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Indigenous artists are the heart of the Venice Biennale

Yinka Shonibare’s “Monument to the Restitution of the Mind and Soul” (2023) at the “Nigeria Imaginary” pavilion before this year’s Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy, April 4, 2024. The piece contains clay replicas of 150 of the Benin Bronzes that a British expeditionary force plundered in 1897. (Matteo de Mayda/The New York Times)

By Julie Halperin

Before visitors step into any gallery at the 2024 Venice Biennale, opening April 20, Indigenous artists will have made their presence known.

A collective of painters from the Brazilian Amazon, MAHKU (Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin), will cover the facade of the central exhibition hall with an intricate mural. Inuuteq Storch, the first Greenlandic and Inuk artist to represent Denmark at the festival, will erect a “Kalaallit Nunaat” sign (or “Greenland”) above the pavilion’s entrance. (Greenland has been a self-governing country within the Danish Realm since 1979. )

The Brazil Pavilion nearby has been renamed the Hãhãwpuá Pavilion — one of many terms that Indigenous people use to describe the territory that, after colonization, became Brazil. “There is a very political aspect to the Indigenous presence in an artistic space like the Venice Biennale,” said Denilson Baniwa, the Hãhãwpuá Pavilion’s co-curator. “Our aim is to rewrite history and add a new chapter to art history.”

Beyond the U.S. Pavilion, featuring the art of Jeffrey Gibson, the Venice Biennale offers a taste of works by Indigenous, First Nations and Native artists around the globe. Here are some highlights.

The central exhibition

Indigenous artists are at the heart of “Foreigners Everywhere,” the Venice Biennale’s central exhibition. As Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of this year’s Biennale, sees it, the Indigenous artist is “frequently treated as a foreigner in his or her own land.” The first gallery at the Arsenale, Venice’s former shipyard complex, will host a monumental installation by the Mataaho Collective, four Maori women known for large-scale fiber sculptures. The 331-artist lineup also includes Native American artists Kay WalkingStick and Emmi Whitehorse; Brazilian Yanomani artists Joseca Mokahesi and André Taniki; Indigenous Australian artists Marlene Gilson and Naminapu Maymuru-White; and Maori artists Sandy Adsett and Selwyn Wilson, considered a founder of Maori Modernism, who died in 2002.

Australia Pavilion

Archie Moore, of Queensland, spent more than four years piecing together his family tree, which now stretches back centuries and encompasses 3,484 people. The story of his ancestors — Bigambul and Kamilaroi on his mother’s side, British and Scottish on his father’s — is the subject of his show at the Australia Pavilion, which he describes as a “holographic map of identity.” Moore, best known for re-creating his childhood home as an art installation, is the second First Nations artist to represent Australia at the Biennale (after Tracey Moffatt in 2017). With this project, he said, “I am bringing past family members into the present and the future where they can be viewed more humanely.”

Brazil/Hãhãwpuá Pavilion

The centerpiece of this exhibition is a mantle, or feathered cape, created by artist and activist Glicéria Tupinambá with the help of her community in southern Bahia. Only a dozen mantles survive from the colonial period — and, until recently, all were in European museums. (Denmark’s National Museum announced plans to return one to Brazil last year.) Glicéria hadn’t seen a mantle in person until a Paris visit in 2018. She realized her ancestors employed the same stitching technique to create the cape that the Tupinambá now use to create fishing nets. Glicéria’s contemporary mantle will be paired with a video installation by Olinda Tupinambá and a work by Ziel Karapotó made from fishing nets and replicas of ballistic projectiles. The project by Glicéria, who was jailed in Brazil in 2010 for several months with her 2-month-old baby after speaking out about police brutality, has an explicitly political bent: It includes letters Glicéria wrote to six European museums requesting the return of mantles in their collections.

Danish Pavilion

This year’s Danish Pavilion represents many firsts. It is the first time a Greenlandic artist has represented Denmark and the first time the country’s presentation has been dedicated entirely to photography. At 35, Inuk artist Inuuteq Storch is the youngest ever to take over the hallowed space. Visitors will encounter a kaleidoscope of images, including snapshots of Storch’s friends smoking and driving around his hometown, Sisimiut; a slideshow of his vast family photo archive; and formal portraits taken by John Moller, a Greenlandic photographer who died in 1935. Although Greenland has been photographed extensively since the mid-1800s, Storch noted that it has rarely been captured by its own people. “My works serve as my artistic means to subtly and intricately modify the prevailing perception of my country,” he said in a statement.

Timor-Leste Pavilion

Asia’s youngest nation, Timor-Leste, will make its Venice Biennale debut with an installation by Maria Madeira. Born in the village of Gleno, Madeira was airlifted to Portugal after Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in 1975. She spent seven years in a refugee camp outside Lisbon before her family resettled in Perth, Australia. (Timor-Leste celebrates the 25th anniversary of its independence from Indonesia this year.) Madeira’s installation — made from materials including the textile tais and betel nut, an ancient stimulant that grows on native palm trees — is conceived as a tribute to the resilience of Timorese women. During the Biennale’s opening week, Madeira will perform live, kissing the exhibition’s walls to leave lipstick marks behind and singing a traditional mourning song in the Indigenous language Tetun.

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