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By Anne Ross & Clint Imboden

The Art Biennale in Venice is an Olympic gathering where nations showcase their top artists. This year is the 60th biennale, it runs through November 24, 2024, and is titled Foreigners Everywhere.

All photography by Anne Ross & Clint Imboden

At first, I interpreted this theme negatively; it seems that countries around the world are voicing stronger rhetoric against migrants or refugees, labeling them unwelcome and unwanted. But as I explored the art and city, I found multiple interpretations—from the meta-awareness that almost everyone around me was not from there, to the unfairness of indigenous and other under-represented artists having little voice inside their own country, to the dehumanizing effects of colonization, power, ignorance, and technology—all potentially making everyone feel like foreigners everywhere.

An artwork highlighting the refugee as foreigner was one of my favorites. French-Moroccan artist, Bouchra Khalili, presented The Mapping Journey Project, a spacious installation of videos and corresponding silkscreens. It pulled us in while walking through the Arsenale, a concrete structure (and former shipyard and armory) with high ceilings of wood beams and scattered skylights providing mood lighting, where everything from beams to glass casements is well-designed. Khalili’s eight video screens fill this impressive space.

Art by Bouchra Khalili

Each video shows a closeup of a hand marking a route on a map with a black marker. We see only the hand, never a face. We hear the voice of the person as they draw on the map, calmly narrating their migration to Europe from Africa, the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia. Descriptions of sinking boats and deportations interweave with comments such as “I wandered about until I got to the central train station,” or “we spent four days like that,” and “I didn’t like the feel of this place so I moved on.” The routes vary from straightforward to circuitous. Some travels were quick, others lasted years. Part of Khalili’s genius is her ability to listen and allow a story to unfold, recording relaxed, uncut narratives. Each is a slice of life sounding like someone we know, simultaneously extraordinary and mundane. Khalili then transposed the pen marks from map to silkscreen.

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Art by Bouchra Khalili

She removed the map, left only white dots for the cities the person traveled through, and hung these on the Arsenale wall. The route is distilled into a white dotted line on blue, moving from point to point, reminiscent of constellations drawn among stars in the sky. As there are billions upon billions of stars above us there are also billions of people on this planet, with a sizable number trying to get somewhere better than where they are.

Art by Bouchra Khalili

Addressing the oxymoronic theme of the indigenous foreigner, in another building (the US pavilion in the Giardini), I was proud to see an indigenous, queer, American artist representing the United States. Jeffrey Gibson’s installation, the space in which to place me, fills a multi-room gallery with intense color. Walls glow with triangles and diamonds of yellow, teal, purple, and every color in between. Paintings resembling native rugs, interweave shapes with barely discernible but familiar words such as, “IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN” and “IF YOU WANT TO LIFT YOURSELF UP LIFT UP SOMEONE ELSE.” Gibson unapologetically interweaves trope and stereotype. The work isn’t especially “pretty,” but it’s a treasure hunt. The longer you look, the more you find and uncover layers of meaning.

Art by Jeffrey Gibson

Center stage is a larger-than-life abstract humanoid statue draped in a rainbow of nylon strings. The strings come out of flattened pennies rolled into a cone shape. The statue wears a bodice decorated with glass beads spelling out, “1866 CIVIL RIGHTS ACT.” The head of this figure is faceless and egg-shaped. Splattered on the head, like an extrusion of bodily fluids, is a range of dripping skin tones and cracked gold.

Decades ago, grade school history taught me that native people accepted beads as money. An implicit lesson then was: Foolish, naive people,  how ridiculous, no wonder they lost the land. Here in Venice in 2024 in front of this statue, where beads sit next to copper discs rolled into toy-sized cones, I’m more inclined to rethink it: Are glass beads any more ridiculous than small copper discs?

Later, I googled the 1866 Civil Rights Act. It declared that “all persons of every race and color” born in the United States are citizens, “excluding Indians not taxed.” I understand better now the apparent shitting of skin tone and gold onto the faceless head. I decide this head is not inherently faceless, but declarations made it so.

Art by Jeffrey Gibson

The beads on the other side of the bodice spell out, 1924 INDIAN CITIZENSHIP ACT. Another google search tells me this is when the US government finally granted citizenship to the native people who have been living on the continent for tens of thousands of years. The irony of foreign colonizers labeling indigenous people foreigners is not lost on me. The back of the bodice reads, THE ENFORCEMENT ACTS 1870-71, which was an attempt to counter the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.

Art by Jeffrey Gibson

In an adjacent room painted red, stands a column reminiscent of a totem pole. Its top is a punching bag wrapped with a beaded tapestry spelling out “WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF EVIDENT” (from the Declaration of Independence) and trailing fringes of red, white, yellow, green, blue, black—colors significant to Native American art and spirituality.

The juxtaposition of precious metals, dehumanization, and [unrealized] ideals, makes me ask: What is the true cost of making whole nations faceless? Who are the faceless ones, really? Too often the victim is demeaned, but it’s the one abusing power who is losing their humanity.

Gibson’s work is not devoid of hope. Intense color suggests vibrancy and life. At the same time its understated; given the message, it could have been so much more violent. Somehow, it’s both in-your-face and subtle. Perhaps there is progress? The fact that this American voice is on our national stage in an international arena is progress, isn’t it?  For me, ultimately, this art asks that we consider, and that we show our human faces and acknowledge them in others.

With a similar theme, another gallery that stood out to me featured the U.S.’s colonization of Porto Rico. As in all acts of colonization; the native residents were portrayed (via aggressor propaganda) as inferior and backwards and in desperate “need” of intervention by a world power to thrive.

The exhibit was historical in nature, focusing on the military presence on the island starting during WWII: A collection of images that one would see if they visited Porto Rico and went to a museum critical of the United States and its negative impact on the island.  These images were counter-balanced by a variety of commercial products imported from the states or manufactured locally by American companies. All representing the ideal that we were imposing on them. The irony is found in current U.S. geopolitical policies. We have not come very far in the last 80+ years.

An unexpected treasure (what we really come for) was a satellite pavilion curated by Uganda. We stumbled across it in a cobble-stoned alley where we ate lunch one day. We chatted briefly with the curator who invited us to their opening the following afternoon.

The following day was the first day of the press preview, so first we headed to the Giardini to see the pavilions of the countries who have permanent buildings, each a free-standing independent structure. The architecture of each speaks volumes about the country. Ours is a granite and marble windowless monument built in 1930 that would fit right in at home anywhere in D.C. Next door the Israeli pavilion has large windows and feels more open from the inside, but looking at it from the outside this year it felt like a box, ridged and unforgiving devoid of art and hope.

My favorite pavilion, since I first discovered it in 2019, is the Nordic countries pavilion, shared by Sweden, Norway and Finland. It is almost completely glass, with large sliding doors opening to the plaza outside. There’s no structural support inside the space, the ceiling appears to just be floating there, giving the space the ability to accommodate almost anything. This time it was filled with handmade bamboo structures interwoven with flat screen monitors; weaving the old and new.

That afternoon, Uganda became another of my favorite pavilions. Stuck in an unused space on one of the snake-like Venetian streets, it is these small pavilions that rarely get seen or mentioned in reviews. Satellite pavilions use available space where they can, and are a GPS nightmare to find. Three of the  artist representing Uganda were involved with the opening and were very open to talking about their work. From curator to artist, everyone was a gracious host. People were inherently part of their exhibit and the viewers’ experience. The overriding atmosphere was of great hospitality and human connection.

My favorite piece, by Odur Ronald, was an installation of 65 passports each made from a small sheet of copper, coupled with a photocopy of a real passport (from which the copper one was molded). One such pair for each of the 65 countries in Africa. Copper was used to symbolize that the entire continent was exploited for their natural recourses. There is one gold passport tucked in a corner for the dreamed of United States of Africa. This dream for union also reflects the colonization that chopped up this continent to suit the world’s powers, without any thought to the people who actually lived there.

The theme “foreigners everywhere” is in news media covering the migrant crisis. Given the world’s history of invasion, conquest, and colonization, no wonder xenophobia exists. It’s a collective cry of: “Don’t let those foreigners do to us what we did to the people who were here before us!” I wish to reframe the cry. Don’t repeat our sordid history, instead, may humanity mutually treat itself—one another—with compassion and respect.

For more programming of the Venice Biennale 2024 visit:

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