Israeli Chutzpah at the Venice Biennale

VENICE — I arrived at the Venice Biennale preview on Tuesday morning, April 16, a bit later than many of the art world’s modern-day Medicis and their professional-managerial class. It’s my first time in years at the Biennale, as I have been absent from these international blue-chip spheres for a while.   

My professional network has changed drastically since October 7, 2023. I’ve been vocal about Palestine for years, but the current US-funded genocide in Gaza has moved me to be louder when I can. I don’t have an art gallery anymore, so all these collectors threatening me or giving me dirty looks have no effect on my income. After I closed my New York gallery, I worked briefly in the nonprofit industrial complex. Now, I’m lucky enough to work with just one radical private collector and support various artists’ careers as an advocate instead of a dealer. I have nothing to lose, so it’s not particularly brave of me. The whispers of support I receive from other arts workers who wish they could speak up are touching and upsetting at the same time, as capital’s ability to silence culture is unacceptable. Big art events like the Venice Biennale are different for me now. I have a bond with people who used to be acquaintances and a greater distance from a few former clients. The fake bullshit of this industry became much more manageable after some distanced themselves from me because of my political views.  

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During this trip, I was planning to withhold judgment on nationalism and reputation-washing, which are requirements for an event of this kind. I intended to look at art like a tourist. Some years, I have hated art, and others, I have loved it. I want to love it right now. This particular Biennale is so self-aware about colonization. The Indigenous correction is both moving (when it’s artist-led) and embarrassing (when it’s virtue-signaled by White people like me). I am legitimately excited to celebrate Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition the space in which to place me at the American pavilion, even though I will never be able to celebrate America.

“Indigenizing” the country’s name on the facade of a colonial national pavilion, as the artists representing Brazil and Denmark this year have done, might fall into the territory of a symbolic decolonial dream. I appreciate Gibson’s ability to exhibit as a dual citizen, representing two nations at once with a graceful sure-footedness: the colonial state that controls the pavilion, the United States, and the sovereign Indigenous nation of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, of which he is also a citizen. I felt like I was walking into another country’s pavilion. I was immersed in its celebration of broad Turtle Island Indigeneity. The show carries the historical baggage of erasure, settler colonialism, and genocide, but it’s not bogged down by it. The outcome is a moment of overcoming, almost an “acknowledgment” that all this awful history was an American thing, not a Native thing. American imagery became part of an Indigenous aesthetic, not vice versa. 

For one brief moment, I forgot that my nation-state is funding and arming another genocide with my tax dollars — next door to the US Pavilion is the Israeli Pavilion. 

The day before my arrival, an opportunistic artist representing the colonial Zionist state partially suspended her exhibition until “a ceasefire and hostage release agreement is reached,” a meaningless statement that reiterated liberal Zionist talking points. These talking points are meant to provide cover or a justification for the carnage in Gaza, as if the oppression carried out by Zionists is the result of October 7, not nearly 76 years of Nakba. I’m writing this as an American Ashkenazi Jew whose father was born in Occupied Palestine.

It takes a certain amount of skill and manipulation to make it this far in the art world, and this artist has both in spades. She timed the statement perfectly at the press preview to maximize coverage. She was able to steal part of the show, pretending not to participate (even though you can still see her work through the pavilion window), and gets to portray herself as a victim and someone working for peace, which is not liberation.

The pavilion has been photographed endlessly and is guarded by Italian Army soldiers. This artist will be applauded. Her career has advanced on the suffering of others, as this move raises her profile much more than any self-absorbed video art. I’m not going to learn her name. Instead, I spent the late afternoon listening to a powerful reading of poems by writers from Palestine just outside the exit to the exhibition. I am glad to have learned the names of artists like Noor Hindi, Nasser Rabah, Mosab Abu Toha, Fady Joudah, and many others. I look forward to visiting an official, permanent Palestinian pavilion in the near future.


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