Though the model of the Venice Biennale with its national pavilions has often been criticised as a remnant of the past, it is something that most visitors secretly seem to like, cheering for their national pavilion as if was their football league. Though the pavilions of this year turned out to be much weaker than previous editions – with a lot of one-liners and easily digestible gimmicks – the art critic/ curator Sam Steverlynck found some highlights.

France

Zineb Sedira is the first French person of Algerian origin to represent France. In the national pavilion she is referring to her roots while expressing her love for cinema, especially from the golden age in the 1960s and 70s when there was a boom of Algerian, Italian and French co-productions. Visitors of the pavilion become actors in a filmset, where a stylish couple is performing a game of seduction in an old school bar. In another room, one sees a replica of a typical living room of immigrants with vintage posters – comparable to the one she presented for her striking exhibition “A Brief Moment” at Jeu de Paume in 2019. Her exhibition in Venice might be less political than the one in Paris, there are also – subtle – hints at political revolution and her personal biography.

View of Zineb Sedira’s “Les rêves n’ont pas de titre” [Dreams Have no Titles] in the French Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. / Photo: Sam Steverlynck

Belgium

Though Francis Alÿs could rightly be considered as a citizen of the world, he was born in Antwerp before moving to Mexico City, which has made an ever-lasting impression on his artistic practice. Since the world discovered his videos that combine poetry and politics in its most pure form, he has been travelling around the globe. On his many journeys, he started filming children’s games which are presented here in a beautiful and varied scenography. The strength of the project is that it is not only a hymn of children’s imagination to find joy with the most simple things, but also that some of the games subtly reveal a lot about the countries where they took place: like the Afghan boy playing with an imaginary kite, as the real thing is forbidden by the Taliban; or the Congolese boy pushing a tyre up a hill in an apocalyptic minefield which he then is readily to roll down from.

View of Francis Alÿs’s “The Nature of the Game” in the Belgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. / Photo: Roberto Ruiz

United States

Playing with associations of world fairs with their colonial connotations and the power game in which the Venice Biennale is a sort of remnant, the Afro-American artist Simone Leigh gives the façade of the pavilion’s classical architecture an African make-over, with a traditional thatched roof and wooden columns. In front of the building, a giant version of an ethnographic sculpture welcomes the viewer. Inside, various sculptures are sparsely installed in different rooms, depicting the female black body. Echoing elements of the easily recognisable imagery from Africa, Leigh re-appropriates the visuals in her own idiosyncratic ways, which are generally convincingly; though some pieces sometimes dangerously border on kitsch.

View of Simone Leigh’s “Sovereignty” in the US pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. (Foreground:) Satellite, 2022. (Background:) Façade, 2022. / Photo: Sam Steverlynck

The Netherlands

The Dutch exceptionally offered their Rietveld-designed pavilion in the Giardini to Estonia while they went for the 13th century church, the Chiesetta della Misericordia in Cannaregio. A clever move, as Melanie Bonajo, an artist and self-declared emotion healer, bodyworker and sex coach, managed to turn the venue into the perfect background for her new video “When the body says Yes”. The church is bathing in light, the floors are covered with thick carpet in bright colours where one can cozily sit and relax to watch her video in which a lineup of naked bodies of different sizes, colours or sexual orientation, drenched in oil while hugging one another. Their work bathes in an atmosphere of body positivity with hippy touches of peace and love, something we might all need now more than ever.

View of Melanie Bonajo’s “When the body says Yes” in the Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2022. / Photo: Peter Tijhuis

New Zealand

When studying a painting by Paul Gauguin, the non-binary Japanese-Samoan artist Yuki Kihara noticed the striking physical similarities between the inhabitants of Tahiti Gauguin portrayed and the community of the Samoan Fa’afafine (third gender) she herself belongs to. In the New Zealand pavilion she presents the result of her research by means of archival images, staged compositions after Gauguin’s paintings of herself and other people from her community, and a mock TV panel show. An interesting and visually attractive way of dealing with the notions of gender politics and nationality which are omnipresent at the Biennale.

Yuki Kihara, Two Fa‘afafine (After Gauguin), 2020 / Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand. Copyright Yuki Kihara.