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Jan Patience: Women make waves at Venice Biennale

Deep Dive (Pause) Uncoiling Memory by Alberta Whittle at Venice Biennale
Deep Dive (Pause) Uncoiling Memory by Alberta Whittle at Venice Biennale

Despite having visited Venice a few times as a student, I’d never been to the Venice Biennale, a global art extravaganza that takes the temperature of the global art market every two years.

So, when my friend Pauline said she’d found us cheap flights to Venice and magicked up reasonably priced accommodation, I needed no encouragement.

Earlier this month, we padded around the historic Pavilions at the Giardini and Arsenale, as well as fringe venues around Venice in the baking heat.

The 59th Venice Biennale is the “year of women”. Of 213 artists, 21 were men.

Britain’s Sonia Boyce and American artist Simone Leigh – both women of colour – won prestigious Golden Lions for best national pavilions.

Boyce exhibited vocal improvisation by musicians such as Tanita Tikaram and Jacqui Dankworth on separate screens against jazzy patterned wallpaper to dazzling effect. Leigh, the first black woman to represent the USA, turned its pavilion into a hut with a thatched roof. Outside, a 24ft black bronze sculpture of a woman set the tone for a breathtaking show.

We both loved the French Pavillion, with Algerian-French artist Zineb Sedira transforming a film studio reflecting her life.

Alberta Whittle (Pic: Matthew A Williams)

Scotland’s contribution is a “fringe” exhibition at the beautiful Docks Cantieri Cucchini. Alberta Whittle’s ambitious “deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory” deals with police brutality, colonisation, gender, the politics of race and climate change.

We viewed her 40-minute long film, Lagareh – The Last Born, sitting on yellow, punctuation-shaped furniture. It was a powerful watch.

The story of Sheku Bayoh, who died after being restrained by police in Kirkcaldy in 2015, is woven into its fabric. We both felt uncomfortable with some sections. But, it is art’s role to push boundaries. Whittle, like so many artists in Venice this year, does so with integrity.


The question “How Do You Feel?” has been turned into an exhibition title for a beautiful show by the Scottish artists’ collective, Group 13. The group is currently exhibiting under this title at the Maclaurin Art Gallery in Ayr.

Painting and poetry lie at the heart of the work, specifically haiku poems – consisting of three lines. There’s some richly textured and colourful work on show from the likes of Charles Jamieson, Liz Knox and Annette Edgar. Runs until July 10.