Hyperallergic’s Quick Guide to the 2024 Venice Biennale Pavilions

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This year’s Venice Biennale was particularly strong in terms of national pavilions, as countries negotiated the contemporary moment with decisions to foreground Indigenous and/or racialized voices, swapped with countries that they felt needed a bigger spotlight, or showcased a national talent eager to join the global art conversation with a splash. Critic AX Mina and I traveled to Venice to offer you some observations about 22 of the 87 national pavilions that are taking part in this year’s gathering. — Hrag Vartanian, Editor-in-Chief 

Australia: kith and kin by Archie Moore, curated by Ellie Buttrose

The winner of this year’s Golden Lion, Aboriginal Australian artist Archie Moore was the first Indigenous artist to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale and he chose to document 10,000 years of ancestry for his entry. That vast history reinforces what Aboriginal communities have long stated — that they are the longest continuous civilization in the world. A solemn installation, the writing on the walls, while hard to read, overwhelms you with the vastness and breadth of the family tree. At the center are documents suggesting a different type of genealogy that is far more bureaucratic. That conflict between notions of history and documentation is at the core of Moore’s pavilion, and it is powerfully presented. My only qualm about this pavilion is the starkness when the doors open and the light floods into the black box. While I can see why, conceptually, it forces us to negotiate the space and our relationship to seeing and the light, in a more practical way the constant opening and closing of the doors causes a strange, jarring effect. — HV

Benin: Everything Precious Is Fragile by Chloé Quenum, Moufouli Bello, Ishola Akpo, Romuald Hazoumè, curated by Azu Nwagbogu

Towering at the center of the Benin Pavilion is Romuald Hazoumè’s “Àṣẹ,” a dome of jerrycans, or gasoline canisters, into which the viewer is invited to step. The canisters face downward, as if about to pour out their contents, and the faint scent of incense imbues the dome with a sacred quality. Àṣẹ, also Anglicized as ashe, comes from Yoruba philosophy, meaning the power that produces change in the world. Hazoumè is known for working with recycled materials, repackaged as art that gets returned to the West.

Equally impressive are Ishola Akpo’s “Ìyálóde,” a full-color tapestry depicting an eponymous female chieftain, and Moufouli Bello’s Égbè Modjisola, a series of brilliant blue paintings of women accompanied by books like Wangari Maathai’s Registers of Freedom, which looks at the impact of international debt on women in Africa. This is the country’s first pavilion in the Biennale, with works centered on the Yoruba philosophy of Guèlèdè, which embraces fragility. “With globalisation,” write curator Azu Nwagbogu and associate curator Yassine Lassissi, “networks of indigenous knowledge systems aggregate through cosmic and technological networks toward a similar conception of return — to the mother.” — AX Mina

Bolivia: looking to the futurepast, we are treading forward by Elvira Espejo Ayca, Oswaldo “Achu” De, León Kantule, Yanaki Herrera, Duhigó, Zahy Tentehar, Lorgio Vaca, Maria Alexandra Bravo Cladera, Rolando Vargas Ramos, Edwin Alejo, Cristina Quispe Huanca, Martina Mamani Robles, Prima Flores Torrez, Laura Tola Ventura, María Eugenia Cruz Sanchez, Faustina Flores Ferreyra, Pamela Onostre Reynolds, Guillermina Cueva Sita, Magdalena Cuasace, Claudia Opimi Vaca, Olga Rivero Díaz, Reina Morales Davalos, Silvia Montaño Ito, Ignacia Chuviru Surubi, Ronald Morán, and Humberto Velez, curated by the Ministry of Culture of the Plurinational State of Bolivia

It was quite a brilliant political choice for Russia to offer its pavilion to the country of Bolivia this year, thus foregrounding a nation that has long been at loggerheads with the United States, and has been one of its most vocal critics. Russia is, of course, still occupying parts of Ukraine and fighting a war against the US and its allies, and here the country is using its soft power to deflect any criticism, particularly since the world’s focus is increasingly on Gaza rather than Ukraine — and let’s face it, Russia’s bait and switch worked. I wish the exhibition was better, though. Most things seemed awkwardly placed in the space — the country’s culture ministry curated it and it certain has a certain “trade fair” aesthetic. This is a good example of how global politics filters down to the art world in strange and unexpected ways. — HV

Canada: Trinket by Kapwani Kiwanga, curated by Gaëtane Verna

Artist Kapwani Kiwanga focuses her contribution to the Venetian biennial on conterie (seed beads) that originated on the Venetian island of Murano and found their way around the world as decoration and currency. The beads drape across some of the pavilion’s walls and windows, giving the space a theatrical feel, but the sculptural objects are the real draw. Made with Zimbabwean and Canadian artisans, “Transfer III (Metal, wood, beads)” (2024) is one of these stunning objects, combining beads with, in this case, wood, copper, and Pernambuco pigment. The beautiful lift of the graceful object shows us Kiwanga’s formalist chops. It also reinforces that while the stories and history may be foundational for her work, her forms writhe and twist seemingly free of the restrictions that history can sometimes impose. My only critique is that the work veers so far into what I would term luxury retail display aesthetics that I was expecting to find a gift shop in a quiet corner of the installation — and the funny thing is I would’ve gone to town buying everything in sight. — HV

Egypt: Drama 1882 by Wael Shawky, curated by the artist

Wael Shawky is known for his retellings of history, whether the Crusades or, in this case, the Urabi revolution and the Battle of Tel El Kebir. In this project, which has been a Biennale favorite judging by all the people who told me about it and the long lines to get in, he creates an operatic narrative that looks at the recent colonial history of Egypt. While he has received a lot of praise for his attempts to reframe history in a way that counters Western narratives, I find that his work can often swerve towards stereotypes — and here the characters never go beyond types, which I don’t think does any favors for the larger story. It seems strange that, with the tragedy of a war raging at Egypt’s borders, Shawky decided to present this with no mention of Gaza, particularly since colonialism is often the focus of his work. The sculptural objects on display, opposite the video, feel less integral to the larger story being told and more connected to the art market’s thirst for luxury objects. — HV

Ethiopia: Prejudice and Belonging by Tesfaye Urgessa, curated by Lemn Sissay

This is the first time Ethiopia has participated in the Venice Biennale and Tesfaye Urgessa offers us a sweeping display of works that appear to be inspired by contemporary German painting — he studied in Germany — with narrative and artistic elements incorporated from his own East African surroundings. His images are sometimes perplexing, and they can be frustrating if you plan to decipher the content. Yet overall his horror vacui sensibility and love of abstracting familiar forms make for tumultuous brushwork that uses the scale of murals, the whimsy of fluid drawing, and the frieze-like space often associated with monumental art to create stoic worlds that never become cliché. These works sometimes make you wonder if his figures are looking at you with the same intensity that you’re looking at them. — HV

Greece: Ξηρόμερο / Dryland by Kostas Chaikalis, Thanasis Deligiannis, Elia Kalogianni, Yorgos Kyvernitis, Yannis Michalopoulos, Fotis Sagonas, curated by Panos Giannikopoulos

I’m recommending this pavilion because it demonstrates a growing trend in contemporary art — placing a large machine in the middle of the room and letting it do its thing. I blame Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Can’t Help Myself” (2016) for popularizing this tactic with their work on display at the main exhibition of the 2017 Venice Biennale. It’s often a boring strategy, but here it works somewhat because of the nature of the topic, even if I don’t believe the pavilion successfully “explores the political potential of sound and music as well as the impact of technology on rural landscapes and cultural diversity.” What are national pavilions for if not some experimentation, right? HV

Exterior view of the Israel Pavilion (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Israel: (M)otherland by Ruth Patir, curated by Mira Lapidot and Tamar Margalit

Apparently this pavilion is “closed” until a hostage deal and Gaza ceasefire are reached, but that didn’t stop the artist from giving curatorial and other tours of the exhibition to numerous people, which seems easy enough to do considering the video work is clearly visible from outside the large front windows. When I walked by during the press preview, Patir was giving a tour to right-wing Italian culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano. — HV

Italy: Due Qui / To Hear by Massimo Bartolini, curated by Luca Cerizza

Having been at the Biennale site a week before opening day, I thought the iron scaffolding at the heart of Massimo Bartolini’s Due Qui was temporarily in place for a grand installation, only to realize this was the installation itself. The title is Italian for “two hear.” It’s a play on words with the English title To Hear, referencing two separate indoor installations. The larger, charismatic one is a complex array of iron bars, motors, and pipes playing an organ antiphon composed by Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone. The height of the scaffolding creates a sense of being inside a cathedral, and the width and girth are laid out like a Baroque Italian garden as visitors crisscross the cavernous Arsenale space. At heart is “Conveyance,” a circular sculpture with a bench and what looks like pulsing water.

The second installation is much quieter but just as visually arresting. Titled “Pensive Bodhisattva on A Flat,” it’s also a play on words. The work is just that — a bodhisattva statue on a long, flat column of wood laid on the ground. At the same time, a steady drone hums through the room in A flat. As visitors walk along the column, they can see on the other end that the wood column is in fact an organ pipe. As curator Luca Cerizza wrote, “this project suggests how hearing — or, better, listening — is a form of attention to others.” But I think it’s more than that; this show strikes me as just as much about the architectural expression of spiritual experience. — AXM

Japan: Compose by Yuko Mohri, curated by Sook-Kyung Lee

Artist Yuko Mohri draws parallels between the attempts in the Tokyo subway to fix station leaks using random objects with the precarious watery reality of Venice. With “Moré Moré (Leaky),” Mohri creates leaks and tries to fix them, and the result is an endearing display that captures the fantastic energy of quirky Rube Goldberg machines or the fanciful contraptions one often builds in childhood. I love this watery piece as it makes us look at things we may think of as broken or decayed as just another space of wonder and experimentation. Located in the modernist building designed by Takamasa Yoshizaka, a student of Le Corbusier, it is also a coy commentary on the long 20th century and the leaks we’re still trying to patch up or fix. — HV

Latvia: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange … and therefore as a stranger give it a welcome by Amanda Ziemele, curated by Adam Budak

While I don’t think the artspeaky curatorial statement is very helpful with this display, I found Amanda Ziemele’s vibrant work a welcome exploration of color and shape under the banner of a renowned Shakespeare quote from Hamlet. The forms appear to lift up and aspire to fly, but they seem weighed down by an unseen force. A celebration of prismatic formalism, Ziemele’s formal meditation in the midst of a tumultuous world is more than welcome, and glorious. Curator Budak uses the space beautifully and makes each piece look like part of a larger chorus in a manner few other pavilions were able to achieve. And boy does Ziemele know how to create a shaped canvas that plays with our understanding of what a painting is and how we should look at it. — HV

Lebanon: A Dance with her Myth by Mounira Al Solh, curated by Nada Ghandour

Mounira Al Solh’s “A Dance with her Myth” starts with the myth of Europa, a princess of Phoenicia (in modern-day Lebanon) abducted to Crete by Zeus, who took the form of a bull to fool Europa. As curator Nada Ghandour writes, the artist chose the myth “to discuss the theme of women who suffer a fate that has been imposed upon them, as well as their capacity for resistance.” The multimedia installation includes ceramic sculptures, a series of drawings, a video work with animation and live performance, and a boat with the head of a horse. Among the drawings are one of Europa kissing the bull, and another of her kneeling with her head on the floor and hands behind her back as the bull lies on its back and eyes her; they stand in opposition to the imaginative ceramic masks, which represent conservative forces in society.

At the center, the boat’s sail acts as a projection screen for a video that depicts Al Solh’s search for the princess: “I look for Europa’s scarf fluttering over her shoulders,” the artist narrates over English and Arabic text. “I searched for Cedarwood, to complete my boat and follow her. But the wood had scattered and become rare. So I left my boat open, waiting for the gaps to be filled by the wind. A wind which needs to listen to many unheard stories.” The show’s statement focuses on shifting gender norms, but given the themes of theft, sexual abuse, and exploitation of the European continent’s Phoenician namesake, it’s hard not to read a decolonial critique as well. AXM

Mongolia: Discovering the Present from the Future by Ochirbold Ayurzana, curated by Oyuntuya Oyunjargal

The central figure in Ochirbold Ayurzana’s installation just outside the Arsenale is frightening, almost garish: an aluminum skeleton figure, with a three-eyed head and joints made of skulls. The interiors of the eye sockets and mouths are bright pink, and its many limbs and wire hanging make it look like a spider reaching out for a gentle embrace. Another skeletal figure seems to cling horizontally to the ceiling, looking down at visitors who walk beneath. The works are inspired by the Vajrayana Buddhist deity Durtoddagva, also known as Citipati, often depicted in traditional art as a pair of dancing skeletons to represent the twin energies of death and awareness. 

Walking along the length of the installations, I reflected a little on the words from curators Oyuntuya Oyunjargal and Gregor Jansen, who liken the Citipati to our digitizing world, the ravages of climate change, and the intertwining of global north and global south. But as I stepped outside to see Discovering Consciousness, a series of mesh, bowing figures with webbed feet that sprout roots into the garden, I also thought more fundamentally about what this deity represents: dancing and singing from the charnel grounds of a tumultuous age when so many of us would rather look away. AXM

Nigeria: Nigeria Imaginary by Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Ndidi Dike, Onyeka Igwe, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Abraham Oghobase, Precious Okoyomon, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Fatimah Tuggar, curated by Aindrea Emelife

Taking over the Palazzo Canal in Dorsoduro, Nigeria Imaginary is the country’s second pavilion in the Biennale and an ambitious statement on its future and creative community. Curator Aindrea Emelife points to artist Uche Okeke’s call at the start of Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960: “Young artists in a new nation, that is what we are! We must grow with the new Nigeria and work to satisfy her traditional love for art or perish with our colonial past.” Installed throughout the show are cultural artifacts in glass cases, like 19th-century Ikenga statues and a copy of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria

Contemporary works include artist Yinka Shonibare’s “Monument to the Restitution of the Mind and Soul,” incorporating 150 clay objects taken during the Benin Expedition of 1897, as British forces captured the capital of the Benin Kingdom and stole thousands of spiritual and cultural objects, many of which are housed in the British Museum. Ndidi Dike’s “Blackhood: A Living Archive” consists of wooden batons and paper tags, each displaying the name of a Black person in Nigeria, Brazil, or the United States who died from police brutality. Dike makes a connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and #EndSARS, a Nigerian effort to dismantle the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), accused of significant human rights abuses in the country. 

I most enjoyed Abraham Onoriode Oghobase’s quiet (Variations on a Theme) series, which features diagrams from a 1912 metallurgical textbook with cutouts on top that depict families, children, and ostriches. Taken together with his Rock Study series, in which he photographs rocks from Jos, a site of British tin mining, these works seem to invite a reexamination of extractive relationships to the land. AXM

Work by Mark Salvatus in the Philippines Pavilion (photo AX Mina/Hyperallergic)

Philippines: Waiting just behind the curtain of this age / Sa kabila na tabing lamang sa panahong ito by Mark Salvatus, curated by Carlos Quijon, Jr.

In the heart of the Arsenale, artist Mark Salvatus has constructed a multimedia encounter with Mount Banahaw, a volcano system in Luzon, Philippines, considered holy and spiritual by locals and a popular site for pilgrimage. Throughout the installation are a series of boulders with tubas and other horned instruments placed atop. A smaller series of boulders serve as benches for viewing a video in the center of the installation, which shows musicians crossing the mountain, some trilling their lips and others dancing with glowing goggles that might be worn at a rave. 

The titular curtains throughout the show create a sense of revealing and concealing, as visitors enter different phases of the installation as if walking through a mountain mist. Like many sacred sites, Mount Banahaw is now littered with trash from tourists.

The installation title references the words of Hermano Puli, also known as Apolinario de la Cruz, who founded a confradía, or religious confraternity, for Indigenous groups facing discrimination from Spanish Catholics in the 19th century. Eventually executed by the Spanish colonial government, Puli advised fraternity members that “Victory [is] just behind the curtain of this age.”  AXM

Work by Alioune Diagne in the Senegal Pavilion (photo AX Mina/Hyperallergic)

Senegal: Bokk – Bounds by Alioune Diagne, curated by Massamba Mbaye

The bilingual title Bokk – Bounds references the Wolof word bokk, which can mean “what is shared.” Alongside a beautiful series of paintings that appear pointillist from afar, artist Alioune Diagne and curator Massamba Mbaye installed a traditional Senegalese canoe broken in half, alluding to migration but also, I think, the ruptures therein. Just last year, the Senegalese navy began announcing efforts to stop boats of migrants from leaving its shores for places like Italy, all amid rising migration rates to the country in general.

Diagne’s delicate paintings form the backdrop and literal corner piece of the show —  arranged in interlocking compositions, they depict a market scene in Senegal, where apparent migrants wearing life jackets huddle together, and two people hold hands and smile, seemingly in love. Upon closer inspection, what looks like pointillism is more like a series of globules, dabs, and light etches, none quite alike. This technique helps visitors see the scenes as both separate and together, like the bokk and bounds of the title.  AXM

Singapore: Seeing Forest by Robert Zhao Renhui, curated by Haeju Kim

In much of the popular imagination, Singapore is a glittering city of skyscrapers and flashy cars, but some 30% of the city’s urban areas are green (as opposed to 13.5% in New York, for example). The exhibition statement by artist Robert Zhao Renhui and curator Haeju Kim is written as a letter to travelers, welcoming them to Singapore’s forests, and signed by a bird’s foot: “Zhao unveils the secondary forests of Singapore, full of lush trees that have grown tall on plentiful rain and sun, with streams and diverse wildlife.”

“Trash Stratum,” the centerpiece installation, is a series of objects from the country’s Queens Own Hill, building from earlier work in critical zoology. The objects are interspersed with wooden sticks and boxes, and they include everything from alcohol bottle fragments used by the Japanese Imperial Army to a flowerpot and fallen birds nests. Videos nestled among the objects depict six years of the artist’s surveys of the hill. At the show’s entrance is “A Guide to a Secondary Forest of Singapore,” an archival pigment print illustrated to show some of Zhao’s investigations. If nature is the entry point for his explorations, the built environment is its dominating framework, reflecting decades of urban development and expansion. AXM

United Kingdom: Listening all Night to the Rain by John Akomfrah, curated by Tarini Malik

Listening all Night to the Rain continues John Akomfrah’s fascination with migration, colonialism, diaspora, race, and the environment using the format of eight cantos that begin on the neoclassical facade of the British pavilion and lead you to the back of the building, where you explore two floors of poetic sound- and video-centered displays. Nonlinear in nature, these meditations on water are some of the strongest I’ve seen in his work, building on his interest in French immunologist Jacques Benveniste, who suggested that molecules in water are biologically active, a phenomenon often summarized by the pseudo-scientific term “water memory” — Benveniste’s scientific findings have never been replicated. Akomfrah mines this idea for its transformational power.

The artist also cites academic Steven Feld’s term “acoustemology” in this installation, which indicates a sonic way of being and existing in the world, and he uses sound throughout in a manner that feels more complex than his previous work. Akomfrah threads a needle to connect stories from places as disparate as Kenya, Scotland, and Bangladesh, to address how the demographics and culture of the UK are a product of natural and unnatural forces that continue to warp and influence the world daily. Above one of the installation’s many doorways, a quote from Édouard Glissant reads, “We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify. We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone.” This statement captures the wish that appears to be at the core of this conceptual treasure house. — HV

United States: the space in which to place me by Jeffrey Gibson, curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby and Abigail Winograd

A gorgeous celebration of Jeffrey Gibson’s Indigenous futurism, the US pavilion showcases the first Native American (Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee) artist to represent the United States at the global art event. Gibson’s love of color is very evident, as is his polyglot aesthetic sensibility, which synthesizes the world into his chromographic universe that dances to his beat, refuses to limit itself to the gallery, and doesn’t shy away from the shock of the new. Performers animate his pavilion at various times, but even then the artworks themselves are never marginalized, and often serve as a literal stage. The artist has a special knack for generously centering Indigenous communities, while allowing his vision to snake through our minds until we, too, are imagining a present where the United States centers Indigenous ideas and artists as vital to our own future. —HV

Uruguay: Latent by Eduardo Cardozo, curated by Elisa Valerio

This is a sleeper pavilion that lingered in my mind days and weeks after visiting. In dialogue with renowned Venetian painter Tintoretto, Cardozo’s installation fixates on the surface of a studio wall that he has transported to Venice before unfurling and hanging it to suggest fragility, volume, and even translation and migration. By transporting his personal studio space in Uruguay to this public venue using the stacco technique, Cardozo also suggests a type of undressing or nudity for an audience, who is always eager to understand what is going on in an artist’s studio and mind, so that they can sift through the pieces and discern what is of interest to them. Metaphors abound, and the mostly soft and faded palette of the objects, not to mention their cracks, folds, and textures, makes it feel like the work is eternally in a state of (self-conscious?) decay. — HV

Uzbekistan: Don’t miss the cue! by Aziza Kadyri, curated by Center for Contemporary Art Tashkent

We enter artist Aziza Kadyri’s Don’t miss the cue! from the backstage of a theater, referencing the House of Culture, which the curatorial statement describes  as “spaces from the past that were once vibrant community hubs in the early twentieth century” through much of Eurasia. Blue strips and rolls of fabric and assorted garments hang from production scaffolding. Visitors progress through a series of speculative installations before emerging at the frontstage, pushing through blue curtains to arrive at chairs and cameras directly facing them. It’s a jarring experience as viewers transition almost immediately from observer to observed, an effect designed to mirror the experience of migration. One camera feed shows the director’s view of the frontstage, shot from above, and another feed uses AI to place traditional suzani textile patterns on top of visitors’ faces.

One installation presents suzani textiles with AI-generated patterns on screens. New patterns emerge in illustration, bearing some resemblance to the traditional ones but clearly visually different. In one example, a peacock motif, referencing the Zoroastrian symbol of wisdom and fertility, shifts into sewing machines, while in another, a teapot transforms into a light “girl dinner.” Throughout, it feels like Kadyri is grappling with two forms of migration — that of Central Asian women and that of technology, as artificial intelligence interacts with Global South countries and individual and collective cultural expression. — AXM

Zimbabwe: Undone by Gillian Rosselli, Kombo Chapfika, Moffat Takadiwa, Sekai Machache, Troy Makaza, Victor Nyakauru, curated by Fadzai Veronica Muchemwa

You might have trouble finding this pavilion, which is quite a climb up unlit stairs (there’s also an elevator), but the trek is more than worth it as Zimbabwe continues to demonstrate why it is a powerhouse of art. The pavilion is centered around the concept of “kududunuka,” which is the process of unraveling the ideas of time; geography, space, identity, humanity, migration, and nationhood. Troy Makaza’s large wall works and colorful sculptural installation, “mwana wamambo muranda kumwe (A prince can be a slave anywhere)” (2023–24) — which is placed prominently at the entrance and forces you to negotiate how to walk past it into the exhibition — are some of the standouts in a rich display that reimagines the world through abstraction and appears to quote freely from the world around us. Makaza, like many of the artists on view, is working to develop a universal artistic language without losing the accents and specificity of Zimbabwe’s geography and lived realities, and I think it’s very much working. — HV


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