Adriano Pedrosa had already decided on Foreigners Everywhere as the title of his Venice Biennale exhibition even before he was appointed curator of the 60th edition. In 2011, having recently directed the Istanbul Biennale, the Brazilian art historian travelled to Italy to see the rival show. “I walked through the streets, through the Biennale’s galleries, and as a curatorial exercise I began thinking about what I would do if I was ever invited,” he says, speaking over video from the apartment in Venice he’s been staying in as he prepares to open the show on April 20. 

“The title of the Venice Biennale is often very open-ended, poetic, something that could encompass anything and everything, and I thought it would be interesting to do something very palpable and concrete. My recommendation for any curator is always have your Venice Biennale concept ready, because when they invite you, you don’t have much time. I think that lack of time is why people choose these vague themes that don’t seem to mean so much. I’ve been thinking about this exhibition for a decade.”

In a horizontal painting, an abstract composition featuring curved and zigzag lines in red, green, blue, pink and yellow extends longitudinally across the frame
‘Composition’ (1974) by Mohamed Chabâa © Courtesy Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation. Photo: Maria and Mansour Dib

Remarkably, given that Venice is the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition, more than half of the 331 artists chosen by Pedrosa are dead. The curator says that he wanted to give visibility to artists from the past who didn’t have the opportunities today’s generation do. “It is easier today for a younger artist from the Global South to get attention than it has ever been before,” he says. This is both due to the strengthening of art infrastructure at home and a greater interest abroad. “In the last decade or so it has become unthinkable that you might do a Eurocentric biennale of contemporary art.” While western museums have made efforts to diversify their collections and exhibitions, Pedrosa says that there are still many names who haven’t had their rightful international recognition. “We haven’t seen the same rules applied to historical shows, so I wanted to look at Modernism in South America, Africa, Asia, and how Modernism travelled in the 20th century.”

This migration will be examined in a section Pedrosa has titled Nucleo Storico (Historical Core), which features abstract ink painter Nena Saguil (born in the Philippines, died in France), social realist Emma Reyes (born in Colombia, who also migrated to France) and painter and poet Malangatana Valente Ngwenya (born in Mozambique, died in Portugal). “Many of these artists are canonical or famous in their own country but virtually unknown internationally,” Pedrosa says. Elsewhere in his galleries, he examines the influence of the Italian diaspora travelling in the opposite direction, not least to São Paulo.

In a painting, a young man dressed in a white fedora and a turquoise over-shirt holds a brush and a colour palette while standing before a hilly rural landscape
‘Self-portrait in a Long Blue Coat’ (1948-49) by Qoede Lee © Private collection, South Korea

Pedrosa is the first Latin American person to take the helm of the Biennale and only the second curator from the “Global South”. His appointment in part recognises his innovation at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, which he has directed since 2014. He arrived with a formula which shook up the concrete and glass institution on Avenue Paulista. Each year he has staged a large group show with the title Histories and a corresponding theme, which all the other solo exhibitions and events across the year riff on. These have ranged from Afro-Atlantic histories in 2018 to a range of subjects that seemed a pointed rebuke of the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right populism, for example feminist histories in 2019 and state-of-the-nation histories in 2022. Next year’s programme is titled Ecological Histories.

In Portuguese, “historias” encompasses both fictional and factual narratives and Pedrosa’s exhibitions eschewed canonical art history to encompass outsider art, Indigenous practices, religious artefacts and ceremonial objects, as well as historical objects. Is this an attempt at decolonisation? Pedrosa says that while that is part of his agenda, he wants the programme to feel “polyphonic”, rejecting any notion of fixed narrative.

In a photograph, a person dressed in a bull costume with floral front decorations kneels in a dimly lit, dusty rodeo arena
Detail from ‘Torita-encuetada’ (2023) by Elyla, made in collaboration with Nicaraguan filmmaker Milton Guillén © Courtesy the artist.

“Venice shares the speculative approach that we have within the Historias programme. We are not telling the ultimate history, the final word in whatever we are exploring, but a draft history, one possible story.” Occasionally the Histories have proven too sprawling and Pedrosa’s open approach has risked a loss of focus, but they never fail to be ambitious projects that, while inviting a wide audience, never treat the museum visitors as fools.  

With the theme of immigration in Venice, many viewers will undoubtedly read this Biennale in the context of current crises, whether Ukraine, Palestine or elsewhere. For a second time Russia will not be sending an artist to fill its national pavilion along the main drag of the Giardini, but Ukraine will exhibit at a venue outside the gardens. In March more than 9,000 signatories, including artists who have shown previously at the biennale, signed a petition calling for Israel to be barred from the event. (Despite this, the Israeli pavilion is going ahead, with artist Ruth Patir and curators Mira Lapidot and Tamar Margalit.)

In a pop art painting, a woman wearing a blue turtleneck jumper and bright red miniskirt, sunglasses and boots sits on a stool in a geometric composition
‘Self-Portrait with Red Boots’ (1974) by Erica Rutherford © Courtesy the Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody
A square abstract painting features blue, white, brown, yellow and ochre squarish sections, two of which are revived by a touch of green and red
‘Untitled’ (1965) by Etel Adnan © Courtesy the estate of the artist/Sfeir-Semler Gallery

The curator is quick to say he has no say on the national pavilions but that he welcomes people seeing the stories of those who have previously fled violence in parallel with today’s conflicts. “You can’t avoid your show being read through the current moment. I embrace that. It’s not something I address directly in the exhibition, but there are works here and there which reflect on the ongoing conflict.”

While months of planning have gone into the exhibition, with research trips to a bewildering array of art scenes (Pedrosa says Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Angola, Kenya and Zimbabwe were new destinations for him), he hopes the show will surprise him. “I don’t know what to think about my exhibition, because I haven’t seen it yet. I really believe in learning about art by looking at it, looking at it in the flesh, and seeing how one object sits next to another object. That’s the real story.”

April 20-November 24,

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