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Curated by Adriano Pedrosa and entitled “Foreigners Everywhere”, this edition of the Venice Biennale is wrapped up in identity. If that doesn’t sound like fun, let us point out that it’s less “my truth” and more “hey, look at what we get up to down here!” – and it is mostly “down here”, with many of Pedrosa’s selected artists coming from the Global South. Their works invite you into worlds full of joy, colour, history, vivid folklore, vim and vigour. Look at Dalton Paula’s life-size portraits of black Brazilian heroes and Pakistani-American Salman Toor’s physical figurative paintings and you’ll see what we mean.

The national pavilions are not required to follow the curator’s lead. However, many chose to reflect the art world’s current curatorial concerns. Our picks follow but we should also mention the Arsenale’s Ukrainian pavilion, which is rich, poignant, funny and a ringing endorsement of artists’ survival instincts. At other “news agenda” pavilions, Russia has lent its prominent Giardini plot to Bolivia, while Israel’s empty pavilion displays a sign explaining that no art will be displayed until “a ceasefire and hostage-release agreement is reached”. This sheet of paper seemed to be photographed as much anything else on opening week. 


Ethiopia
Palazzo Bollani, Castello

With its debut at this year’s Biennale, Ethiopia has shown that good things come to those who wait. Carrying the inaugural torch for the East African country is Tesfaye Urgessa, with his striking figurative paintings on show at the Palazzo Bollani. Curated by British poet and writer Lemn Sissay, Urgessa’s bold artworks skilfully combine Ethiopian iconography with German neo-expressionist influences – clear evidence of his studies in Stuttgart – to address themes of domesticity and human fragility. Viewers move between large-scale works and smaller portraits, which Urgessa compares to watching a film that cuts between wide-angle shots and close-ups. “One of the things that fascinates me about painting is that I am able to learn about myself,” says Urgessa. “It’s a medium to go beyond what you know and into a greater dimension. You just have to trust the process. As long as the painting is in the studio, it’s a conversation between the painting and me, and with the ones that take a long time, you build up an intimate relationship”.


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Ethiopian painter Tesfaye Urgessa

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Inuuteq Storch at the Danish pavilion

South Korea
Giardini

Koo Jeong A’s scent-based work, which celebrates 30 years since the South Korean pavilion’s inauguration, is subtle yet imaginative. “Odorama Cities” is the result of hundreds of people submitting their memories of Korean fragrance to inform a space submersed in olfactory meaning, alongside infinity symbols and a scent-breathing bronze mega-baby.


Spain
Giardini

Sandra Gamarra Heshiki was born in Peru and is the first non-Spaniard to represent the nation in whose capital she works. In “Pinacoteca Migrante”, she presents her original works as if in a historical museum that merges themes and elements by Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and Frans Hals to look at the paths of migration and colonialism – what is taken and what is left behind. Heshiki demonstrates an uncanny eye for the brutality behind an “innocent” 17th-century family portrait, for example. 


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‘Listening All Night to the Rain’

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John Akomfrah at the British pavilion


Denmark
Giardini

Photographer Inuuteq Storch of Greenland takes over Denmark’s pavilion this year, demonstrating the knotty relationship between the two countries. Storch’s photographs show intimate moments of his daily life, as well as the natural beauty of the region. Take a break in one of the hammocks behind the pavilion to admire an unexpected recreation of the breathtaking view from Storch’s house.


UK
Giardini

The grand staircase of the imposing 19th-century British pavilion is this year shunned in favour of a backdoor that leads to “Listening All Night to the Rain”, artist John Akomfrah’s commission. “We were tracking the ghost of listening,” Akomfrah says of his multi-screen video installations, which investigate ideas of memory, migration and racial injustice. The exhibition’s eight interlocking works create surprising echoes between sound and visuals.

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Sandra Gamarra Heshiki, representing Spain with ‘Pinacoteca Migrante’

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‘Odorama Cities’ by Koo Jeong A


Willem de Kooning
Gallerie dell’Accademia

This show explores Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning’s affinity for Italy in big bold canvases and priapic sculptures, examining how classical Italian masterpieces – and torrid love affairs – influenced his work.


‘Breasts’
ACP Palazzo Franchetti

Curated by Carolina Pasti, this show brings together works from around the world that explore the symbolism of breasts in art. Expect uplifting works by Cindy Sherman, Laura Panno and Louise Bourgeois.


Jean Cocteau
‘The Juggler’s Revenge’, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The French trickster is celebrated in a sprightly show that swoons at his skills: poetry, music, film-making, textiles, jewellery and visual art. It’s easy to see here how his endless invention ensured he was seen as an enfant terrible until his death at the age of 74.


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Willem de Kooning, inspired by Italy

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Peter Hujar portraits


Peter Hujar
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà

The late, great US photographer Peter Hujar’s 1976 book Portraits in Life and Death has been turned into a beguiling and atmospheric show, combining the creative outsiders of New York’s Lower East Side scene – John Waters, Susan Sontag, artist Paul Thek – with the human remains of Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs. Hujar’s lens seems to animate the dead while preserving the living.


Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
San Polo

One of Venice’s largest churches, the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is home to as much artistic greatness as godliness. No less an artist than Titian’s tomb sits below his own vast, stunning Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, while his Assumption of the Virgin beams down from the altar above. Meanwhile, a Donatello sculpture of John the Baptist keeps a monolithic marble pyramid by Canova in very good company. This is a palate-cleansing dip into the pious.


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Swooning at De Kooning

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‘Breasts’ of all shapes and sizes


 

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