Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

Arguably the world’s most popular and comprehensive international arts event, the Venice Biennale continues to be an inspirational experience to artists and art lovers alike. Generally speaking, Biennales are important international events, since it entails crucial, public sites for the production, distribution, and generation of public discourse around contemporary art. An art biennale is furthermore an event during which audiences can encounter various forms of art and ideas from all over the world. Relations are set up between different cultures, countries and individuals through cultural dialogue and exchange of ideas. Another advantage is the fact that under-used public and private spaces can be utilised for fringe exhibitions, leading to urban renewal, and since a biennale celebrates the cultural life of a city, it attracts domestic and international visitors through so-called cultural tourism. These factors are also applicable to the Venice Biennale as probably the most prevalent of the Biennales.

The Venice Biennale has its origin towards the end of the 19th century when the Italian king, King Umberto I, nicknamed ‘The Good’ (Il Buono), proposed hosting a multi-disciplinary arts event in celebration of his silver wedding anniversary with Queen Marguerite (Artstein s.a.). In 1893 the mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, committed to transforming the artists’ evening meetings at the famous Caffè Florian on Saint Mark’s Square into a prestigious international exhibition. On 19 April 1893, the Venetian City Council passed a resolution to set up an Esposizione Biennale Artistica Nazionale (Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art) to be inaugurated on 22 April 1894. At the council meeting of 30 March 1894, the first decisions were taken: to adopt a ‘by invitation’ system; to reserve a section of the Exhibition for foreign artists too; and to admit works by uninvited Italian artists, as selected by a jury. On 6 April 1894 Selvatico announced the first Exhibition for the following year. On 10 April, economist and scholar Antonio Fradeletto was nominated as the Secretary-General. The place of work was the little Council library and the first Venice Biennale then took place in 1895.

Umberto I was assassinated in 1900, but his legacy to the arts remains to this day in the form of the Venice Biennale that continues to present events as follows: The Art Biennale takes place every two years on odd-numbered years, starting in 1895; the Venice Biennale of Architecture takes place on even-numbered years, starting in 1980; the Biennale Musica (the International Festival of Contemporary Music) takes place annually in September and October, starting in 1930; the Biennale Teatro (International Theatre Festival) takes place annually in July and August, starting in 1934; the Venice Film Festival takes place annually in August and September, starting in 1934; the  Dance Biennale takes place annually in June, starting in 2004 (between 2010 and 2016 it took place biennially); and the International Kids’ Carnival takes place annually during the Venice Carnevale in February, starting in 2009. (For a comprehensive overview of the sequence of Art Biennales, please see the Addendum).

Figure 2. Entrance to the main exhibition space of the Venice Biennale at Giardini, 2019. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.

The Venice Art Biennale (Figure 2) is a contemporary visual art forum consisting of a main exhibition curated by the official Biennale curator (a new one with every Biennale), hosted at two principal sites, Giardini and Arsenale. At these two venues, most countries of the world have permanent exhibition spaces, so-called ‘pavilions’. Countries have to fund their participation themselves. Each country appoints curator(s) who then selects one or more artists to represent their country. The main Biennale curator sets a theme, which the individual regional curators have to respond to in their selection of work. In addition to the main pavilions, there is usually a host of fringe exhibitions in venues scattered all over Venice (Figure 1). From very early on awards were given to best performances and exhibitions to stimulate and reward quality art production. Many artists have launched their international recognition at the Venice Biennale through the enormous publicity generated by the event.

The 58th International Art Exhibition, entitled May You Live In Interesting Times, takes place from 11 May to 24 November 2019. The Biennale showed a record of 90 national participations, nine of which are from Africa, with Ghana and Madagascar debuting their respective pavilions at the Arsenale. Ralph Rugoff, the current director of the Hayward Gallery in London, curated the Exhibition. Between 1985 and 2002 he wrote art and cultural criticism for numerous periodicals, publishing widely in art magazines as well as newspapers, and published a collection of essays, Circus Americanus (1995). During the same period, he began working as an independent curator. On the official Venice Biennale website (, Rugoff explains his curatorial theme as follows (Ralph Rugoff s.a.):

TERMS OF REFERENCE: In a speech given in the late 1930s, British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain invoked an ancient Chinese curse that he had learned of from a British diplomat who had served in Asia, and which took the curious form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ ‘There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us,’ Chamberlain observed. ‘We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.’ This summary sounds uncannily familiar today as the news cycle spins from crisis to crisis. Yet at a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference. In this case it turns out that there never was any such ‘ancient Chinese curse,’ despite the fact that Western politicians have made reference to it in speeches for over a hundred years. It is an ersatz cultural relic, and yet for all its fictional status it has had real rhetorical effects in significant public exchanges. At once suspect and rich in meaning, this kind of uncertain artefact suggests potential lines of exploration that are worth pursuing at present, especially when the ‘interesting times’ it evokes seem to be with us once again. Hence the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia will be titled after a counterfeit curse.

ART AS A GUIDE: May You Live in Interesting Times will no doubt include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the ‘post-war order.’ But let us acknowledge at the outset that art does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics. Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world, for instance, nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples across the globe (whose numbers now represent almost one percent of the world’s entire population). But in an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’ The 58th International Art Exhibition will not have a theme per se, but will highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking. The Exhibition will focus on the work of artists who challenge existing habits of thought and open up our readings of objects and images, gestures and situations. Art of this kind grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory and incompatible notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world. Artists who think in this manner offer alternatives to the meaning of so-called facts by suggesting other ways of connecting and contextualising them. Animated by boundless curiosity and puncturing wit, their work encourages us to look askance at all unquestioned categories, concepts and subjectivities. It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points, and to discern the ways in which ‘order’ has become the simultaneous presence of diverse orders.

May You Live in Interesting Times will take seriously art’s potential as a method for looking into things that we do not already know – things that may be off-limits, under-the-radar, or otherwise inaccessible for various reasons. It will highlight artworks that explore the interconnectedness of diverse phenomena, and that convey an affinity with the idea, asserted by both Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that everything connects with everything else.

May You Live in Interesting Times springs from a belief that interesting art creates forms whose particular character and delineation raise questions about the ways in which we mark cultural boundaries and borders. Intelligent artistic activity involves creating forms that call attention to what forms conceal, and the functions that they fulfil. The Exhibition will highlight art that exists in-between categories, and which questions the rationales behind our categorical thinking.

May You Live in Interesting Times will aim to welcome its public to an expansive experience of the deep involvement, absorption and creative learning that art makes possible. This will entail engaging visitors in a series of encounters that are essentially playful, taking into account that it is when we play that we are most fully ‘human.’ This will mean tweaking aspects of the exhibition format where possible to make sure they are sympathetically aligned with the character of the art being presented.

MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES: Finally, May You Live in Interesting Times will be formulated in the belief that human happiness depends on substantive conversations, because as social animals we are driven to both create and find meaning, and to connect with others. In this light, the Exhibition will aim to underscore the idea that the meaning of artworks are not embedded principally in objects but in conversations – first between artist and artwork, and then between artwork and audience, and later between different publics. Ultimately, Biennale Arte 2019 aspires to the ideal that what is most important about an exhibition is not what it puts on display, but how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterwards, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies. An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.

Many countries and curators did not follow Rugoff’s curatorial brief closely, but those that stand out, such as Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, and Ghana, broadly correspond with his vision. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive overview of all the Biennale exhibitions in this article, therefore only the award-winning pavilion of Lithuania and that of South Africa are presented here.

The Lithuanian Pavilion at the Marina Militare, Fondamenta Case Nuove 2738c, Calle de la Celestia in Castello, won the Golden Lion for the best national exhibition (Figures 3 and 4, Sun & Sea (Marina) 2019, video clip available at Entitled Sun & Sea (Marina) and consisting of an installation as well an opera with libretto, the exhibition was curated by Lucia Pietroiusti and produced by the artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. The exhibition was commissioned by Rasa Antanavičiūtė (Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Art) and Jean-Baptiste Joly (Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart). The opera performance takes place every Wednesday and Saturday (until October 31) from 10 am until 6 pm. On the other days, one can listen to the opera and watch the empty beach.  The curatorial statement for the exhibition is as follows:

Imagine a beach – you within it, or better: watching from above – the burning sun, sunscreen and bright bathing suits and sweaty palms and legs. Tired limbs sprawled lazily across a mosaic of towels. Imagine the occasional squeal of children, laughter, and the sound of an ice cream van in the distance. The musical rhythm of waves on the surf, a soothing sound (on this particular beach, not elsewhere). The crinkling of plastic bags whirling in the air, their silent floating, jellyfish-like, below the waterline. The rumble of a volcano, or of an airplane, or a speedboat. Then a chorus of songs: everyday songs, songs of worry and of boredom, songs of almost nothing. And below them: the slow creaking of an exhausted Earth, a gasp.

The word ‘imagine’ features prominently in the statement, suggesting the idea of a fictive place of leisure, while threats of an endangered and exhausted environment are looming. Utopian notions of world-making, ideas of a ‘good place’ and leisure, are depicted through an artificial beach installation inside a spacious warehouse in the unique setting of the Marina Militare adjacent to the Arsenale. From the mezzanine gallery, spectators can observe people in colourful bathing suits lying on their towels on the beach. Throughout the contemporary opera performance, which presents an everyday leisurely scene on the beach, the characters sing songs, both solo and in unison. An innovative aspect of the work is that the public is invited as ‘props’ to participate as beachgoers in the performance; the only requirement is to lounge on the beach for at least three consecutive hours. As a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, there is an interdisciplinary mingling of theatre, music and visual arts, explored through topics ranging from trivial concerns about sunburn and plans for future vacations to some of the most pressing issues of our times such as fears of environmental catastrophe (Review Of The Art Biennale 2019: Lithuania).

Figures 3 and 4. View and video clip from mezzanine floor, Lithuania Pavilion, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.

Fitting the utopian genre, the commentary in the songs departs from the everyday present that is full of problems and not always so pleasant and proposes pleasurable, teleologically better places and futures. The beach as site embodies the dream of such a place; simultaneously it acts as a liminal place on the boundary between the reality of everyday life and the ‘good place’. The beachgoers become symbolic actors on a utopian stage where the walls of the venue form the boundary edges of the utopian dream. In The production of space, Henri Lefebvre (1991:384) argues that the beach is the only place of enjoyment that the human species has discovered in nature. As a result “It [the body] behaves … as a total body, breaking out of the temporal and spatial shell developed in response to labour” (Lefebvre 1991:384). In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre notes that in “the modern era” beaches have been discovered “as a space of enjoyment that could be used by everyone, all class distinctions being dissolved in a strip of land near the sea” (Lefebvre in Gordillo 2014). Democratic places of leisure like the beach for Lefebvre are “an extension of dominated space” (Gordillo 2014). Camillo Buano (2015: 547) refers to Lefebvre’s architecture of enjoyment as a space that cannot consist of a building, an assembly of rooms, places determined by their functions, but rather spaces of play. “Only collective gestures and actions can create spaces of enjoyment, primarily through an ‘economy of joy’”; all spaces and architecture are created as projects through the imagination of a possible, a future; there is “no plan without utopia; and there is no social space without an equally distributed stock of possible” (Lefebvre in Buano 2015: 547).

 Sun & Sea (Marina) embraces such ideas of the creation of utopian spaces of leisure as social, embodied spaces where people can play and escape from reality. Conceptually, the exhibition fully realises Rugoff’s main curatorial theme for May You Live In Interesting Times, since it reflects his objective for artworks to “raise questions about the ways in which we mark cultural boundaries and borders”, as well as to engage visitors in encounters that are playful, “taking into account that it is when we play that we are most fully ‘human’”. It also links to Rugoff’s objective to “underscore the idea that the meaning of artworks are not embedded principally in objects but in conversations … and how audiences can use their experience of the exhibition afterwards, to confront everyday realities from expanded viewpoints and with new energies. An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world.” Not only does the work comment conceptually and intellectually on the creation of spaces of leisure, but as an event and a spectacle it becomes entertaining, engaging and pleasurable.

Figure 5. Displayed curatorial statement for The stronger we become, 2019. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.

The curatorial theme for South Africa’s pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale is The stronger we become. The exhibition includes the work of Tracey Rose, Dineo Bopape, and Mawande Ka Zenzile and was curated by Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu. In their curatorial statement (The stronger we become s.a.) the curators state that the exhibition is a trialogue about resilience, expounded through the work of Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose, and Mawande Ka Zenzile. Kuijers (2019) provides an explanation to the title of the exhibition as derived from the song (Something Inside) So Strong by Labi Siffre, a British musician and the child of diasporic immigrants; a song inspired by a documentary about Apartheid which showed white soldiers opening fire on black civilians and a soulful expression of solidarity and self-worth in the face of struggle. In a strongly worded curatorial statement compounded with political terminology and current polemics, the exhibition addresses the crux of post-apartheid and decoloniality sentiments operative in South Africa.

The curators interpret the artists’ work as probing the politics of self-determination, situatedness, political displacement, and epistemic violence. They further state that under the weight of the country’s complex histories, being resilient is the capacity and the will to resist historical injustice and that it is through the simple things in everyday life – laughter, conversation and play – that powerful forms of resistance emerge and unknown but shared histories, hidden epistemes, and the intricacy of neglected knowledge systems can be uncovered. They consider the artists as interrogating gaps and silences as socially located, political struggles in order to reckon with the failure, misadventure, and deficiency of postcolonial, post-apartheid democracies.

The curators further propose the exhibition to be based on the politics of space and time, and as tackling perplexing questions about land, displacement, mobility and, intimately tied to this, rights. In their statement, they view the exhibition as engaging with affective politics, of anger, outrage, exhilaration, optimism, and disappointment, and by doing this as pointing directly to the quest of the struggle, namely dignity. It is stated that they are acknowledging the climate of cynicism and disillusionment in contemporary life, and what it is that makes us tenaciously human, in the context of a dehumanising history.

All three artists’ artworks on the South Pavilion speak to these concerns. Especially Ka Zenzile’s organic two-dimensional works deliver potent comment in this regard. The artist was born in Lady Frere, Eastern Cape, in 1986 and is currently completing an MA Fine Arts degree at Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT. Since 2013, Ka Zenzile has held five solo exhibitions at Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Stevenson (Mawande Ka Zenzile 2017) interprets his work as drawing a link between politics and perception and as shifting into non-representational imagery so as to sieve ideologies and convert these into material for his works. His work is characterised by his predominant use of cow dung as painting medium alongside oil paint, and he derives his subject matter from various sources, including but not limited to his own IsiXhosa modality, questions around ontology, popular imagery as well as socio-political and esoteric knowledge (Mawande Ka Zenzile 2017).

Utilising autoethnographic visual language grounded in local African materials and socio-political subject matter as in Intellectual convictions and Behaviorism 101 (Figures 5 and 6), abstract visual language opens up the content to various interpretations. The viewer is guided to understanding context through the titles of the work, which points to ideology as a result of intellectual conviction and its patterns of behaviour and other consequential materialisations. Behaviorism 101 is inscribed with the words “The four stages of subversion – Demoralization – Destabilization – Crisis –- Normalization”. Whilst presenting subversive resistance to unwanted ideology in soft protest format, the artist communicates his philosophical observation of the stages of subverting oppression and domination.

Figure 5. Mawande Ka Zenzile, Left: Intellectual convictions, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 900 x 1790mm. Right: Behaviorism 101, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 905 x 490mm. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.

Aftermath as concept stands out pertinently in Dineo Bapape’s installation entitled Marapo a yona Dinaledi (Its bones the stars), Figure 7. In an ongoing way, Bopape’s work has been characterised by a preoccupation with loss, memory, history, and issues of sexual and gender identity. The ideological content in the work speaks to rampant chaos, dishevelment and ‘unfinished business’ as consequence of the ravage of colonial and apartheid enterprises. Similar to the work of Cathy Wilkes on the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2019, objects in the installation are presented as undone, partial, fragmentary, and ravaged, becoming metaphors of memory in the fragile histories of political and gender violence.

Known predominantly for her performance work, video, installation, and photography, Tracey Rose’s work on the Biennale once again explores issues of identity and the politics of gender, sexuality, and race. In Hard black on cotton (Figure 8) Rose engages with cultural conflation and the absurdities of one culture imposing on another. As part of the narrative unfolding, an African man dressed in traditional clothes is depicted as attempting to read and pronounce Latin to no avail. The artist deconstructs notions of flattened differences in the formation of global culture in the third millennium, and the difficulties in reconciling differences between cultures, a view that responds to current polemics of migrant permeation and, similar to the other two artists on the South African Pavilion, the legacies of colonial and apartheid histories.

Figure 6. Mawande Ka Zenzile, Left: Intellectual convictions, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 900 x 1790mm. Right: Behaviorism 101, 2018. Cow dung, gesso and oil on canvas, 905 x 490mm. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.

The South African Pavilion certainly presents one of the more successful shows on the Biennale, claiming a distinct modern African identity grounded in its own ethnographies, sensibilities, and encounters. Although it engages with mainstream political battles in post memorial context, its unique attribute is the commonality of the use of indigenous materials, the confluence of digital and material culture, and the digital divide characterising African communities.

The Venice Biennale as a kind of World Olympics of art continues to function as debatably the foremost venue for the presentation of vanguard, progressive contemporary art. The artworks presented reflect their times, whether following the overarching curatorial theme or not, so that the spectator is provided with a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into thinking, fears, and joys driving the world as it stands.

Figure 7. Dineo Sesee Bopape, Marapo a yona dinaledi (Its bones the stars), Sketch no 22. 2019. Installation. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.
Figure 8. Tracey Rose, Still from Hard black on cotton, 2019. Film. Photo credit: Elfriede Dreyer.

Addendum: Comprehensive overview of the history of the Venice Art Biennale

The summary of Art Biennales below has been compiled according to the information available on the official site of the Venice Biennale, La Biennale Di Venezia (, Wikipedia ( and other sources on the Venice Biennale as listed in the Bibliography. On some of the Biennales there is not much information available. South Africa’s participation receives specific attention. The focus is only on the main exhibition venues, but over the years some South African artists also exhibited privately in Venice.

The 1st International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. During the winter of 1894-1895, work continued on the construction of the Palazzo dell’Esposizione (exhibition venue) in the Giardini di Castello. The design was by the City Council’s architect, Enrico Trevisanato, and the neoclassical façade by Venetian artist, Marius De Maria. Its name was initially ‘Pro Arte’ and was subsequently changed to ‘Italia’. On 30 April, the I Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia (1st International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice) was opened in the presence of the King and Queen, Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia. The exhibition met with great public acclaim (224,000 visitors).

The 2nd International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. In the early 1900s, an increasing number of works by British artists were shown at the Venice Biennale, some of whom were presented with gold medals. This growing presence of British art at the Biennial led to the opening of a separate exhibition space later in 1909 called the British Pavilion.

The 3rd International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. On 18 May, the new Modern Art Gallery opened at Ca’ Pesaro, thanks to a bequest from duchess Bevilacqua-La Masa. Its management was left to the Biennale’s secretariat.

The 4th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. French art found visibility with an exhibition of French landscape of the 1930s with the work of Corot and Millet, and a solo of Rodin. 

The 5th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. The 5th Biennale exhibition included decorative arts and the Salon des Refusés.

Foreign pavilions (not Italian) arrived in 1907. The first national pavilion opened in the Giardini di Castello, that of Belgium, followed by Britain, Germany and Hungary.  The 6th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. Monet visited the Biennale in Venice and painted almost 40 canvases as a result.

The 7th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. On 8 July, futurist poet Marinetti arranged a drop of anti-Biennale leaflets in St. Mark’s Square. The first names of international repute appeared on the scene, with one room dedicated to Klimt, a one-man show for Renoir, and a retrospective dedicated to Courbet. Fradeletto had a work by Picasso removed from the Spanish salon in the central Palazzo, fearing that its novelty might shock the public. The first exhibition of the Spanish artist’s work at the Biennale was in 1948.

The 8th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. The French and Swedish Pavilions arrived, but Sweden was transferred to the Netherlands in 1914.

The 9th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. The façade of the Pro Arte Pavilion was restored. With the inauguration of the Russian pavilion, the number of national pavilions in the Giardini other than the Italian Pavilion rose to seven: Belgium (1907), Hungary (1909), Germany (1909), Great Britain (1909), France (1912), and Russia (1914). Between 1916 and 1918, the Biennale was cancelled because of the First World War.

The 10th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. During World War I, the 1916 and 1918 events were cancelled.

The 11th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. Cancelled.

The 12th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. For the first time, the post of mayor of Venice and president of the Biennale was split. This marked the presence of avant-garde art at the Biennale (Impressionists, Post-impressionists, Die Brücke): Signac, curator of the French Pavilion, exhibited his own work, Cézanne, Seurat, Redon, Matisse and Bonnard. The Netherlands offered a retrospective of Van Gogh, and Switzerland on Hodler.

The 13th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. The first retrospective of Modigliani was held, as well as an exhibition of sculpture by African artists. These selections caused some criticism and diffidence, and in order to restrict the ‘boldness’ of Pica, the town council set up an Administrative Board to work alongside him (in part a board of directors, in part a controller of the cultural selections), which initially comprised 7 members (these became 8 in 1924, 13 in 1926 and 9 in 1928; the Board was dissolved in 1930). There was also an exhibition of sculpture by African artists.

The 14th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venic.. The Russian Pavilion had a strong presence at this Biennale, as a result of Russian work being exhibited during the 1920s in a number of countries in Europe.

The 15th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. An exhibition of Futurists was shown. The Czechoslovakian Pavilion was added.

In 1927 an independent location for the head office was established in a ground-floor warehouse of Palazzo Ducale. The 16th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice. The Istituto Storico d’Arte Contemporanea (Historical Institute of Contemporary Art) opened its doors on 8 November; this constituted the first nucleus of archival collections of the Biennale. In 1930 its name was changed to Historical Archive of Contemporary Art.

In 1930 the term ‘Biennale’ came into use. The 17th Venice Biennale had 11 participating nations. The Biennale was transformed into an Ente Autonomo (Autonomous Board) by Royal Decree with law no. 33 of 13-1-1930. The forms of financing and the board’s articles of association were established by a decree of 1931. With this transformation, the Biennale passed from the control of the Venice City Council to that of the Italian fascist state. Thanks to increased funds and the impulse provided by its president, count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, new events were set up (Music, Cinema, and Theatre) and the Biennale took on the multidisciplinary character that it has to this day. The pavilion of the United States of America was built in the Giardini.

The 18th Venice Biennale had 13 participating nations. The Festival was organised for the first time in 1932, under the auspices of the President of the Biennale, Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, the sculptor Antonio Maraini, and Luciano De Feo and obtained a great popularity, so as to become an annual event from 1935 onwards.

The 19th Venice Biennale had 16 participating nations. In 1934 the International Theatre Festival was added. The Austrian Pavilion was built in 1934.

The 20th Venice Biennale had 13 participating nations. Britain included the so-called East London Group.

The 21st Venice Biennale had 18 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Ignacio Zuloaga, Herman Hubacher, Blair Hughes-Stanton, Felice Casorati, Venanzio Crocetti, and Mario Delitala.

1939 – 1945
Following the outbreak of hostilities during the Second World War, the activities of the Biennale were interrupted in September 1942. The last edition of the Art Exhibition took place in 1942 to resume in 1948 only. In September 1943, Cinecittà installed itself in the Giardini di Castello, using the pavilions as studios (Cinevillaggio), and remained there until April 1945.

The 22nd Venice Biennale had 12 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Vilmos Aba Novàk, Arno Breker, Maurice Brocas, Felice Carena, Guido Galletti, and Marcello Boglione.

The 23rd Venice Biennale, had 11 participating nations.  Winners of the Gran Premio included Arthur Kampf, Charles Otto Bänninger, Stif Borglind, Alberto Salietti, Francesco Messina, and Luigi Bartolini.

Due to the Second World War, the Biennales of 1944 and 1946 were suspended.

The International Art Exhibition reappeared as the 24th Biennale – the first following the war and the fall of fascism – with a major exhibition of a recapitulatory nature. The Secretary-General, art historian Rodolfo Pallucchini, started with the Impressionists (proposed by Roberto Longhi) and many protagonists of contemporary art (Chagall, Klee, Braque, Delvaux, Ensor, and Magritte). A retrospective of Picasso’s work was presented by Guttuso. Pallucchini invited Peggy Guggenheim to exhibit her famous New York collection, which subsequently found a home at Ca’ Venier dei Leoni and became one of the cultural treasures of modern Venice. Winners of the Gran Premio included Georges Braque, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Giorgio Morandi, Giacomo Manzù, and Mino Maccari.

Under Pallucchini, the Art Exhibitions became an observatory on contemporary art and avant-garde work. Awards were given to Braque (1948), Matisse (1950), Dufy (1952), Ernst and Arp (1954). In 1950, the US pavilion presented works by Pollock, Gorky and, for the first time, De Kooning. (In 1954 he returned with 27 paintings). Alexander Calder, in 1952, was the first major American artist to win the Gran Premioo di Scultura.

In 1949 the Arena at the Lido was enlarged and given its definitive arrangement. The Leone di San Marco, later renamed the Leone d’oro (Golden Lion) was created for the first time.

The 25th Venice Biennale had 23 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Henri Matisse, Ossip Zadkine, Frans Masereel, Carlo Carrà, Marcello Mascherini, Luciano Minguzzi, and Giuseppe Viviani.

South African Pavilion – In 1950 South Africa debuted at the Venice Biennale, exhibiting in the foreign halls of the Biennale’s central pavilion. Artists: Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern, Maud Sumner, Sydney Kumalo and Maurice van Essche. Stern exhibited throughout the 1950s in Venice. After 1950 to 1968 South Africa was excluded due to apartheid politics.

The 26th Venice Biennale had 26 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Raoul Dufy, Alexander Calder, Emil Nolde, Bruno Cassinari, Bruno Saetti, Marino Marini, and Toni Zancanaro.

The 27th Venice Biennale had 31 participating nations. Lucien Freud debuted at this Biennale. Winners of the Gran Premio included Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Giuseppe Santomaso, Periucle Fazzini, Paolo Manaresi, and Cesco Magnolato.

The 28th Venice Biennale had 34 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Jacques Villon, Lynn Chadwick, Shiko Munakata, Aldemir Martins, Afro, Emilio Greco, Zoran Music, Carlo Mattioli, and Anna Salvatore. South African Alexis Preller had an exhibition in Venice.

The exhibition of Giovani artisti italiani e stranieri (Young Italian and foreign artists) was presented within the 29th Art Exhibition that year. Baj, Crippa, Dorazio, Scanavino, and Jasper Johns were exhibited. Winners of the Gran Premio included Mark Tobey, Edurado Chilida, Fayga Ostrower, Osvaldo Licini, Umberto Mastroianni, and Luigi Spacal.

The 30th Venice Biennale had 34 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Jean Fautrier, Hans Hartung, Emilio Vedova, and Pietro Consagra.

Informal art was given an airing at the 31st Venice Biennale with Fautrier, Hartung, Vedova, and Consagra. Winners of the Gran Premio included Alfred Manessier, Alberto Giacometti, Antonio Berni, Giuseppe Gapogrossi, Ennio Morlotti, Aldo Calò, Umberto Milani, and Antonino Virduzzo.

The 32nd Venice Biennale introduced Europe to Pop Art: the Americans exhibited in the building that used to house the US consulate at San Gregorio. Robert Rauschenberg was the first American artist to win the Gran Premio, and the youngest to date. Winners of the Gran Premio included American painter Robert Rauschenberg, Zoltan Kemeny, Joseph Fassbender, Andrea Cascella, Arnaldo Pomodoro, and Angelo Savelli.

The 33rd Venice Biennale had 33 participating nations. Winners of the Gran Premio included Julio Le Parc, Robert Jacobsen, Étienne Martin, Masuo Ikeda, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Viani, and Ezio Gribaudo.

The artistic directors were Maurizio Calvesi and Guido Ballo. Student protests hindered the opening of the 34th Venice Biennale. A period of institutional changes started, ending up with a new Statute (1973). This Biennale had 34 participating nations. Inners of the Gran Premio included Bridget Riley, Nicolas Schöffer, Horst Janssen, Gianni Colombo, and Pino Pascali.

South African Pavilion – South Africa was not officially included as pavilion, but in 1968 Lucas Sithole and Rorke’s Drift weavers were included in the Biennale. Cecil Skotnes also showed work. South Africa only showed in 1993 again.

The artistic director was Umbro Apollonio. The 35th Venice Biennale had 33 participating nations. No prizes were awarded between 1970 and 1986.

The artistic director was Mario Penelope. For the first time, the 36th International Art Exhibition had a theme (as also in the following years): Opera o comportamento (‘Work or Behaviour’).

The artistic director was Vittorio Gregotti. The Venice Biennale was not held (it was resumed in 1976).

The artistic director was Vittorio Gregotti. July saw the inauguration of the new headquarters of the Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee (the ASAC, Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts), in Palazzo di Ca’ Corner della Regina at San Stae, Venice. The 37th Venice Biennale had 33 participating nations.

The artistic director was Luigi Scarpa. A quotation by Kandinsky, “great abstraction, great realism” provided the starting point for the 38th Art Exhibition, divided into six ‘stations’ with the title ‘From nature to art, from art to nature’.

The artistic director was Luigi Carluccio. The 39th Venice Biennale had 33 participating nations. Achille Bonito Oliva and Harald Szeemann introduced Aperto, a section for emerging artists.

The artistic director was Sisto Dalla Palma. The 40th Biennale was held in 1982 with 38 participating nations.

The artistic director was Maurizio Calvesi. From this Biennale onwards, specific curators have been appointed to curate the Biennale. The 41st Art Exhibition tackled the theme of Arte e arti (‘Art and arts’).

Calvesi, director of the Visual arts sector, revived the Gran Premio, which had not been assigned since the protests in 1968. The 42nd Exhibition explored the relationship between Art and Science.

The 43rd Art Exhibition, directed by Carandente, was entitled Il luogo degli artisti (‘The place of artists’), with 44 participating artists. Prizewinners included Jasper Johns (International Prize/Golden Lion), the Italian pavilion (best national participation), and Barbara Bloom (best young artist).

The 44th Art Exhibition had as its title Dimensione Futuro (‘Future dimension’). Amongst the special exhibitions were Ambiente Berlin, Homage to Chillida and Ubi Fluxus ibi Motus (commissioner Achille Bonito Oliva). Two exhibitions were held within the headquarters of the Historical Archives at Ca’ Corner della Regina: one on Tadeusz Kantor with theatre sets, costumes, machines, and objects, the other on four masters of contemporary print-making (Friedländer, Goetz, Hayter and Vedova). Prizewinners included Giovanni Anselmo and Bernd and Hilla Becher (International Prize/Golden Lions), the American pavilion with Jenny Holzer (best national representation) and Anish Kapoor (best young artist).

A three-year gap between exhibitions was left to ensure the 1995 edition would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Biennale.

The 45th Art Exhibition, which should have been held the year before, was postponed to this year to make the next Exhibition coincide with the Biennale’s centenary. The Biennale Director was Achille Bonito Oliva. Prizewinners included Richard Hamilton and Antoni Tapies (Golden Lion for painting), Robert Willson (Golden Lion for sculpture), the German pavilion with Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik (best national representation), and Matthew Barney (Premio 2000 for young artists).

South African Pavilion – Ostracised for decades due to apartheid, South Africa returned to Venice in 1993 on invitation from the director, Achilo Bonito Oliva. His theme was The Cardinal Points of Art. The South African Association of Arts (SAAA) curated the exhibition under chairmanship of Louis Jansen van Vuuren. There were three parts: two main artists, Jackson Hlungwani and Sandra Kriel, were part of Oliva’s exhibition in the Italian Pavilion; an exhibition of 24 artists in the Fondazione Levi; and Bonnie Ntshalintshali in the Aperto.

For the Centenary and the 46th Venice Biennale, it promoted events in every sector of its activity. At the centre of the events for the Centenary was the historic exhibition Identità e alterità (‘Identity and Alterity’), held in collaboration with Palazzo Grassi and curated by Jean Clair: an important recognition of the human face and body in the work of the leading artists of the 20th century, with works from the most important museums in the world. Prizewinners included: Ronald Kitaj (Golden Lion for painting), Gary Hill (Golden Lion for sculpture), the Egyptian pavilion (best national participation), and Kathy Prendergast (best young artist).

South African Pavilion – Curator: Malcolm Payne. Artists: Malcolm Payne (solo), Rudolph Hartzenberg and Brett Murray.

Whilst awaiting a reform of the Organisation, the Biennale’s Administrative Board was renewed.  The 47th Venice Biennale, curated by Germano Celant, revolved around the exhibition Futuro, Presente, Passato (‘Future, Present, Past’), in which three generations of artists between 1967 and 1997 met ‘virtually’. In total, the Exhibition hosted 58 participating countries. Golden Lions were awarded to Marina Abramoviç and Gerhard Richter.

The new Biennale kicked off: the 48th International Art Exhibition APERTO Over All recovered the historical spaces of the Arsenale (Artiglierie, Isolotto, Tese and Gaggiandre). Director: Harald Szeemann. Prize winners included Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Naumann (lifetime achievement); Italy (best national participation); and Doug Aitken, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Shirin Neshat (International Prize).

Director: Harald Szeemann. On 9th June, the official opening of the 49th Venice Biennale entitled Plateau of Humankind registered the largest participation of foreign countries in its history (63) and a record for the number of visitors (243,000) over the last 20 years. This edition of the festival introduced the novelty of a double competition by placing the Lion of the Year alongside the traditional Golden Lion; Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to Eric Rohmer.  Prizewinners included Richard Serra and Cy Twombly (lifetime achievement); Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Marisa Merz, Pierre Huyghe (International Prize); and Germany (best national participation).

The Venice Biennale presented its 50th edition: Dreams and Conflicts – The Dictatorship of the Viewer was the title chosen by director Francesco Bonami. The exhibition was open June 15 to November 2 and attracted a record number of 260,000 visitors. 64 countries participated. On 23 December the Italian Government approved the reform of the Biennale, presented by the Minister of Culture, which transformed the Biennale into a Foundation open to contributions from the private sector. Prizewinners included Michelangelo Pistoletto and Carol Rama (lifetime achievement); Peter Fischli and David Weiss (best work shown); Oliver Payne and Nick Relph (best young artists); Avish Khebrehzadeh (best young Italian female artist); and Luxembourg with Su-Mei Tse (best national participation).

The 51st Venice Biennale ran from June 12 to November 6, presenting two international exhibitions at the Giardini (The Experience of Art, directed by María de Corral) and at the Arsenale (Always a Little Further, directed by Rosa Martínez), 70 national participations and 30 collateral exhibitions. From 9 to 12 December, Robert Storr curated an international symposium on contemporary art, titled Where art worlds meet: Multiple modernities and the global salon. Prizewinners included Barbara Kruger (lifetime achievement); the French pavilion with Annette Messager (best national representation); Thomas Schütte (best in International Exhibition); and Regina José Galindo (best young artist).

The main event in 2007 was the 52nd Venice Biennale, directed by Robert Storr. Titled Think with the Senses – Feel with the mind. Art in the present tense, the exhibition attracted around 320,000 visitors in a 165-day open period, which was the highest result in the last 25 years. Golden Lion for an artist of the international exhibition: León Ferrari. Golden Lion for a young artist: Emily Jacir. Golden Lion for a critic or art historian for contributions to contemporary art: Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. Golden Lion for lifetime achievement: Malick Sidibé. Golden Lion for best national participation: Hungarian pavilion with Andreas Fogarasi.

The 53rd Venice Biennale, directed by Daniel Birnbaum and titled Making Worlds, was back at the Giardini and Arsenale venues attracting a record number of 375,702 visitors in the period 7 June to 22 November. Golden Lion for best artist of the exhibition: Tobias Rehberger. Silver Lion for the most promising young artist of the exhibition: Nathalie Djurberg. Golden Lions for lifetime achievement: Yoko Ono and John Baldessari. Golden Lion for best national participation: American pavilion with Bruce Nauman.

From 2009 La Biennale Library (Asac) forms an integral part of the Central Pavilion at Giardini. In 2010 the reading room was inaugurated, used for conferences and workshops. This Library is an important research resource and is interlinked with international library systems. Entrance for students and researchers is at Calle Paludo. This Library contains a multi-disciplinary collection, including forgotten manuscripts, posters, astrophysical information, for instance, rare books, and philological, engineering and botanical resources,

The 54th Venice Biennale, curated by art historian and critic Bice Curiger, ran June 4 to November 27. The exhibition was titled ILLUMInations and attracted over 440,000 visitors making it a new record number for the show. Golden Lion for best artist of the exhibition: Christian Marclay. Silver Lion for the most promising young artist of the exhibition: Haroon Mirza. Golden Lions for lifetime achievement: Sturtevant and Franz West. Golden Lion for best national participation: German pavilion with Christoph Schlingensief.

In 2011 South Africa was part of the Biennale again after a 16-year hiatus. South African Pavilion – Curator: Monna Mokoena. Artists: Nelisiwe Xaba and Zanele Muholi.

The 55th Venice Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, took place from June 1 to November 24; the show, titled The Encylopedic Palace, attracted over 475,000 visitors, confirming itself as the most visited art exhibition in Italy; Tino Sehgal was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Artist, Angola won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation; the Holy See participated for the first time with a Pavilion inspired by the biblical narratives in the Book of Genesis.

South African Pavilion – Theme: Imaginary Fact: Contemporary South African Art and the Archive. Curator: Brenton Maart. Artists: Kay Hassan, Sue Williamson, Donna Kukama, Athi-Patra Ruga, James Webb, Kemang wa Lehulere, Penny Siopis, Wim Botha, Johannes Phukela, Cameron Platter, Andrew  Putter, Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane, Gerhard Marx, Maja Marx and Philip Miller, and Joanne Bloch.

The 56th Venice Biennale entitled All The World’s Futures and curated by Okwui Enwezor was open from 9 May to 22 November and attracted a record number of 501,000 visitors.  Enwezor included several South Africans in his main exhibition, namely Kay Hassan, Joachim Schonfeldt, Marlene Dumas and Mikhael Subotsky. Golden Lion for best artist in the central exhibition: Adrian Piper. Silver Lion for a promising young artist: Im Heung-soon. Golden Lion for lifetime achievement: El Anatsui. Special Golden Lion for services to the arts: Susanne Ghez.

South African Pavilion – Curators: Christopher Till and Jeremy Rose. Artists: Willem Boshoff, Haroon Gunn-Salie, Angus Gibson, Mark Lewis, Gerald Machona, Mohau Modisakeng, Nandipha Mntambo, Brett Murray, Jo Ractliffe, Robin Rhode, Warrick Sony, Diane Victor and Jeremy Wafer.

The 57th Venice Biennale, curated by Christine Macel, opened to the public on 13 May. The Biennale Arte 2017 registered at the day of closure 615,000 visitors, and included the Viva Arte Viva main exhibition, more than 80 National Participations, 23 Collateral Events, and the Special Project, Between Art and Arts & Crafts by La Biennale di Venezia with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Viva Arte Viva presented, along an exhibition path consisting of nine thematic Transpavilions, the works of 120 artists from all over the world. The exhibition was accompanied throughout its duration by initiatives aimed at stimulating the dialogue and direct contact between artists and the public with a vast programme of ‘Open Tables’ and live performances. Golden Lion for best national participation: German pavilion (Anne Imhof). Golden Lion for best artist in the central exhibition: Franz Erhard Walther. Silver Lion for the most promising young artist in the central exhibition: Hassan Khan. Golden Lion for lifetime achievement: Carolee Schneemann.

South African Pavilion – Curator: Lucy MacGarry.  Assistant-curator: Musha Neluheni. Artists: Mohau Modisakeng and Candice Breitz.

The 58th Venice Biennale was curated by Ralph Rugoff with the theme of May You Live in Interesting Times. 90 countries contributed to national pavilions. Golden Lion for best national participation: Lithuanian pavilion. Golden Lion for best artist of the central exhibition: Arthur Jafa. Silver Lion for the most promising young artist of the exhibition: Haris Epaminonda.

South African Pavilion – Theme: The stronger we become. Curators: Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu. Artists: Tracey Rose, Mawande Ka Zenzile and Dineo Bopape.


Artstein. s.a. The history of the Venice Biennale. (accessed 15 October 2019).

Biennale Arte 2019. s.a. (accessed 3 September 2019).

Buano, Camillo. 2015. Henri Lefebvre: Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. The Journal of Architecture 20 (May, 3):544-549.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. Translation of Des Espace Autres, 1967, by Jay Miskowiec. Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité October: 1-9. (Accessed 4 September 2019)

Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Lefebvre’s Beach. Space and Politics.  Blog on the spatial and affective rhythms of politics. (accessed 3 September 2019)

Kuijers, Isabello. 2019. Strength and Opacity: ‘The stronger we become’ at the 58th Venice Biennale. Dineo Seshee Bopape & Mawande Ka Zenzile & Tracey Rose. Artthrob. (accessed 16 October 2019).

La Biennale di Venezia. 2017. (accessed 3 September 2019).

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lithuania – Sun & Sea (Marina) – Venice Art Biennale 2019. (accessed 10 August 2019).

Mawande Ka Zenzile. 2017. Archetypocalypse, 26 April – 3 June 2017. Stevenson. (accessed 15 October 2019).

Ralph Rugoff. s.a. Introduction.  (accessed 3 September 2019).

Review Of The Art Biennale 2019: Lithuania. The Venice Insider July 10, 2019. (accessed 15 October 2019).

Sun & Sea (Marina). Lithuanian Pavillion 11 May – 31 October 2019. (accessed 10 August 2019).

The stronger we become: The South African Pavilion. s.a. (accessed 1 September 2019).

Venice Biennale 2019: Installation View: National Pavilions. 2019. Contemporary And (C&). (accessed 15 October 2019.

Comments are closed.