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Story Publication logo September 6, 2023

The Stuff of Dreams: My Generative Journey through the 59th Venice Biennale



This project investigates how race, gender, and nationality impact the reception of artistry in the...


In Venice, my mind ran unencumbered, investigating the geopolitics of place, race, gender, and nationality. I contemplated the vital role cultural arenas play in shaping and advancing our society.

About the Venice Biennale

Founded in 1895, La Biennale di Venezia has evolved into one of the most esteemed cultural establishments. This institution is a vanguard in exploring and endorsing emerging trends within contemporary art. The pinnacle of its influence is the International Art Exhibition, renowned as the foremost contemporary art showcase globally, captivating hundreds of thousands of attendees with groundbreaking artistic expressions biennially. The 59th iteration of this event was held from April 23 to November 27, 2022. I attended from October 3 to 12, then returned to attend the closing events from November 25 to December 2, 2022.

Nailah Reine Barnes stands in front of "Brick House" (2019) by Simone Leigh, a part of the 59th Venice Biennale main exhibition show titled The Milk of Dreams. Image by Gabrielle Morse. Italy, 2022.

Reflections on Climate and Memory in the Serbian Pavilion

Beneath wall-to-ceiling waves in the Serbian Pavilion, I mourned innumerable lives lost at sea, paying particular respects to the roughly one thousand people who died when a vessel capsized between Libya and its attempted destination, Lampedusa, Italy, on April 18, 2015. Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel displayed the boat as a part of the 2019 Venice Biennale. Devoid of didactic text, a condition upon which the artist insisted, Biennale visitors posed for color-coordinated ‘artsy’ group photos beside the boat, completely oblivious to this history.

A mass grave site of refugees from Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, half between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, became a selfie wall.

I return to this exhibition’s impact continuously, especially now that I live in Senegal and spend numerous hours per week in the ocean.* Amid the endless azure expanse, my mind often roams, delving into contemplations about the disproportionate impact of rising sea levels and contaminated waters on countries in the Global South relative to their counterparts in the Global North. Dakar and other West African coastal cities may be underwater in a few generations. I consider immediate effects, too –– entering the water after it rains comes with the risk of exposure to heightened levels of toxins due to contaminated runoff entering the sea.

From rising sea levels threatening to wash away coastal towns to refugees drowning in attempts to flee crises, the effects of human disregard for the planet show up most egregiously in bodies of water.

Author's Note:

*Shortly after finishing my reporting in Italy, I moved to Dakar, Senegal as a recipient of a Fulbright Research Grant. I am currently investigating Black American expatriation patterns to Dakar, Senegal, with a focus on African-American women who identify as artists and entrepreneurs.

Nailah Reine Barnes stands in front of “A Document” (2022) by Vladimir Nikolic, a part of the Serbian Pavilion’s exhibition Camminare con l’acqua, walking with water at the 59th Venice Biennale. Video by Nailah Reine Barnes. Italy, 2022.

French-Algerian Flare: Zenib Sedira's Unapologetic Narrative

Nailah Reine Barnes and Zenib Sedira converse outside of the French Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale. Image by Skinder Hundal. Italy, 2022.

Zenib Sedira shared that she received bitter commentary leading up to her exhibition’s opening and throughout its run-time. Some argued she did not merit the honor of representing France at the Venice Biennale because she is of Algerian descent. Others omitted her North African heritage entirely. We discussed how these reactions demonstrate two realities of French neo-colonial social practices: Firstly, in the wake of the Algerian War (also known as the Algerian Revolution or the Algerian War of Independence), which led to Algeria winning its independence from France, Algerians are treated poorly by French people and seen as inferior. Secondly, France forwards a ‘One France’ rhetoric. People of differing languages, backgrounds, and religions are expected to discard their mother cultures and adopt the French status quo solely. The government prohibits signs of faith in public schools and other government-funded sectors, and conversations about race and racism make many French people uncomfortable. When I asked my host mother during my 11th-grade year living in Rennes, France, to comment on the treatment people of Arab and West African descent receive in France, she exclaimed dismissively, “We are all the same! We are all French!”

Zenib Sedira’s exhibition explored race relations in France, overseas departments and territories, and former colonies with precision, nuance, eloquence, and warmth. She used her platform at the world’s largest international art exhibition to bring identities and conversations about race, racism, and colonization from the margins to the forefront. Hers was a world I did not want to leave.

Brick House: A Divinely Proportioned Celebration of Black Women

Video of Nailah Reine Barnes speaking to reporters from TGR about "Brick House"(2019) by Simone Leigh, her favorite work in the central exhibition. Video by TGR News. Italy, 2022. Link to the entire video and webpage: A Venezia, bilancio dei record per la Biennale d'arte.

Brick House (2019) by Simone Leigh brought me to tears. Seeing a Black woman in divine proportions made me feel infinitely capable, powerful, and beautiful. The sculpture was also abundantly generative; young art students sketched figures in her likeness in the corner of the gallery, and my friend, Ming Joi Washington, shared an original poem titled “laboring woman” inspired in part by the sculpture. In this interview with Italian news network TGR on the last day of the 59th Biennale, I am recorded reflecting on how "Brick House" pays tribute to the lineage of brilliance and beauty among Black women. “'Brick House' by Simone Leigh in the Arsenale has been my favorite piece so far.”

The Venice Biennale jury awarded Leigh the Golden Lion for the best contribution to the Biennale's international exhibition. The jurors described "Brick House" as a "rigorously researched, virtuosically realized, and powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural opening to the Arsenale."

Indigenous Voices Amplified: The Sámi Pavilion's Resonance

I was all smiles in the Sámi Pavilion. Indigenous Sámi people, whose nation extends across the Nordic countries and into the Kola Peninsula in Russia, represented the Nordic Pavilion for the first time in the Venice Biennale’s 157-year-long history. The artists featured were Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna. I am excited to learn more about the Sámi people and investigate the representation (and lack thereof) of Indigenous peoples at international exhibitions like the Venice Biennale. At the 60th Venice Biennale slated to take place in 2024, Jeffrey Gibson will be the first Indigenous artist to represent the U.S. in the Biennale’s 129-year history, and Kathleen Ash-Milby will be the U.S. Pavilion’s first Native American exhibition curator.

Nailah Reine Barnes stands in front of "Illegal Spirits of Sámpi" (2022) by Anders Sunna, a part of the Sámi Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia. Image by Utsha Saha. Italy, 2022.

Threads of Tradition: From Gee’s Bend to Kosovo

The textiles on view in the Kosovo pavilion reminded me of the quilting traditions of Southern African-American women, including Carolyn White and Gee’s Bend quilters. The artist, Jakup Ferri, was inspired by so-called ‘outside art’ and collaborated with women from Albania and Kosovo to use carpet making and embroidery as coherence and community-building techniques.

The aesthetics of artists who have long been marginalized and relegated below the level of ‘fine artistry’ because they did not receive formal art training and who often created for practical purposes, not just for the sake of being viewed, are inspiring artists around the world and being celebrated on an international scale. The Kosovo pavilion was a testament to this changing tide.

Exhibition view of The Monumentality of the Everyday, the Republic of Kosovo’s pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale; Nailah Reine Barnes studies a work. Image by Djili Thiam. Italy, 2022.

In the U.S. Pavilion: Sovereignty, Regality, and Strength

As my friend Utsha and I entered the final gallery of Simone Leigh's Venice Biennale exhibition, "Cupboard" (2022) and "Sphinx" (2022) greeted us. Utsha captured this image and looked back on it with awe – "The shadows behind "Cupboard" remind me of an African goddess and divinity," she
reflected. All of Leigh's works conjure the images and emotions Utsha felt – those of Black women cloaked in strength, regality, and a contented presence. I was reminded anew of Leigh's works’ powers when I saw them reflected back in the twinkle of Utsha's eyes and the awe in her voice as another woman of color forever touched by Leigh's artistry.

Gallery view of "Sovereignty, "Simone Leigh’s exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale featuring (left to right) "Cupboard" (2022) and "Sphinx" (2022). Image by Utsha Saha. Italy, 2022.

Moonlit Epiphanies and Excitement for the Path Ahead

A waxing crescent moon over the Venetian Grand Canal on the closing day of the 59th Venice Biennale reminded me that this is only the beginning—the work of expanding access to the Venice Biennale and other international art platforms must continue with tenacity and consistency. Read more about structural barriers to entry to the Venice Biennale for artists outside of the scope of what is considered ‘fine art’ and for those who do not hail from superpower nations in this essay. (Navigate to page 8, Nailah Barnes, Spelman College C’ 2022).

The moon shining over Venice. Image by Nailah Reine Barnes. Italy, 2022.


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