In its 58th iteration, the world’s most prestigious art show seems, by all accounts, to continue to function as the best barometer of what’s bothering the global mind. This is evidenced by the large amount of artworks on display this year dealing with issues such as climate change, race relations and the terrors of Donald Trump.
If you’re in the city during the Venice Biennale’s run, which ends on November 24 this year, it’s often a challenge to decide what to see among the thousands of artworks but early awards and reviews might help make this easier.
The main exhibition, which represents the work of 80 artists from around the world, is curated by London’s Hayward Gallery curator Ralph Rugoff under the title “May you Live in Interesting Times”. It features work by South African artists Zanele Muholi and Kemang wa Lehulere.
The Golden Lion for best artist was awarded over the weekend to American Arthur Jafa for his video work The White Album, which examines white identity in America through the lens of troubled race relations in the country over the centuries, using YouTube clips, news broadcasts and original footage. It is accompanied by a separate show of his monumental sculptures, made out of tyres and chains, recalling gallows.
The best pavilion Golden Lion went to Lithuania. The country presented an English-language version of an opera first performed in 2017 titled Sun & Sea (Marina) created by theatre director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė and composer Lina Lapelytė. The performance focuses on a group of holidaymakers on a beach and has been described as a warning of the dangers of climate change and “a biting critique of leisure”.
There’s also the much-talked-about, and generally criticised, work by Christoph Büchel Barca Nostra (Our Boat). The Swiss-Icelandic artist transported the wreck of a ship, which sank off the coast of Libya in 2015 killing 800 refugees, to the biennale, where it stands as an intended reminder of the plight of its victims but which has been criticised for its morbidity and lack of empathy. It has served less as a powerful record of the migrant crisis and more as a callous background for the taking of selfies and the subject of gossip for the café customers sitting opposite it.
The South African Pavilion, curated by Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu under the title “The Stronger we Become”, features the work of Tracey Rose, Dineo Seshee Bopape and Mawande ka Zenzile.
Ghana’s first pavilion at the biennale has been commended for its strong showing of the work of painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, filmmaker John Akomfrah, sculptor El Anatsui and portraits from the 1960s by the country’s first female professional photographer Felicia Abban.
Finally, there’s the American pavilion, which highlights the work of 70-year-old Martin Puryear, whose huge outdoor sculptures and wooden works reference the country’s history of violence from Haitian slaves to the civil war and Vietnam.
• The 58th Venice Biennale shows at venues across the city until November 24.