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A Distinction of Gender

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

By Amanda-Jane Reynolds (A-J)


Artist Sonia Boyce standing in room 5 at the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. Image by Cristiano Corte © British Council

In 1895 Riccardo Selvatico, a poet, playwright, and Mayor of Venice, established an exhibition featuring several artists. This exhibition was titled ‘Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Della Città Venezia’ which translates to ‘First International Art Exhibition of Venice’. This exhibition included 14 artists from different nationalities, with Italy being the 15th. The goal was to encourage visitors to travel to Venice with the hopes to raise funds for the city, which was sorely needed due to war efforts and competition in trades export. In the 19th century, Venice fought in the Third Italian War of Independence to join the Kingdom of Italy, finding themselves in strife from exporting goods due to competitors using the Suez Canal. With these struggles in mind, the exhibition was a great success reigning in 224,000 visitors to this then quiet city. This exhibition evolved into the legacy of La Biennale di Venezia.

As of April 2022, the city is hosting the 59th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte and has brought together 213 unique artists representing their countries in 80 National Participations in the historic Pavilions. Included in the selection are artists from Great Britain, Germany, Republic of Korea, Hungary, Switzerland, the list continues, with 5 new countries participating for the first time: Republic of Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Sultanate of Oman, and Uganda. Riccardo Selvatico would be elated to see that his vision of bringing together artists, whilst having no “distinction of nationality”, was being adhered to on a global scale. Considering his hopes for no distinction of nationality, the current Biennale explores the historical distinction and inequality in gender representation within the arts sector, and the Biennale.

The Biennale has appointed the first ever female Exhibition Director and Chief Curator, Cecilia Alemani, who has made it her mission to invite mostly female and non-binary artists to participate.

The statistics being 9 out of 10 artists are female or non-gender conforming.

Back in 2015, the 56th Biennale levelled the percentage between male and female artists to 54% male and 46% female, compared to the 55th Biennale being male heavy with a hefty overall of 69%.

So, should this be considered a triumph in terms of progress?

I believe it is incredibly progressive to see that 9 out of 10 artists are female or non-binary, although Ukwui Enwezor, Curator of the 56th International Art Exhibition, had made seemingly organic choices that had the essence of gender equality at the time. But now, having a large number of female and non-binary participants has shown real progress within the Biennale, allowing the showcasing of work that otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.

As an opportunity for women/womxn, it is an extremely positive time for the femme artists who have been dominating the art scene since the 1990s, like Sonia Boyce and Simone Leigh, to answer their call to the Pavilions.

Room 1 in the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. Featuring 4 performers - Errolyn Walen, Tanita Tikaram, Poppy Ajudha and Jacqui Dankworth. Image by Cristiano Corte © British Council.

Sonia Boyce’s Biennale works live within the walls of the Great Britain Pavilion, representing the country with her multi-media display ‘Feeling Her Way’. This installation consists of film and sound featuring black female singers prompted to react to loose directions, allowing them to “feel their way”, hence the name. Boyce is known for her collaborative exercises using participants, provoking them with an improvisational approach regarding a relation to the past and the present, usually within the theme of culture. The installation itself creates a room which offers a stylish seating area, decorated with golden cube seats that reflect the multiple screens showing the singers recording. The seats mirroring the film are intriguing as they can implicate how the singers are seen, but still end up becoming furniture for visitors to sit on top of, even though they are “made of gold”.

Room 3 in the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. Featuring performers Jacqui Dankworth and Sofia Jernberg. Image by Cristiano Corte © British Council.

Simone Leigh is the first black woman to represent the United States and its dedicated Pavilion with her monumental installation ‘Sovereignty’.

This installation highlights themes of femininity and colonisation through the use of objects, such as the large-scale cowrie shells she is known to construct. Leigh casts the shells using the walls of a watermelon, as the use of a watermelon becomes a statement to the historically racial stereotypes towards Black people. The shells have been seen to adorn a vaginal appearance.

If it was not for Alemani calling the shots and taking a radical approach to work on a distinction between genders, we would not have seen such amazing, educative, and eye-opening works of art. This year’s Biennale is making a point for change and recognition on a cultural and social scale, whilst still being mindful of its carbon neutrality goals as well.

Who knows what the future years will bring: a greater number of non-binary artists over male and female? A net zero impact on the environment would also be nice; a net negative even nicer.



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