Galerie Myrtis: Exhibiting Black Art at The Venice Biennale
By Shantay Robinson
The Venice Biennale, which dates to 1895, was established by the Italian King and Queen of the time. The first exhibition was seen by 224,000 visitors. Originally designed to celebrate Italian artists, a “by-invitation” system was adopted to reserve a section of the exhibition for foreign artists.
In 1997, Robert Colescott was the first African-American man to represent the U.S. at the Biennale. Next year, Simone Leigh will be the first African-American woman to represent the U.S. at the Biennale. The 2022 Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, is titled The Milk of Dreams, and, according to her curatorial statement, it aspires to be an optimistic exhibition that “celebrates art and its capacity to create alternative cosmologies and new conditions of existence.” It will question how humans are changing. The artists in the exhibition are asked to imagine a posthuman condition that challenges the universal ideal of the white, male “Man of reason.”
By invitation of the European Cultural Centre-Italy, Galerie Myrtis is the first black-owned gallery to be invited to participate in the Biennale-affiliated exhibition Personal Structures: Time, Space, and Existence. This historic moment is predated by the 2020 racial reckoning the world experienced. Myrtis Bedolla, owner and founding director of the gallery, is not taking it lightly. “It’s going to be less about what white people think about black people. It’s going to be strictly about how we envision ourselves. We are the dictators here, the provocateurs determining what we want the future existence of blackness to be,” she says.
Bedolla states that she encountered a representative from the European Cultural Centre (ECC), a cultural organization concerned with “humanity and about the overall state and direction of our world,” during her participation at SCOPE Art Show, Art Basel Miami Beach in 2018. Since then, the ECC has monitored the gallery’s activities. They contacted Bedolla to present an exhibition proposal for the Biennale in 2020 to which she assembled an advisory team of her mentors, including Dr. Lowrey Stokes Sims and Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, among others. Together, they explored the black experience, which led them to the subject of Afrofuturism that she says is “rooted in time, time travel, and space travel that is taking you from where you currently stand, your current state of existence, to a utopian future.”
Afrofuturism is Black Art, as it specifically deals with the black experience throughout the African diaspora and even through space and time. One of the premises of Afrofuturism is that it reinterprets the heinous past Africans throughout the diaspora have endured, and refashions it while exploring predictions for a more perfect future. Because of the uprising in 2020, we can assume that the curators of the Biennale wanted to include Black Art—art that is essentially about the black experience.
An Afrofuturist manifesto, as Bedolla proposes, is “manifest in black consciousness and Afrofuturist philosophy of freedom and self-determination.” The manifesto fits squarely in the Biennale’s theme, as it challenges the white male “Man of reason” universal ideal and offers another determination…one steeped in the black experience from a black perspective.
“[Afrofuturism is] defined in many ways. It’s a philosophy. It’s a theory. It’s a concept. The way in which I define it is it allows black people to claim agency over blackness. It’s where we are able to use our imagination and interpret, based on our history, what is happening today, our present, and looking toward our future through imaginative concepts and different technologies.” –Myrtis Bedolla
The Galerie Myrtis exhibition for the Venice Biennale is titled, The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined. Bedolla explains, “As a manifesto, it’s a declaration of what we would like to see in our future, like justice and peace. And living in a world that is harmonious and one that respects the black body. So it is to be imagined. And what can be imagined can certainly be realized.”
The term Afrofuturism was coined by cultural critic, Mark Dery in 1993. Dery asks, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Per the exhibition abstract, Bedolla doesn’t see the black past as being rubbed out because it is present in the art, music, and literature that black people have created.
Afrofuturism in the visual art context is evident in the work of historic artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and scores of contemporary visual artists, including Sanford Biggers and Wangechi Mutu. The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined responds to Dery’s question by asserting, “Black people will not only be imagined but realized–rooted in African traditions, composed in its polyrhythms, and storied in the lexicon of the African-American experience.”
The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined will feature artists represented by the gallery, including Tawny Chatmon, Larry Cook, Morel Doucet, Monica Ikegwu, M. Scott Johnson, Delita Martin, Arvie Smith, and Felandus Thames. Bedolla selected the artists whose work, process, ideas, and concepts she believes would be compelling within the strictures of the proposed exhibition. “It was a very difficult process to narrow down the selection because my roster of artists is so strong,” she says. The cohort of artists range in age (from their 20s to their 80s), artistic media, and perspectives.
Tawny Chatmon celebrates the beauty of black children; Larry Cook examines how urban culture and incarceration systems become entwined through photography; Delita Martin offers new narratives on the power of women; and Arvie Smith transforms the history of oppressed and stereotyped segments of the African-American experience. “We’re going to examine it through various means and forms that are going to be defined and redefined based on the artists’ interpretation,” Bedolla notes.
The exhibition will be nuanced, as are black people. Bedolla states, “What I mean by the nuances is our experiences as black people. We are not a monolith, right? Our experiences vary on the position that we hold in society. We’re going to examine what those experiences are. They’re going to be perceived by the artists, but they will be dimensional.” Through these dimensions, we’ll see how sculpture, photography, and painting all work to depict the experiences of the diverse group of artists presented in the exhibition using art to explore the politics of race and culture.
The artists, who are all creating new work for the exhibition, will imagine futuristic visions of an egalitarian society that emancipates the viewer from the Eurocentric lens. While imagining that alternative society, “the artists will look at the historic Afro-diasporic past,” according to Bedolla. Given the importance of the conceptual presentation, in addition to its varied media, people will have to take pause and reflect on the issues addressed.
Part of the mission of this exhibition is to engage the Afro-Italian community and members of the African Diaspora, who make up a percentage of the 600,000 visitors to ECC events.
“We wanted to embrace and acknowledge them and interact in a way that was more impactful than just putting art on the wall,” Bedolla says. She proposed that the featured artists come up with ideas for workshops and lectures that will create cultural exchange programs that extend beyond the Biennale.
- Tawny Chatmon’s photographs of Afro-Italian children will be a vehicle for a discussion on cultural pride and identity.
- Larry Cook will collaborate with formerly incarcerated Afro-Italian men to tell personal stories through portraiture.
- Scott Johnson will facilitate a bookmaking session with Afro-Italian teens.
- Delita Martin will use printmaking to create narratives that speak to spiritualty and creativity with Afro-Italian women.
Arvie Smith will offer a drawing and painting workshop with incarcerated youth
“The hope is that we can engage in intellectually stimulating discussions about why black life is so relevant and why we are important,” Bedolla states. For Bedolla, Afrofuturism is about reclamation—reclaiming the past and predicting a better future. She’s concerned about this reclamation through a black cultural lens, hoping that those who are not African American witness the humanity in the stories about systemic racism and subjugated society. Afrofuturism connects the people of the African diaspora with their common African ancestry. Forging a connection throughout the African diaspora with The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined is no small feat.
Visitors from around the world will engage with black art that speaks to the conditions that black people exist under. Particularly engaging with Afrofuturism should help those who see the art think about it on an existential level in order to exercise their imaginations about what a world would look like if black people are respected.
Bedolla has been in the art business as a curator, gallerist, and art consultant for 30 years. She founded Galerie Myrtis, an emerging blue-chip gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, 19 years ago. Voted Best Gallery by the Baltimore Sun in 2017, Bedolla says that “the gallery’s history is championing black artists, and so having the opportunity to take the black voice to this global platform and take our concerns and have them presented before possibly 600,000 people is really important.”
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SHANTAY ROBINSON was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper,Arts ATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine,Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.
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