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Venice Biennale: Pope makes landmark visit and proclaims that ‘the world needs artists’


Pope Francis became the first pontiff to visit the Venice Contemporary Art Festival on a trip that saw him visit a women’s prison and rehabilitate the reputation of a pioneering American artist nun.

The 87-year-old pope flew by helicopter to the northeastern Italian city on April 28, landing at the prison on the island of Giudecca in the Venetian lagoon, taken over by the Saint -Headquarters for the eight-month biennial.

Curated by Chiara Parisi and Bruno Racine, the pavilion – titled “Con i miei occhi” (which translates to “With my eyes”) – reflects the pope’s concern for those excluded from society, particularly prisoners, and includes works by several female artists. Francis began his trip to Venice by greeting each of the approximately 80 inmates in the prison courtyard, several of whom are participating in the exhibition.

Some inmates’ poetry has been placed on the prison walls, while others star in a short film by Italian director Marco Perego and his wife, actress Zoe Saldaña, star of the film “Avatar.” movies. (Saldana plays a prisoner on the day of her release alongside other inmates.)

“Paradoxically, a stay in prison can mark the beginning of something new… as symbolized by the artistic event you are organizing,” Francis explained to them. “Let’s not forget that we all have mistakes to forgive and wounds to heal – me too. »

Vatican Media via Getty Images

Pope Francis is the first pontiff to visit the contemporary art exhibition.

Then, in the prison chapel, the Pope met the artists involved in the biennial and in the pavilion of the Holy See, where he explained to them that their work could contribute to the fight against racism, xenophobia, the “imbalance » ecological, the “fear of the poor” and inequalities.

“The world needs artists,” he stressed.

Her meeting with them also marked a rehabilitation for Corita Kent, known as the “pop art nun”, whose works are exhibited in the Holy See pavilion but who, in the past, has come up against resistance from a powerful cardinal. During his speech, the pope singled out Kent – ​​alongside Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois – as female artists whose works have “something important to teach us.”

Kent, a nun in the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Los Angeles who later left the order, was known for her colorful screen prints that raised awareness of racial injustice and advocated for civil rights. But in the late 1950s and 1960s, his progressive religious order clashed with Los Angeles Cardinal Archbishop James McIntyre, who had a particular aversion to some of Kent’s art, calling it blasphemous.

Vatican Media via Getty Images

For 2024, the Venice Biennale has chosen the theme “Foreigners everywhere” and seeks to highlight artists from marginalized backgrounds.

Although he has struggled with health problems in recent months, Francis appeared animated and engaged during his stay in Venice on a trip that lasted just five hours and was eventful. At one point, he joked with a local reporter about the weather and said that every time he went to a prison he asked, “Why them and not me?”

Francis has traveled around Venice on a motorboat, an open-air golf cart with the coat of arms of the Holy See and his wheelchair, which he uses increasingly because of his mobility difficulties.

Along with the trip to the women’s prison, Francis also held a meeting with young people, presided over an open-air mass in St. Mark’s Square, led Sunday midday prayer and prayed before the relics of St. Mark in the Basilica. .

During his homily, he warned of the threats Venice faces, including those linked to climate change, saying rising sea levels mean the city “could cease to exist” and spoke of the need for “adequate tourism management”. His visit comes just days after Venice began charging entrance fees to day-trippers.

The Vatican first opened a pavilion for the biennial in 2013, but this is the first time it has exhibited in a prison. Pavilion 2024 was commissioned by its cultural office, led by the Portuguese prelate, Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, an award-winning poet. The cardinal explained that the pavilion is an attempt to involve visitors “directly in reality.”

As it is a working prison, those visiting the Holy See pavilion must surrender their cell phones, while the building’s facade is covered in a mural depicting the soles of two dirty feet by Maurizio Cattelan , known for his sculpture. of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteorite.

The Venice Biennale was first held in 1895 and takes place every two years, with each country having its own pavilion (the Vatican is the smallest sovereign territory in the world). For 2024, it has chosen the theme “Foreigners everywhere” and seeks to highlight artists from marginalized backgrounds.

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