Third World feminist of colour, I find the lack of intersectional inputs on the theoretical front niggling. Must all thought on cross-species dialogue be filtered through the lens of Donna Haraway? Can we only re-enchant the world by namedropping Silvia Federici? Are we fated to always footnote white women in conversations on post-humanist discourse, even though the subject has always been central to Indigenous Place Thought and feminist activist acts performed by people of colour world over?
In her interview with Marta Papini published in the catalogue, Alemani’s primary intellectual references are resolutely white, while the parameters of her art historical interventions are stubbornly Euro-centric. Alemani’s concern with the communion between self and universe is arrived at from her interest in surrealism, and, from her interview, it would seem like indigenous knowledge is something to “tap” into, not centre in one’s scholarship. It’s difficult to synthesise the generously accommodating nature of Alemani’s edition of the Venice Art Biennale with its overwhelming majority of female, indigenous, and non-binary artists, all otherwise either marginalised or left out of art history books, with this uncritical, unapologetic centering of Western ontological systems of thought. One explanation comes from her honest inability to commit to using feminism, even as a label. When asked if she would call the exhibition feminist, Alemani says, “… if by feminism you mean an approach to the world that emphasises connections and interdependencies, then yes, it’s a feminist show. But then, once again—shouldn’t we be asking whether all the previous editions were ‘masculinist’.” It doesn’t come across as the response of someone who might have either read or metabolised the writings of Sara Ahmed, who insists that feminism is more life practice than ideology.
It returned me to the question not just of who gets to do theory, but whose theory gets validated, propagated, and even appropriated, and by whom. I am reminded of the Métis scholar, Zoe Todd’s feeling of betrayal when listening to a lecture by Bruno Latour, upon realising that he was essentially peddling the values that had been historically present in Inuit thought, with little acknowledgement of provenance. While the art biennale derives its expansive quality from the inclusion of artists historically marginalised, it still performs an erasure at the level of its scholarship, with even the catalogue enabling this epistemic violence, including voices like Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui in a manner that feels tokenist and not quite organic. I hold the lifework of feminist thinkers like Donna Haraway, Silvia Federici, and Rosi Braidotti in high esteem, but felt angered, nonetheless, by the absence of theoretical contributions from BIPOC feminists, a failing also hinted at in the poet Quinn Latimer’s review of the Biennale for Art Agenda: “Indeed, the show’s contextualizing of bodily metamorphosis, hybridity, and human-nonhuman relations with the earth in their most exclusively Eurocentric guises—Surrealism, Donna Haraway, et cetera—is disappointing. The historical capsules, though excellent, underline this Eurocentric historiography, in a sense, even if the curatorial selection of artists in the larger exhibition expertly rebuts it.”
It is a pity to have to nitpick what is doubtless a visual and imaginative feast. Yet, reflecting, in retrospect, on the menu, I felt like Lucia, the previous owner of the catalogue from the 24th International Art Exhibition of 1948—the first art Biennale staged after the defeat of fascism in Italy—that Alemani bought online some years ago that was studded with her comments and reflections. Among her marginalia was this query, “Where are the women?” Mine reads, “Where are the BIPOC theorists?”
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.
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- Venice Art Biennale
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- Venice Biennale 2022
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