If you attended the Salon of 1863 in Paris you would remember Manet’s Olympia which caused quite a stir. You might also recall Alexandre Cabenal’s Birth of Venus if only because it strikes us now as such a dramatic riposte to the Manet. Yet despite its salacious rendering, it troubled no one. There was a lot of good painting in that Salon, but by the following year you would probably have forgotten most of what was in there. The same will be true of the 2019 Venice Biennale. I won’t soon forget the paintings of Njideka Akunyili Crosby—which were breathtakingly beautiful and genuinely new formally. She had a mini-retrospective in five large pictures in the central pavilion and then in the Arsenale, which tends to show the younger, more cutting edge work, she had a row of brand new (with one exception), astonishing little portrait heads in which she clearly took another big step both formally and conceptually.
Akunyili Crosby’s large paintings in the Giardini layer images from her Nigerian culture (where she lived until her late teens), the remnants of British culture (still evident in Nigeria today), and America (she went to Swarthmore College, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and Yale, married a man from Texas, and lives in Los Angeles). Her work is very much about this collision and hybridization of cultures and we viscerally experience with her the dynamic fluidity and arbitrary layering that defines the complexity of the times we live in. The deliberate iconography and highly skilled transfers and rendering in these paintings recall de Kooning’s famous “slipping glimpses” of reality; he transferred images from newspapers as in his 1956 Easter Monday in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Akunyili Crosby explained that “I think of myself as a woman, an Ibo woman, a Nigerian, and African, a person of color, an artist, and the fascinating thing is that the layers I add to identify myself changes over time. It just keeps broadening as I move farther out into the world.”1 This too is part of what makes Akunyili Crosby’s work technically and iconographically new, and so much of our moment.
Everyone loves to criticize every biennale, but the 2019 Venice Biennale is more or less how it’s supposed to be. The curator, Ralph Rugoff, from the Hayward Gallery in London, did a good job capturing the Zeitgeist—the complexity and the emphasis across the artworld on political issues, the passion for gender difference, and African/African Diaspora identity. The focus on climate change in so many works and the presence of performance is also evident and the academic “critical theory” language lies just below the surface. Akuyili Crosby refers to theorist Homi Bhabha’s idea of “third space or syncretic culture”2 but her work gives us a much more vivid account of the idea than he does; she doesn’t really need a citation.
Rugoff curated the Italian Pavilion (the main show in the Giardini) and the Arsenale and they reflect his biases toward discovering the young and the new, especially conceptual work; I was struck by the absence of the groundbreaking new work by established masters like Fred Tomaselli from New York or Chinese painters like Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang. But they are no longer young “disrupters”—to use the ridiculous but current jargon– and we all understand that the Biennale is all about the young and the new. So I don’t fault the curator for that. Moreover, the quality was generally high not only in the parts Rugoff curated but in more of the national pavilions than usual. I found the Ghana Pavilion by David Adjaye, particularly beautiful; the room of El Anatsui works was varied and wonderful; John Akomfrah’s film was breathtaking. There was a lot of terrific photography too, like the large format photographs by the South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi who played with tropes from fashion photography, manipulating her model’s hair—a loaded signifier—in the most surprising ways. The Indian street photography of Soham Gupta has particular poignancy.
Among the variety of other pavilions was an engaging, if end-of-the-world dystopian, Bergmanesque film noir by the Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour in the Danish Pavilion (which has nothing to do with Denmark), and Laure Prouvost installed a magical undersea world in the French Pavilion with sea creatures blown from Murano glass (also about climate change). So it’s not entirely surprising that the Golden Lion for the Biennale’s best pavilion went to the dark horse Lithuanian Pavilion which wasn’t an artwork in the usual sense but rather a deeply unsettling opera about climate change. Staged in a warehouse where you look down from a balcony on seaside vacationers lolling about on the beach as if the world weren’t coming to a cataclysmic end all around them from climate change (which we know from the libretto). Directed by Rugilė Barzdiukaitė with libretto by Vaiva Grainytė, and music by Lina Lapelytė, the production was an admonition to pay attention. An urgency with particular relevance to Venice which may go under thanks to the McConnell-Trump “Axis” powers.
1. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, interview published by the Tate, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeYP8ssD_BM
2. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, interview for the Whitney Museum of American Art, March 21, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPU8W2xBBf4