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Whispering breezes. Venice Biennale, 2022.

Part 2; Sounding Waters.

Zot Konn-Yeman/ or They Know-The Wise.

“They Know”, I felt the reverberation of voices pouring from my ears to my body. I was at Groggia Little Theater. “They Know”, I heard repeating. Again, whistling. The sound of shaken seeds.

Diaspora Pavilion Brochure 2022

Images of tropical plants trapped in a greenhouse were printed on traditional Mauritian fabrics. Two screens with moving images of colonial archives from remote unknown places. I had the feeling of crossing an inside-out scene of a matryoshka game, where nature is simultaneously trapped indoors, and it is escaping outdoors.

Everybody had to cross a garden to reach the venue hosting the Diaspora Pavilion for this Venice Biennale 2022. I was surrounded by the “Here and There”; I saw exotic nature boxed-in grips of British architecture. Tropicality in colonial time was shown, preserved, unmuted, and used as a sample for replication as if the colonizers were expecting some species extinction. Observing from the middle of the installation, I was metaphorically translocated to the basements of ethnographic museums.

This pavilion offered a time-limited, ongoing itinerant research-show: an installation performance created by the artist Shiraz Bayjoo in collaboration with Siyabonga Mthembu and Nicolas Faubert. The performances and the show asked the audience to take space in the installation and relate with the offered archival embodiments.

Video extract about one of the performances on Saturday, April 23rd

Touched by archives following the dancer’s movements. He physically designed the details of what is allowed to be a recognized history that depends on deliberate framing action. The artwork invited the audience to go beyond its institutionalism by sensing the archives and letting them live in the present. Meanwhile, we are cradled to an indefinite ancestors’ time through the singer’s voice.

The ongoing show interrogates extraction, methodology of archival selection, listing, and the reproduction of endemic species from tropical parts of the world to Europe. Through vision, sound, and movement, I came out of the Venetian theatre asking myself: “Who classified what I can consult as history today? Where is the invisible past that was deliberately unremembered?” Mimicking the framing action of the dancer, I embodied a counter agency imposed by museology. Supported by ancestors’ voices narrating what has been silenced, I was part of a liminal portal between spaces.

The Diaspora pavilion made a double statement toward the nation-state historical structure of the Biennale. They showed that the question of “homeland” is not made of national borders but of relational migration flows that root in displacements. Following this curatorial statement, the participants embodied the plurinational identity like diaspora is. They decided to perform and open the pavilion exclusively for three days before the general opening of the biennial to question the economic and symbolic capitals that are tacitly implicit for each nation in the act of taking part in the event. 

Venice’s waters move iodous breezes that narrate intercrossed diaspora stories from the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean that meet the ones (a)rising from the oceans’ currents.

Deep Dive (Pause) Uncoiling Memory

Stepping on several bridges’ stairs in Venice, I felt different presences.

“The walls and the waters talk”, I kept telling myself while walking towards the Scotland Pavilion, which was blessed by the suggestive location: the Cantieri Cucchini dock, a boat yard.

Alberta Whittle works with tapestry, film, and sculpture; she investigates historic legacies where contemporary expressions of racism, colonialism, and migration are connected and questioned. “The prisons are the new plantations,” her video declares. This last one of 40 min length traces an unfinished week calendar, with visual chapters from Monday to Saturday. She also questions love, migration, and death. 

It was a rainy day. Destiny desired that while the video showed a black girl playing in a looking like Scottish hills and castle ruins, a cold breeze came in from the open space of the boat dock. The installation is built in three areas; two are open to direct air. The communication between worlds was happening thanks to the salty humid air that caressed my face at that moment. The cold wind of that day was “bridging” with the wind present in the girl’s scene. The salinity of the air, bridged with the diaspora’s multiple trips the artist wanted to treat in her artwork. At times I was in Venice; at others, I was in Scotland, Sierra Leone, or Barbados.

It was too chilly for me; I took one of the blankets created for the installation that were available for use while continuing to watch the video. I felt warm, with a sense of care. The video showed the artist with another woman talking together and sharing love. It was custodianship that hugged my senses. Looking at the blanket, I saw names printed on it. And again, on the screen, the artist denounces police brutality in the UK and the USA toward the black population. Some of those victims’ names were warming up my cold body, physically and emotionally.

The artist says (selected text):

For me (young and old and now in-between).

My love song is to keep you warm and remind you of long

sweet nights where you tingled with joy.

Joy.

Maybe it was the joy of feeling free in your limbs,

In your heart as it expanded to breathe more deeply,

Was that freedom

I lick my finger and taste salt.

I feel the wind tell me how to navigate my path forward from

the past

(I love you).

Here I was with Alberta Whittle’s work: in-between bridging process, times, connection with different people and generations of the world, in the diaspora and beyond. I felt care, salt, sea, warm feelings, and love.

During my time in the Scottish Pavilion, these conditions have been tied, felt, and perceived.

At the end of the video installation, I took a tisane offered at the pavilion’s entrance, waiting for the rain to get calmer.

Ready to cross many of the urban Venetian bridges to continue the Biennale, while embracing her tasteful words, I take your hand, dear reader, asking you:

“Shall we go?”

Sovereignty

Here I am bringing you to what the curator Alemani defines as a “time capsule”: Simone Leigh’s work for the USA Pavilion.

Postcard of the grand pavilion housing the Cameroon /Togo exhibit at the Paris Colonial Exposition 1931. Her work: Façade 2022

The artist dares the representation of national pavilions with a roofing facade resembling a West African palace shown at the International Colonial Exposition in Paris, France (1930). A word kept repeating in my mind when I was in front of it: “Monumentality. Monu-mentality”. Simone Leight questions the mentality of the monuments and their legacies carried in the act of holding a space that is meant to represent a nation.

The USA national pavilion was constructed in Venice in 1931, one year after the representation of the Cameroonian-Togolese palace at the World’s Fair in Paris.  The artist decided to cover the unchanged colonial neoclassical style of the USA pavilion, with a re-representation of the African palace originally replicated by Europe. With this inside-out architectonic game, the artist reflects the time capsule of repetitive mimicry.

Visiting the pavilion there was a clear sense of desire for refabulation. Here came to my mind the historian James Olney (1984)[1], who observed that in the USA, in autobiographies of enslaved people in the pre-American Civil War era, there was a titular tag added to the works’ titles: “Written by Himself”, or “Written by Herself” (Yellin 1981)[2]. Stating the authorship in that historical moment was an explicit declaration of authors’ subjectification. 

The artist offers new hybridity with early black American material culture (from South Carolina) and the Universal exhibitions. She does not invert the dualistic gazing relationship between the looker and the looked-at that was displayed in the colonial world’s fairs (Apter 1996)[3]; on the contrary, she replaces the historical objectified stereotypical “other” with new subjective and mystic “objects” based on inherited images of Black female subjectivity.

Detail of Sfinge, 2022

Here again, I am inviting you, dear reader, to come with me to our last stop and visit. I ask you to be ready to feel with me and hear the collective amnesia blown by Venetian winds and waters. 

Feeling Her Way

“Feeling…”

Sonia Boyce invited us to dive into the lives made as sounds of five female musicians of English citizenship, described as Black women. I stepped into the historical British Pavilion; crossing its door was like passing the barriers of intimate communication through shared art practice. At the entrance, like the rest of the audience, I found myself in the middle of the collaborative process that Boyce asked to display with the other artists. Being in the Middle did not function as the feeling of being in a liminal space. My being was physically in what could be a room of a black British teenager: covered by wallpapers with album covers, posters, and cassettes displaced chaotically. The British Pavilion became a multiple home, and shared space where the selected Black British artists exchange their herstories. While singing, it was like listening to them chatting, laughing, and sharing.

I became we, as a member of the audience; that melted into a “we” with the artists. 

I, we, were here with you all.

“… Her…”

“Boyce asked the women to come up with a list of Black British female singers whose music they had grown up with. But in the first session, “it was very, very awkward,” said Boyce, “because it took literally about 10 minutes before anyone could think of anyone.” They had to consult family and friends to come up with names. This sociality, intimacy, requestioning is at the base of Boyce work that we integrated into our feeling while “feeling her(s) way”[4].

… Way”

I sat on pyrite chairs; this metal was named during the colonial time as the “fool’s god of colonization”. I was sat on historical foolishness while being surrounded by voices, stories, and sounds that touched -us- internally.

Sonia Boyce disintegrates the barriers between the public and the artists, welcoming those who are ready to be with her and them.

Sonia Boyce, selected sound recording, “Feeling her way” Installation 2022
 

My “I” is “Us”, is “They”. 

At the end of this journey at La Biennale, there is no separation between you, dear reader, and me.

Thank you.

Sounding Waters. 

MAICA GUGOLATI

You could also read the first part


[1] Olney, James. 1984 . “ ‘I Was Born’ : Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Callaloo, No. 20 (Winter, 1984) : 46-73.

[2] Yellin, Jean Fagan. 1981. « Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative. » American Literature (Duke University Press) Vol. 53 (No. 3): 479-486.

[3] Apter, Andrew. 1996. “The Pan-African Nation: Oil-Money and the Spectacle of Culture Nigeria .” Public Culture 8: 441-466.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/13/arts/design/sonia-boyce-venice-biennale.html?fbclid=IwAR0s6D_jQa_Ifjv09i84Mj3WiYMEoQfdHHpiKDTmo_X86mXSNMcXjtfOnzw

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