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Black presences at the Venice Biennale

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The politics of the Venice Biennale might best be seen through the spatial geography of pavilions: The well-financed are situated close to the main exhibition in the Arsenale and Giardini sections where Biennale curator Christine Macel’s vision is laid out, while others are scattered in the hinterlands of the city.

In many ways, the location of national pavilions replicates the world’s political and economic power structures: Powerful European and North American nations, which know the value of this platform, maintain permanent pavilions paid for with state funds.

WATCH: Venice Biennale: African artists missing in action (2:21)
But many other nations do not support their artists and pay for their presence in the biennale. If neither a government nor private funders support a pavilion, it is forced to rent (cheaper) space in the outer neighbourhoods of Venice to which only diehard art professionals and a curious few are willing to venture out to – trekking through mazes of streets, canals, and picturesque bridges.

In using “Viva Arte Viva!” as the theme for the biennale, curator Macel wished to stress the significance of regarding “art for art’s sake”. She wanted to say that art should be representative of more than what it is commercially worth. But even though the biennale is meant to provide a view of cutting-edge practices, it seemed as though black artists, and African artists in particular, were either absent from that picture, or relegated to the peripheries.

Despite the vocal activism of black artists and women of colour in women artists groups such as Guerrilla Girls, the breakdown of the racial demographics of the 2017 Venice Biennale by Artsy’s editorial team revealed that of the 120 artists Macel chose to participate in the central exhibition representing her vision for “Viva Arte Viva!”, a “mere five artists are black”, and of that number, Senga Nengudi, an American, was the only black, female artist.

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