Venice Biennale: how do countries get a pavilion?

While 80 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe are participating in this year’s Venice Biennale, the national pavilion of one traditional participant now stands closed and empty: that of the Russian Federation.

The pavilion — built just before the 1917 Soviet revolution and renovated last year — was to feature artists Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva, with work focusing on premonitions about humanity’s future, including the looming risk of an “information autocracy”. But days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the two artists declared they could not represent their country at Venice in the face of the conflict, while their Lithuanian-born curator Raimundas Malasauskas also resigned, saying the situation was “politically and emotionally unbearable”.

The Russian government subsequently said the country was formally withdrawing from the event, though the organisers insist they put no pressure on Moscow to pull out. “The Biennale has never censored or prevented countries from participating,” Roberto Cicutto, the Biennale’s president, tells the Financial Times.

The shuttered Russian pavilion reflects the sometimes fraught relations between global governments and their artistic communities, which can affect how and whether countries participate in the world’s biggest display of contemporary art. It also puts a renewed focus on how countries get into the Venice Biennale in the first place, which ultimately comes down to politics, money — and even art.

The exhibition’s fundamental organising structure is rooted in the model laid down at the first Venice Biennale in 1895 and was inspired by the other great global exhibitions of the era, when governments played the lead role in curating and “representing” their countries to a curious world. Belgium built the first foreign national pavilion in the Giardini, the Biennale’s chief exhibition area, in 1907.

In its first decades, the Biennale was mainly a showcase for art from wealthy western countries. But in the wave of decolonisation that followed the second world war, newly freed nations started seeking to participate — to make their presence felt at an event that draws curators and collectors from around the world.

“Venice is the closest the art world gets to the Olympics — it’s the one place where, literally, the world shows up,” says London-based curator Hammad Nasar, who curated the UAE’s national pavilion at the 2017 Biennale. “It’s where the global art world will take notice of you.” 

“It’s not very different from when small or postcolonial nations win their first Olympic gold,” adds Nasar, who was also on among the panellists that selected artist Sonia Boyce to represent the UK at this year’s Biennale. “It’s that moment when people say, ‘Oh yes, we are world class.’”

But some say its embodied nationalism seems out of sync with the current era. “It’s a very late-19th-century, early-20th-century, fin-de-siècle structure — it’s not of this time,” says Monica Narula, a member of the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective. “Different people try to express the present moment in that past moment. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.”

No matter how vibrant a country’s contemporary art scene, their participation in the Venice Biennale, through a national pavilion, depends on two main factors: support — at least tacit — of their government, and sufficient funds to mount an exhibition, including shipping the art and renting space in Venice for countries that don’t have historic pavilions.

Obtaining government sanction is critical for a country’s participation — and the factor perhaps most carefully vetted by the Biennale organisers. As a result, political or official apathy towards contemporary art can leave a country unrepresented. Excessive political interference can also affect the quality of the work on display.

For example, in 2019, India’s national pavilion — which was mostly funded by art collector and philanthropist Kiran Nadar — was dedicated to the memory of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a figure typically of greater concern to politicians than contemporary artists. Though India was a regular Biennale participant in the years after its independence, it will be absent this year, which Indian artists complain reflects the current government’s apathy towards contemporary art.

Afghanistan participated once in 2005, a few years after US forces drove out the Islamist Taliban and installed a more favourable government, but has not officially participated since.

In countries with established public arts programmes, the selection of artists for a national pavilion is typically insulated from governments and entrusted to publicly funded but operationally autonomous foundations. The British Council has been responsible for commissioning artists to represent the country at the Biennale since 1937, and each year appoints a panel of arts professionals to make the choice.

Securing funding is another big challenge, especially for smaller countries with limited public money for the arts. But even wealthy countries, such as the UK, often count on philanthropy, private foundations and (when their artists are being shown) commercial galleries to help bear the costs, which start at several hundred thousand dollars.

In some cases, countries overcome financial and logistical hurdles by banding together to put up a joint pavilion — such as in 1990, when Nigeria and Zimbabwe teamed up, and in 1993, when the Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal had a shared pavilion. In 2013, four nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — participated jointly in the shared Central Asian pavilion, while the Nordic countries Finland, Norway and Sweden have participated in a joint pavilion since the 1980s, with a few exceptions.

But many countries make their first appearance at the Biennale thanks to the determination of a few passionate individuals who feel their countries should be part of the event and work tirelessly to obtain government sanction, organise funding and undertake all the logistics to make it happen.

In the UAE, Dr Lamees Hamdan, a medical doctor and avid collector, was the driving force behind the country’s first Biennale appearance in 2009. But the government and large foundations later became more involved and in 2013 the UAE signed a long-term lease on space in Venice to host its permanent national pavilion.

Lagos-based gallerist Adenrele Sonariwo was keen to see Nigeria represented and undertook much of the effort behind the country’s first national pavilion in 2017, including raising the $300,000 needed for the costs. But Nigeria has not participated since. “It’s a massive effort and it took a lot out of me to make it happen,” Sonariwo says. “It has now been left open for somebody else to take that leadership role and go ahead, but we haven’t seen that happen. I would love to see our government prioritise it.”

She says that even the single appearance at Venice gave Nigerian artists a significant boost. “There was quite a light shining at that time. There are a lot of ripple effects that we are experiencing even years later.”

While Russia will be conspicuous by its absence, Ukraine, which first participated in the Biennale in 1928 and then reappeared in 2001 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, will be very much present. One of its curators, Maria Lanko, managed to evacuate parts of the work in her car while fleeing the war, and the team has received support from the Biennale itself, which is helping with the costs of the production and transport of the planned work, now being made in Milan.

Even given today’s political situation, this Biennale is no different from those of decades past: it is still a mix of political and financial power that determines which countries participate — and what works they show.

“When you present yourself through art, the world has the tools to understand whether the choice of an artist is made for propaganda reasons or is even an instrument of oppression,” says Cicutto. “This is a line that the Biennale intends to pursue.”

Visual journalism by Liz Faunce