Not far from Venice’s “Giardini”—the site of the U.S. Pavilion at this summer’s 50th Venice Biennale—shoppers in search of Italy’s most sought-after and expensive handbags are in for a treat: Prada, Gucci, and a host of other Italian labels are all available for less than thirty euros. Even as low as twenty if your bargaining skills are good. Directly across from the entrances to these major Italian stores and along Venice’s bridges, fairly convincing copies of the costly originals offer Italy’s high-fashion items to throngs of international tourists for a fraction of the price. Perhaps more striking than the ubiquitous availability of these counterfeit bags, though, is the fact that they are sold by groups of young men, mostly from Senegal or other West African countries.
In "Speak of Me as I am,” Fred Wilson, the Bronx-born artist currently representing the United States at the Venice Biennale, uses this sort of contemporary Venetian social contrast—African immigrants making a living while undermining the exclusivity of the very culture from which they are excluded—as a starting point for his exploration of the history of black African presence in Venetian art and culture. Filling every space possible in the Palladian-style pavilion with a series of site-specific works, Wilson draws our attention to the often neglected corners of art history where African characters have played a significant role since the Renaissance.
Looming from the ceiling as you enter the building is an immediate indication that no space is to be overlooked: hanging overhead in the center of the rotunda, which has been painted school-bus yellow for the occasion, is a flamboyant glass chandelier commissioned by the artist from a workshop in Murano. Enormous, Baroque, and made entirely of opaque black glass, Wilson’s chandelier is contradictory: its darkness obscures light rather than illuminating it, casting a shadow over the entire entrance hall.
This shaded introduction hardly seems incidental as, metaphorically, the exhibition continues in the shadows. Alongside his site-specific pieces, Wilson includes his version of Venetian Renaissance masterpieces, installing them in such a way so as to reorient their subject. Rather than draw attention to the central aspects of the composition, Wilson highlights the periphery, directing his gaze (and the viewer’s) behind Venice’s art historical scenes where black African figures have been waiting in the wings for centuries.
Waiting, but certainly not in vain. In a series of four photographs installed in a brightly-lit room to the left of the entrance, Wilson crops art history, so to speak, to focus our attention on a different cast of characters. Visitors to Venice may recognize these figures from the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, that is, if they’ve managed to peel their eyes from the “major” masterpieces to be found there that fill many a tourist’s itinerary. But beyond Titian’s "Assumption of the Virgin" and paintings by Giovanni Bellini, there is also a series of statues that supports a marble tomb located to the side of these major attractions. It is here that Wilson focuses his attention to create his own version of this space, framing the work such that there are no distractions. No Titian, no view of the church, only four African individuals whose expressions, gestures and identity are all there is to see.