Left the right: Lucy Azubuike, Toya Northington, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, and Sandra Charles. Photo courtesy of Toya Northington.
︎ Venice Biennale, Louisville

In Conversation: Four Artists’ Reflections on the Venice Biennale

with Anna Blake

In August, the Great Meadows Foundation awarded its second bully grant to four black women artists from Kentucky: Lucy Azubuike, Sandra Charles, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, and Toya Northington. The grant, intended to give opportunities for artists in the region to engage with the international contemporary art world, allowed the group to travel to the 2019 Venice Biennale for six days. To discuss the significance of this opportunity and the takeaways it granted, Anna Blake sat down with Azubuike, Charles, Lindsey, and Northington.

Anna Blake [AB]: For anyone attending the Venice Biennale from another part of the world, there can be many obstacles. What does it mean for you to have this experience?

Toya Northington [TN]: One of the things that has always struck me about the art world is that it really is a place about privilege. You’re privileged just to be an artist and to take it as a profession. By going to the Biennale, it elevates your privilege in a way. It gives us that same opportunity that other artists have and is usually not offered to artists of color. It’s very rare for us to get that experience.

Ramona Dallum Lindsey [RL]: I never thought it would be possible for me, and if it was, it was going to be by ten or fifteen years down the road so I would have enough time to save up. This opportunity for a patron of the arts to support artists in such a way and remove that barrier so we could visit the Biennale—not just to see it—but in order to grow in our knowledge of contemporary art, the art world, and the world’s cultures; that says a lot about Great Meadows and the need for critical discourse amongst artists. For me, it was a very liberating experience.

Sandra Charles [SC]: I was extremely grateful to have this opportunity to go. Over the years, I’ve always read about the Biennale; I would look at the work, and there was a time when I said, “I really want to go there one day,” but there was no way, even before I retired. It was just out of my reach. Plus, I have this little fear about leaving the country. But this was an extreme opportunity—it’s something that African American artists just don’t get, we just don’t have the resources.

TN: As an artist from Kentucky, we’re so far removed from major art scenes and emergent art districts that we don’t always have access to international or national artists. It limits your scope of possibility. But when we traveled and saw the Biennale, it was like, “If there were no limits, what would you create?”

SC: I agree because, in New York and other cities, they have a different culture. Even the price of artwork is different here. In the other cities like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, going to Biennale is a given.

RL: On top of that, the art patrons and the people who are supporting arts are in a very segregated world. It’s very homogeneous. As an artist of color, as a black artist, it’s challenging to learn how to go beyond what’s happening. Many white students of the arts have come from families that have always supported the rich in-depth art experience, and for various reasons—systematic and policy-based—black families have not been able to acquire the wealth and the resources to provide those types of in-depth opportunities to their kids. If I’m a parent and I wanted to really immerse my child in the arts, my options are limited. The internet is where I have to go and the images that I saw on the internet and in books don’t do justice to seeing that work in person. The fullness and richness of it all comes from being able to experience it in real time and in real life. Philanthropy really needs to think about how we shift that, and I think Great Meadows is beginning to think of that and the Community Foundation is beginning to think of that with the Hadley Creatives program. How do we give artists the resources where they can shift their own experiences?

TN: We can talk about it in the here and now but when we look at it historically, in the art canon, women artists and black artists have been left out. A lot of the times the reason given is that the work “lacks something” or it’s “not as in-depth.” Some of that is racism, but some of that is just lack of exposure—not having the same opportunities to see artwork. You’re producing from what you know. The major cities are able to counter that so you can go downtown and see major exhibitions and you can talk to your friends doing things internationally, but we just don’t have that kind of access to resources where we can grow in that way.

AB: The title, May You Live in Interesting Times, relates to our sense of what is myth and what is fact. Can you speak to any part of your experience that stood out to you with regard to these concepts?

SC: In Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself, there was a fear of technology, and that kind of set up the title of the show for me. Technology generates a fear, and when I walked in and I saw this huge machine sweeping up blood, that spoke to me—the fear of the way the world is heading. With Arthur Jafa’s The White Album, his works spoke to what is going on in America. These artists are saying, “This is how our world is today,” and to me, it’s kind of sad.

RL: I liked Arthur Jafa’s use of our current obsession with social media to address issues of white supremacy, using the words of white people themselves. He gathered it all together and forced people to deal with their own discomfort about these issues. On the flip side, he also included images from social media that supported the white stereotypical belief of black people. That was uncomfortable. I thought it was very brave of him to do that work knowing it going in a privileged white space. The art was supposed to be this video montage but it became a performance piece. As people were watching, the environment in the room changed. Reactions changed. You saw people get up and walk out. You saw people huffing. You saw some people agreeing. There’s that dichotomy of us living in interesting times: is it a curse or is it an opportunity?

TN: For me, I experienced it differently. I didn’t resonate with it as much as I thought I would. It wasn’t made for me. It was made for a mainstream audience and it antagonized the majority. But Khalil Joseph’s piece, BLKNWS, was made for me. I watched that video for 30 minutes and I went through every emotion. I felt like his truth was the closest thing I had seen about the black experience. If I could explain it, I would. It was clever how he put it together with similar formatting to The White Album. It was actually created as a pilot for a network. What would happen if the news was not made for the majority? If there were no stereotypes? If it wasn’t fed through a white lens, what would the news look like? That in and of itself was an alternate universe because we don’t know any media sources like that. Even BET is filtered through a white lens, so we only get stereotypical blackness and that is how people see us as people and as artists. What if this utopian world existed where there is a real face of blackness?

Lucy Azubuike [LA]: I listened to Ralph Rugoff, the 2019 Venice Biennale curator, talk about ‘Interesting Times’ which is more or less a constant thing. It is always an interesting time both in the past and the present. Artists are able to ask open-ended questions which force viewers to reexamine their views and positions about current issues. They showcase what is happening in a particular era in a unique way. For instance, this is an internet and global era, so the question of the boundaries arises. What is a boundary? Is it virtual or real? Will a physical wall actually protect anyone? There is a dichotomy of beliefs, needs, and realities that will always be complicated in any era but artists have the power to open viewers' eyes to them. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself installation is my favorite. That is the most interesting work for me because it reflects how we get affected by our actions. The blood that the machine tries to control splashes everywhere including on the machine itself. The machine is restless just like the blood it tries to control.

RL: Teresa Margolles, in Muro Ciudad Juarez, had taken a section of a wall that had been in front of a school. The wall had barbed wire on it, graffiti, and bullet holes. When you first look at it, you think it's from a war zone. And then you realize that the bullet holes were from drug violence. That wall was the only thing protecting the kids from the violence that was on the other side. It wasn’t government-sanctioned—officially—but there was a battle going on and this wall was trying to protect the innocents. For me, that was the opposite to living in interesting times. You can consider that wall as protection but that wall is also a testament to the fact that there are some things that need to be changed. On one side there was death and on the other they were trying to instill some hope through education, but how can these two things exist?

TN: There were some playful moments. The videos seemed to be in dialogue with one another. There was this cave, Blurry Venice by Plastique Fantastique, where you take your shoes off and there’s water. You can bump into the sides and you felt like a kid but you didn’t know what you were exploring. These fun moments were a relief to all the heaviness.

SC: The overall theme was that of a stark truth for all of the artwork, even the playful ones. This is who we are as humans on this planet and some of it was playful and some of it was really disturbing.

LA: Rugoff also made mention of this Biennale as a positive “bipolar”. Artists showcased two extremes of their work. Artists are encouraged to show their parallel works, which are works that have nothing in common but were executed by the same artist.

TN: It’s who you are when you come to it—when you go into the space, you bring everything that you are, and your perspective too. If you’re used to navigating these kinds of spaces—that’s why it’s significant for people of color and black people. We’re used to them. So for us to see something extreme, we’re going to process it and we have this resilience where we can reset and start again.

AB: With the decision to split the work into binaries with Proposition A in the Arsenale and Proposition B in the Giardini—did you feel that this was a successful curatorial choice?

TN: One of my favorite artists was Suki Kang. I spent so much time in her exhibit in the Giardini. It was playful and there were these weavings and paintings, but she put them on ordinary, mundane objects. There was a cat house and washing boards with intricate weavings on them. They were very sophisticated but they looked like something you can play with. She played with shadow and her compositions were very clever. When we went to the Arsenale, it didn’t seem as connected. A lot of times, artists will talk about, “will it have the same strength outside of your studio?” and how much the environment plays with the work. I don’t think it reflected on the art itself, it really just talked about the space. Sometimes we just don’t have control of the environment.

RL: For some of the artists, I was confused about how the two pieces interacted with each other. For example, Jafa’s The White Album I got, but then we went out to the Arsenale and there was a photograph, My Little Buddha. How do these two stories go together? Do they? Are they supposed to? So I have a lot of questions about that work. But then other pieces did tie together, so I stopped thinking about them as we went back.

AB: That was a really big criticism; that the gesture fell flat and you had to revisit to understand.

LA: That’s the idea. There’s no connection and that was his intention. It has to be distinctive so that you don’t realize that the artist you saw at the Arsenal is the same artist in the main pavilion. So yes, Proposition A and B is a successful curatorial choice.

RL: That’s how I was with Jafa. I walked around the Arsenale twice and I passed that work about four times. How does this work? If that was the idea, then it was extremely successful.

AB: That’s a good point; the multiplicity of a practice is important.

RL: Njideka Crosby’s work at the Giardini was multilayered, multicolored scenes of family and people. Then we went to the Arsenale, and her work was monochromatic and the layers only came through these monochrome colors. They were only portraits where her other works were these huge scenes celebrating family and family life. I don’t think you would have realized without looking at the nameplate that she was the same artist.

SC: She was my favorite artist. I loved it her work at the Giardini and when I got to the Arsenale, I was like “Wow, okay.” I understood where she was coming from and I see what she was trying to do, but I didn’t feel it as much as I did to the first.

RL: With her second work in the Arsenale, I paid more attention to her technique where in the Giardini piece I paid attention to the feelings, emotions, and the story. But at the Arsenale, I was like, “Wow, she’s a really talented painter. She’s really captured people and she did it all with one color.” I was getting more intrigued by the technique. For me, not being a trained artist, you can learn things by looking.

AB: Apart from what we spoke about, were there any pieces that you would consider your favorite or least favorite?

TN: Russia was fun. I didn’t linger, but the Russian pavilion was intriguing.

RL: They were presenting Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, and they used that painting as inspiration for these sculptural vignettes about episodes of the prodigal son. How does all of this tie with Russia, though?

SC: I loved all the artwork from all of the artists. Some of the pavilions kind of annoyed me. I don’t like politics or governments in art, period, because it shapes it. I didn’t like the American or Russian pavilion. It was like they were trying to do their best to say, “We’re Russia, we have a Rembrandt.” The United States’ pavilion… Puryear, I love his work. I love the lines and the forms but within the United States’ pavilion, it became very political for me and I didn’t particularly care for that. I still need to read up on A Column for Sally Hemings. They were trying to make a statement about history and American culture but I think they fell short.

RL: I wasn’t sure what statement they were trying to make about American culture—that we are still totally absorbed by white privilege and domination? At some point, the United States’ pavilion felt like it was a gallery trying to sell the work. I didn’t see the stories of the work or the interconnected message. I was disappointed.

LA: There are tons of things that, even if you stayed for a month, you may not have seen. I don’t know if you can conclusively say that it was not good.

AB: Are there any major takeaways you feel are important to share?

TN: What we’ve been trying to talk about as a group is ‘what’s next?’ That’s one of the reasons we went there: to uplift the discourse in our area and offer additional opportunities for black artists in our community. That is where we are now. What is the next step in our journey as artists, administrators within our community?

RL: I agree. Something else that I took away personally was the importance of seeing other cultures and other countries. I admired how the Venetians took time to live life. You don’t walk around with your coffee all day so you can do more work. You take the time to sit down with family and friends and connect. They understood that commerce wasn’t the most important thing—living life as individuals was. I realized that, as an American, I live to work. If I don’t use my time to acquire more things, I’m not being productive. Before we went to Italy, I thought the American mindset was the prevailing mindset. It made me step back and think about why I’m doing some of the things that I’m doing. Because if I’m living to work, I cannot create. How do I scale back so I can connect with myself and find that time to produce what God has put in me creatively to do? That was a reflection point for me to reevaluate my priorities.

LA:  As for what I take from this visit, it is an assurance that art is more relevant in the world. It is refreshing and I gained more energy to keep being myself in my art practice. I felt at home in Venice considering that I am close to 3 artists that are showing at the Biennale; I have shown work with Zanele Muholi in the 2008 exhibit Like a Virgin. Njideka Crosby is literally my sister as we are both Igbos, while El Anatsui is my mentor. I also had the opportunity to find artistic tree forms in the Giardini. We are grateful to Al Shands and Julien Robson for this opportunity and we are ready to bring our ‘A’ game

SC: It was life-changing for me. I thought I had a lot of freedom to create my own artwork, but when I came back from this trip, I dumped the project I’ve been working on and I have a new idea and I’m incorporating the ideas that I saw at the Biennale. I saw Helen Frankenthaler just being free while she was creating her artwork. I saw the power in each piece that was throughout the Biennale. Even when we visited the cathedrals, there was a power in the old, ancient art. There’s power in the brushstrokes and the fingerprints. The artists put their heart and soul into each piece. It was so moving to me that when I came back, I looked at my artwork and I was like, “This isn’t right, I need to bring my soul out again.”

TN: Khalil Joseph’s work struck me as the piece that’s really going to shift my practice. What I took from him was the great amount of depth and emotion that he invoked in me as a viewer. He was speaking to the black experience in general and a lot of my work speaks to the black female experience. I get stuck in certain cycles where I only show one aspect, but his work has so many layers to emotion. What would it look like for me to take my audience on that journey? Do I even have access to all those emotions? I have to think about that and how I’m going to access that in myself and give back to my audience and my work.

LA: I think we should pay homage to Peggy Guggenheim.

TN: It was interesting that our highlights were the women of the tour. We spent a lot of time in Peggy Guggenheim and looking at her pictures and just feeling her energy through the space.

LA: Inasmuch as Peggy had the golden spoon in her mouth, she didn’t have access to her father’s wealth initially. But that didn’t stop her from practicing her art. So there is no excuse not to practice art. She is very, very inspiring and a force to be recorked with. And Frankenthaler is constantly experimenting. We see intense light works and suddenly she creates extreme dark ones. Very ‘bipolar’ actually.

RL: She’s my inspiration. She did what felt right and she wasn’t confined by the constraints of society. How am I going to live my life as a woman? Do I have to stand in this narrow box that society has put me in as a woman or can I be whatever I want to be or do whatever I want to do?


To engage with these artists’ further, visit their websites:

Anna Blake
Guest Contributor for Ruckus
Lucy Azubuike in Venice. Photo courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Ramona Dallum Lindsey inside Plastique Fantastique's Blurry Venice. Photo courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Sandra Charles next to work by Zanele Muholi. Photo courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Left to right: Lindsey, Northington, Charles, and Azubuike. Photo courtesy of Sandra Charles.

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