Mia Harrison on how the exhibition became a platform for womxn artists to articulate, build, and contextualize their individual and collective dreams.
“If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core – the fountain – of our power, our womanness; we give up the future of our worlds.” – Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”
WAKE UP. My journey to the Venice Biennale in April still feels like an echo of the last part of a dream. I can still sense the textures of the works –– the images and dialogues lingering through my thoughts, finally resting like bedsheets floating down after being fanned above a bed. Curated by Cecilia Alemani, the first Italian woman to curate the biennale, the 59th edition became a platform for womxn to articulate, build, and contextualize their individual and communal dreams. Dreams that at one time would have been abandoned as a means of sacrifice and survival.
The title of the biennale’s main exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, comes from a book by British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington and focuses on “a world where everyone can change, be transformed, become something or someone else.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t escape the first impression I had of the title – wet nurses. The tradition of Black womxn feeding other people’s children haunted me. In many ways, Black womxn are still giving their essence and time to nurturing the dreams of others.
Yet the national pavilion exhibitions presented by Simone Leigh and Sonia Boyce celebrate Black femme material and immaterial creation for other Black womxn. Boyce’s Feeling Her Way and Leigh’s Sovereignty draw out the visions of living and lost ancestors, pulling the strings and threads forward through time and across imaginary borders.
Feeling Her Way is a meditation on collaboration and a portal into the Black British sonic and visual landscape, in the sense of the British concept of Black as seeking to build a collective voice between members of the African, South Asian, and Caribbean Diaspora who continue to face the ongoing impact of Britain’s imperial and colonial past. Boyce worked with five Black female musicians (Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram, and composer Errollyn Wallen) to create a chorus of answers to the core question: What does freedom look like? To them, freedom isn’t an individual journey. It is a collective process whereby everyone responsible for creating the world we wake up to every day plays a part in reimagining it. The videos and artifacts are an ode to overlooked frequencies and Black female artists that have not only maintained the pulse of British music but also held codes for existing against the odds. Sound pours from one room into the next as layers of voices construct the overall picture – Black female expression is limitless in its form and ability. It is responsive, generative, and collaborative. It looks forward and back, bridging context and conversations.
When I walked over to the US pavilion, I felt I had finally arrived. I was transported into a dream landscape – a composite image of Black architecture, material culture, and spirituality. The space was tranquil. The minimal use of sound and the placement of objects gave room for reflection. The silence invited me to pause and stand with the works. It called for me to interiorize the layers of conversations within each piece and the communicating elements between the artworks. Within Sovereignty, the transcendent and the mundane coexist. Leigh uses sculpture to create hybrid herstories by merging traditional African spiritual realities with new expressions to create Black diasporic ritual objects. But this bliss was often broken as I competed with bodies who aimed to park in front of the pieces and solely view them from illuminated screens. It was difficult watching white onlookers crowd around the portrait Sharifa (2022) and lazily snap a photo of her. They left as quickly as they arrived. Did they not notice the architectural lines of her foot? How you could fall into her gaze as she stared back at you?
This viewing process tainted my impression of the experience. Maybe I was being overprotective. It is a historical moment and seeing Black art presented on such a large stage made me want to completely immerse myself. The work deserved a level of engagement beyond taking a selfie and skimming the surface through Instagram filters. I think it’s time to reframe how we engage with art both individually and collectively, away from mindless consumption toward intentional digestion. I wanted to invite the other viewers to slow down and process how the artist’s provocations were functioning at each level. How was the space being activated or subverted to conjure the narrative? Where were the objects placed in relation to each other? What dialogue was happening between them? What context were you given to navigate the installation? What was your role within the space?
Yet I was proud of the accomplishments of Black womxn in this biennale – the first to have 90% womxn, many of them being womxn of color. After revisiting my notes from the trip, conversations on WhatsApp, and splices of impressions committed to memory, I reflect on dreaming as a collective transformation practice, where the mysteries of coded symbols are steeped in cultural ritual and dream interpretation is done by those who are arguably the most qualified – artists. Since childhood, dreaming has been my outlet for spiritual and creative exploration. The dreamscape became a place to consciously address my desires and fears, but also a space where to visit with deceased ancestors and connect to stories and events that happened before my lifetime, with the potential to reconstruct or even transmute them. The associations we have of dream imagery also relate to how we experience life. In my investigation of the biennale, I ask myself these questions: In what sense are dreams a way of collective remembering? How does the act of dreaming extend into waking life?
Mia Imani Harrison is a pacific northwest native Artivist (Art + Activist) and experimental poet. In a time where words hurt more than sticks and stones, she uses her art as activism.