Unearthing the Land’s Buried Stories at the Venice Biennale

VENICE — In “ROMANTIC IRELAND,” a multi-channel video installation produced by Eimear Walshe for the Irish Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, a figure stands amid the rough walls of a compacted mud building. Roofless and doorless with a turf floor, the structure might be either half-finished or half-decayed, a meeting point of past and future. Dressed in an old-fashioned tweed skirt and apron as well as a latex fetish mask, the figure clutches a baby, holding it away from the approach of a menacing suited businessman. As the camera pans closer, it becomes clear that the child is in fact a clod of earth, the same material used to build the walls around them. The maternal character’s arms and clothes become increasingly muddy, symbolizing a complex and emotionally fraught relationship with land at the heart of Walshe’s work.

Drawing on the ongoing legacies of late 19th-century land contestation in Ireland, Walshe presents earth as a paradoxical site of safety and violence, community and dispossession, national identity and colonial erasure. The installation is emblematic of a wider trend at this edition of the Venice Biennale. Artists across several national pavilions are exploring notions of contested land, land restitution, and rematriation — the latter of which signifies the return of objects to their original cultural contexts, avoiding the patriarchal and colonial overtones of “repatriation.” Several have also brought soil itself into the gallery space, emphasizing an engagement with land as a living entity that supports broader ecological and cultural systems. 

Walshe’s operatic video is installed among a suggestive architecture of earth-built blocks, alluding to the current housing crisis in Ireland. In the accompanying leaflet, Walshe writes that some actions by contemporary landlords “constitute a resurgence of a 19th-century practice which cleared millions of Irish tenants from the land, from their way of life, and means of survival.” In addition to specifically referencing Irish histories, “ROMANTIC IRELAND” engages with an ancient form of vernacular mud construction with many iterations across the world, hinting that the story of land dispossession has been repeated across every colonized nation and culture. Circumstances, cultural impacts, and resistance movements vary, but the means of oppression are too often the same.

At the Portugal pavilion, artist-curators Mónica de Miranda, Sónia Vaz Borges, and Vânia Gala filled the elegant Palazzo Franchetti with flower beds containing living plants. Greenhouse is an imaginative recreation of a “Creole garden,” historically a plot of land gardened by enslaved people both as a means of resistance and of growing food for healing and survival during the 18th and 19th centuries. Such plots were generally diverse and bountiful, designed to encourage mutually beneficial plants to grow alongside each other. For humans and plants alike, this system acts as the precise opposite of monoculture plantations tended by enslaved people.

The artists are growing a biodiverse range of African plants inside the pavilion, challenging the contrived divisions between humans and plants through metaphors of uprooting, containment, and flourishing. Using soil as a vessel for engaging with decolonial and ecological practices, Greenhouse conceives of earth as a living material for sustaining growth as well as a historical archive of colonial violence and marginalized communities. There is a familiar yet devastating narrative at play here, of people forcibly removed from their home and forced to till foreign land, while also enacting resistance through clandestine engagement with that same soil. 

At the Hãhãwpuá Pavilion, renamed this year for the land on which present-day Brazil sits, a group exhibition of artists from the Tupinambá and coastal Indigenous communities is similarly inspired by small patches of land used to grow food. The title, Ka’a Pûera, is taken from the Tupinambá word for arable sections of a forest that are left to rest after the harvest. Although such regenerated spaces might seem inhospitable at first glance, important medicinal plants are often found growing there. This mirrors the resistance of Indigenous peoples within Hãhãwpuá; even in seemingly infertile or harvested soil, there is always potential for renewal.

As with the Irish and Portuguese pavilions, soil is again brought into the gallery space. A screen sits atop a mount of earth with embedded seeds and vegetables in Olinda Tupinambá’s video installation “Equilíbrio” (2020–2024), asserting Indigenous peoples’ right to reclaim their territories — and that pillaged land’s right to ecological restoration according to traditional land usage. 

Elsewhere in the pavilion, work by Glicéria Tupinambá draws out a cogent link between the restitution of land and the restitution of stolen objects. Her work centers on the Tupinambá mantle, a traditional shamanic cloak woven from bird feathers. The artist presents an example of a mantle woven collectively with her family and community, as well as letters asking museums, including the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, and Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, that hold plundered mantles in their collections to rematriate them to their homeland.

The rematriation of Indigenous sacred objects emerges as a theme in several other pavilions, including the Dutch Pavilion’s presentation of work by the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) collective. Recruited for the pavilion by Dutch artist Renzo Martens, the group of artists works toward the liberation and revival of the plantation in Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo, aiming to transform industrial palm-oil monoculture back into sacred forests. A central element of the pavilion is a successful campaign for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to loan the Balot sculpture, a carved wood ancestral figure designed to protect against the plantation regime, to Lusanga. 

The pavilion doesn’t make clear Renzo Martens’s controversial, arguably neo-colonialist approach to working with the CATPC collective, which has previously included a provocative documentary video entitled “Enjoy Poverty” and the establishment of a modernist “white cube” gallery in the small village of Lusanga. Martens argues that the Western art world is built on the colonial violence enacted on plantation workers, and he attempts to use that system to help plantation workers improve their lives and reconnect with their land.

It is easy to level a “White savior” criticism at Martens, whose project fails to attempt to dismantle the colonial power structures that are the root cause of inequality and poverty. A small publication accompanying the pavilion notes that Martens’s previous collaborations with CATPC “raised concerns” and claims that “after long deliberation” Martens “made the decision to define his role more explicitly as one in service to CATPC and its aims.” Unfortunately, the pavilion itself doesn’t address this explicitly enough for comfort, sweeping the issue under the carpet by confining it to a pamphlet.

Pavilions throughout the Biennale reveal the complex and often deeply painful nature of these questions around colonialism, land, and identity. But where the Dutch pavilion leaves a strange taste in the mouth, the Portuguese, Hãhãwpuá, and Irish pavilions shed useful light on how relationships between people and contested land can be nuanced, paradoxical, and even fruitful, uncovering fertile ground for resistance, restitution, and regeneration.

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