Silencing and Un-silencing at the Venice Biennale
Silencing and Un-silencing at the Venice Biennale

The arrival of Freedom Boat— flying maritime flags specially created by artists Nicole Eisenman and Rosalind Nashashibi with artists, curators, filmmakers and writers as passengers docked near Giardini, and then engaged all those present with reading in support of Palestine. Not only was this a powerful evocation of a history of people fleeing and finding refuge but also echoed the marginalized status of Palestine at the Venice Biennale, where it has been officially denied a Pavilion. This however, has not been able to keep the pro-Palestinian voice from reverberating through the works from across the world. The voyages of Freedom Boat organized by Artists Against Apartheid, echoed the resistance chant ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’.

The 60th edition of the Venice Biennale finally opened on April 20, under the rubric ‘Foreigners Everywhere’, but it has been in the media since February, when over 9000 art professionals called for the Israeli Pavilion to be shut down. This call given by Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA) was to inforce the interim ruling of the International Court of Justice in January, which found “plausible” evidence that Israelʼs ongoing assault on Gaza is breaking the 1951 Genocide Convention. When the Biennale authorities ignored this call, their double speak became evident because the Russian Pavilion, after its attack on Ukraine, was closed at the last 59th Venice Biennale and a similar treatment of Israel was expected by the world art community.

On the press preview day, the Israeli artist Ruth Patir and curator tried to counter the adverse publicity by refusing to open the Israeli Pavilion; the notice outside read, that it would not be opened till ceasefire in Gaza and exchange of prisoners. Zach Feuer in Hyperallergic writes ‘She (the artist) timed the statement perfectly at the press preview to maximize coverage. She was able to steal part of the show, pretending not to participate (even though you can still see her work through the pavilion window), and gets to portray herself as a victim and someone working for peace, which is not liberation’.

The Venice Biennale may have decided to join the European government with the blackout but the protest to end the war that has killed over 30,000 people since last October, with the largest number of children than any conflict on this planet, is being vigorously condemned everywhere in Venice. The pro-ceasefire demonstrations spilt symbolic blood in front of the pavilion of Israeli and US pavilions when they covered the ground with red flyers with the words “No Death in Venice—No to the Genocide Pavilion.” Similar protests outside the French, British, and German pavilions drew attention to their active role in the conflict as arms suppliers and their conscience-less blocking of condemnations of Israel at every world forum.

Away from the grand venues, in an old salt cellar of a small venue with exposed, crumbling brick and thick wooden rafters at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac, is located a trove of Palestinian memories. Visually evocative of lived experiences of the land, familial tragedy, destruction and loss. This exhibition by the Palestinian organization Artists and Allies of Hebron has been named as one of 30 officially sanctioned Collateral Events for the 60th Venice Biennale. Faisal Saleh explained that this exhibition is a compromise because the original proposal “Foreigners in their Homeland,” was not allowed because of it’s critique of the conditions of apartheid under which Palestinians live. In the work, the experience of constant surveillance was replicated by Artists and Allies of Hebron, who secretly installed their own camera in an olive grove to transmit a livestream to museums across Europe. Their intention was to use the same invasive technology as a tool to safeguard Palestinian culture of which the olive tree is a symbol. The camera keeps a vigilant eye over the olive trees while locals go about tending to the plants— to the creators this is their everyday act of resistance.

At Arsenale, one of the major venues, Mexican artist Frieda Toranzo’s huge work Rage Is A Machine In Times of Senselessness (2024), cannot go unnoticed to all who enter.

It recalls Israeli Government’s criminalization of the use of the Palestinian flag in Gaza and the West Bank after the six-day War in 1967. To challenge this ban, the watermelon (which has similar colors as the flag) became a potent symbol of their resistance. On her canvas the reference to Palestine comes in the form of images of watermelons, on one of them the artist has painted the phrase “viva Palestina”. At the back of the canvas the message “Hearts that unite against genocide” frame an embroidered anatomical heart.

Also at the Arsanale, two video works confront visitors with moving visuals of Palestinian lives, how it is lived at home and in exile. In Bouchre Khalil’s video collection, The Mapping Journey Project (2008-11), that highlight the perilous routes taken by people illegally across borders, includes a young Palestinian man’s convoluted path from Ramallah to East Jerusalem keeping the Israeli checkpoints in mind.

Marco Scotini, in his installation Disobedience Archives with 39 videos on art and political action, has included scenes from Palestinian filmmaker Khaled Jarrar’s Notes on Displacement that document the family of an elderly Palestinian woman, who has been a refugee since the age of 12, as she and her family flee violence in Damascus through the Mediterranean to Germany. Also on display are small gestures of solidarity; Daniela Ortiz, the Peruvian artist features a small Palestinian flag in the corner of the screen of her puppet theatre show with the message “boycott Israeli pavilion, Free Palestine”. At Belgium’s pavilion, a pamphlet was on display with a heading that read “the Palestinian pavilion”. It calls for the art world to “organize and resist on multiple fronts to halt the genocide and prevent it as a future”.

The Venice Biennale, on the surface, may appear to be a benign international cultural space, but it too has its own history of neo- imperial ambitions that started with the allocation of permanent pavilions to power brokers and its allies after World War 2. The colonial mindset of the gatekeepers has always dictated the game of exclusion with the rest of the world; the most recent move was the closing down of the Russian Pavilion for its aggression against Ukraine and yet defending the Israeli pavilion, while its genocide in Gaza continues. Disallowing a Palestinian Pavilion on the pretext that Italy does not recognize Palestine as a country, somehow does not sound kosher, as the temporary Saami Pavilion, several years ago, also belonged to a country not recognized by Italy.  All the untruths, manipulation and disenfranchisement have long been the tools of colonial control; in confronting them the pro-Palestinian artists and their supporters are denying them legitimacy, an important step towards the decolonization of culture institutions.

Title Image: Frieda Toranzo ( Mexico), ‘Rage is a Machine in Times of Senselessness’, Oil pigments and embroidery on canvas, size: variable, 2024: image courtesy La Biennale di Venzia

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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