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Haiti, Iraq show for first time at political Venice Biennale

By Nuala Calvi, for CNN
  • Haiti, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq at Venice Biennale
  • Twelve nations have national pavilions at the art exhibition for the first time or after long absence
  • Crisis-hit countries keen to show a more positive image
  • Increasing interest from Arab states

(CNN) -- Some of the world's most troubled nations, including Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Iraq, are to take part in the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition from June 4.

Twelve extra countries have national pavilions in the Italian city this year, either for the first time or following a long period of absence, bringing the total to a record 89.

The Biennale, which takes place every two years, was founded in 1895 and celebrates contemporary art from around the world. National pavilions showcasing the work of artists from each country were originally built in the Giardini (public gardens) and have since spread to locations across the city.

Haiti, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia are among nations that have pavilions for the first time in 2011, while the Democratic Republic of Congo makes its first appearance since 1968, India joins after a gap of 29 years and Zimbabwe and Iraq join after a gap of 21 years. Other rejoining countries include Costa Rica and Cuba, which have not had individual pavilions for more than 15 years.

They want to show that they are alive and vibrant, and show it through their presence in the world of art.
--Vittorio Urbani, co-commissioner of the Iraq pavilion
  • Haiti
  • Iraq
  • Visual Arts
  • Venice (Italy)

"We have increased the number of pavilions from 77 to 89, with some very interesting results," said Paolo Baratta, Venice Biennale president. "For instance, we now cover almost 100% of South America. We have Bangladesh for the first time, and Saudi Arabia, and I'm particularly happy with the presence of Haiti."

Baratta said the presence of South American countries had been boosted by the Italo-Latin American Institute, which has a large exhibition space in Venice it has used to host work from smaller countries.

Crisis-hit countries such as Haiti -- devastated by last year's earthquake -- are motivated by a desire to show that they can overcome the challenges they face, he added: "They want to show that they are alive and vibrant, and show it through their presence in the world of art. This for us is of the greatest interest."

The Haiti exhibition takes "Death and Fertility" as its theme, suggesting the country's ability to regenerate itself after tragedy. It includes Jean Herard Celeur's "The Horsemen of the Apocalypse," which features human skulls on metal skeletons sporting enormous phalluses.

The exhibition is housed in an outdoor, temporary structure made from sea freight containers -- a reminder of the fact that the artists involved in the project come from a very poor district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.

Zimbabwe's pavilion is the result of a joint drive by the country's culture ministry, the National Gallery in Harare and the British Council, and marks the first time an individual country in sub-Saharan Africa has had official representation at Venice.

Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the pavilion, said it was "pivotal" in establishing a platform for artists after the isolation caused by the country's political situation. "Zimbabwe has been a zone of silence with little access to platforms of exchange through which it can communicate," Chikukwa said.

Misheck Masamvu's painting "Deferred Dreams" seems to capture this sentiment, with a nightmarish depiction of a person asleep under a blanket with a creeping growth of blood-red vines.

Meanwhile the number of Arab countries with an official presence at Venice has been growing steadily in recent years. "Arab countries were very rare 20 years ago -- we had only Egypt," said Vittorio Urbani, co-commissioner of the Iraq pavilion. "Now we have Syria, UAE, Saudi Arabia -- and we had Lebanon until this year.

"These countries like to show they belong to the international arena," he added. "Think of Iran -- they're not expected to be in favor of the West, but they come to Venice."

Iraq's pavilion includes artists such as Ahmed Alsoudani and Halim al Karim, who grew up experiencing the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, economic sanctions and subsequent artistic isolation. "The exhibition means they can bring to an international audience cultural themes, not always scenes of bombs, suicide attacks and Saddam Hussein -- all the stuff related to Iraq," said Urbani.

Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi, who is exhibiting in and co-commissioned her national pavilion, is motivated by a similar desire. "People are always getting bad news about Bangladesh, hearing about it being a poor country," she said. "I think this will make them see us in a new light."

Lipi's work includes a series of bras made from razor blades and a two-channel video called "I Wed Myself," in which the artist appears as both bride and groom. Contemporary, political art like hers struggles to find a market in her home country -- another reason why she wants to be at Venice.

"Local collectors only want to buy paintings, not things that are a bit more experimental," she said. "But the pavilion is creating a real buzz. It's really a great opportunity to be here -- I don't know why we didn't come all these years."

Funding is one of the main reasons that countries such as Bangladesh have not been here in previous years. "There were huge financial difficulties for Bangladesh -- the organization and finding of funding was a humongous job," said Fiona Biggiero, Lipi's co-commissioner. "The government (of Bangladesh) have embraced it, but not on a financial level. The funding came from different parts."

Yet the payback for the artists will be immense. "You become a world player once you've done a Venice Biennale," said Biggiero. "It is still the most prestigious art platform there is. All the art world comes here -- it completely changes the value of your work and how you're perceived."

Elsewhere, crowds are being wowed by an upturned tank that's been turned into a treadmill outside the U.S. pavilion. The work, by partners Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, is another example of the blend of art and politics on show this year at the event that's often referred to as the "Olympics" of the art world.