An installation view of Foreigners Everywhere Photo: © Jacopo Salvi
Moments of symmetry and visual correspondence abound in Adriano Pedrosa’s often beautifully displayed Venice Biennale exhibition. Among them are two vast murals at both ends of the Corderie, the 317-metre-long former rope-making factory for the Arsenale.
Close to the entrance is the Mexico City-born Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s Rage is a Machine in Times of Senselessness, more than 15-metre wide; the Bangalore collective Aravani Art Project’s Diaspore, 27-metre across, arcs around the final Corderie room. Both distinctively encapsulate multiple aspects of Pedrosa’s carefully honed, intersecting themes—crudely put: the foreigner, including the refugee and the displaced person; the queer; the indigenous; and the self-taught or outsider artist.
Toranzo Jaeger works across multiple canvases that rise in scale to a central point, like the outline of a pre-Columbian ziggurat. She balances extreme forms: angular, automotive-inspired structures and exhaust pipes belching noxious crimson smoke; whirling lines, like looping musical staves; and apertures of landscape, here including an erotic gathering of queer women amid towering verdant ferns. There is also embroidery informed by indigenous Mexican traditions, and abundant references to historic art.
The teeming, tumbling compositions of Mexican muralists are an obvious association, but Toranzo Jaeger also directly quotes from Frida Kahlo’s Viva la Vida, Watermelons (1954), pointedly adding “Viva Palestina” beneath where Kahlo had written her title and signature. Another reference to Kahlo and Palestine is on the reverse of Toranzo Jaeger’s structure: one of the hearts from The Two Fridas (1939), sewn in red thread and accompanied by the text: “Hearts that unite against genocide!” It is one of several references to Israel’s Gaza campaign through the show.
Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s Rage is a Machine in Times of Senselessness Photo: courtesy of La Biennale di Venzia
Aravani Art Projects, meanwhile, use a colour and pattern to capture trans women, including themselves, as defiant, everyday goddesses. The term foreigner for this collective means the foreignness of feeling born into the wrong body when experiencing gender dysphoria. Surrounded by almost hallucinatory blooms, the collective pictures its members at the moment of transition, symbolised in the depiction of Jyothi H. holding a cage from which an exotic bird escapes. The colour is spectacular, clearly linking to Indian traditions, but also nodding to the hues of the LGBTQ and trans flags. While celebratory, it is also born of resistance to prejudice and violence against trans people in India.
These are among the newest works in a show with much older art. Most is gathered in Pedrosa’s three-section Nucleo Storico: two parts in the Giardini pavilion, exploring abstraction and portraiture, another—Italians Everywhere—in the Arsenale, reflecting the global Italian diaspora. There is a crucial difference between these and the “time capsules” with which Cecilia Alemani punctuated her exhibition in the last edition of the Biennale. Those acted as thematic and formal historic spurs for the contemporary art around them. But the Nucleo Storico is, as Pedrosa puts it, paying “a historical debt” to the artists it includes, most of whom have never featured in the Biennale. A single work by each is included—around 100 works, mostly paintings, across two rooms in the Portraits section, and then around 40 each in the Abstractions and Italians Everywhere spaces—is included.
Aravani Art Projects, Diaspore (2024) Image: courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
It produces uneven results. The Abstractions room is marvellous: fertile associations between artists from different parts of the globe, some riffing on—or queering—European non-figurative traditions, others building on historic “abstractions” in local architecture or calligraphy. The Persian-script influences of Mohammad Ehsaei—flowing intersections of high colour, perhaps informed by the mineral hues of Persian manuscripts—resonate with Mohamed Chebaa, the founder of the Casablanca School who brings calligraphic arcs into unison with hard-edged nods to architecture, basket weaving and Islamic ceramics, made spatially rich by the interplay of deep blue, zingy yellow, cool purple and hot vermillion.
The Italians Everywhere section necessarily features more disparate work, but it is unified majestically by Pedrosa’s knowing employment of the diasporic Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi’s radical display system designed for the museum Pedrosa directs, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Gloriously apt amid the proto-Brutalist Renaissance Arsenale, it features glass “easels” on which the works are hung, their backs wonderfully exposed. It humanises the museum display, reinforcing the work as a thing, not just an image; an object with a history, a materiality beneath its surface.
The Portraits rooms, while containing many gems, including works by Kahlo as well as the Indian expressionist painter F.N. Souza and the Lebanese Modernist Saloua Raouda Choucair, are the show’s weakest section. It is perhaps inevitable with 100 works by different artists, but where the abstract pieces correspond almost musically, many of the portraits jar and jostle uncomfortably. Doubtless, Pedrosa has succeeded in one aim here: to place the Biennale visitor in an emblematic space of nonwhite faces. It is impressive. Yet some of the paintings, measured by technical rather representative properties, are, frankly, ropey. There is a lot of bad painting.
But perhaps that is the point. If Pedrosa seeks to explode once and for all Western canons, why not also detonate the complacent means of judgement and categorisation that accompany those art histories? In this, I think another meaning for foreigner emerges: viewers from the global north are located in uncomfortable territory, displaced from smug certainty. Few visitors to this show will know many of those who feature, a factor Pedrosa has engineered by selecting a majority of artists who—as the wall-label mantra rhythmically, insistently reminds us—are showing at the Biennale for the first time.
In my experience, it is the Venice show that most resembles a museum exhibition; partly in its sparing hang, but mostly because even in the Nucleo Contemporaneo, supposedly the section dedicated to contemporary art, much of the work is from earlier decades and by dead artists. The beautiful abstract ceramics in terracotta and oxide glazes of the Italian artist Netta Guidi (1923-2015) were made in the 1970s; the repetitions of the letter O into fields of marks in pared-down abstractions by Romany Eveleigh (1934-2020) were made in the same period; the brothers Sénèque and Philomé Obin’s paintings exploring social and political dynamics in their native Haiti are from the 1940s to the 1960s. I could go on. This element initially gave me the most pause for thought in assessing Foreigners Everywhere. What are the responsibilities of this show, in this forum? Can it include abundant work from earlier decades and show such museological ambitions and still be a snapshot of contemporary practices, which would seem the essential component of any Venice Biennale show?

Philomé Obin's paintings from the 1940s to the 1960s deal with the social and political dynamics of Haiti Image: courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
After visiting and revisiting it, the answer to this latter question is yes. There is a hugely compelling survey of global contemporary art here, filled with pleasure and disquiet in equal measure. Among much else, it is a spectacular survey of queer art. The paintings of Louis Fratino in the Giardini were unknown to me, but in their tender exploration of gay life and its sometimes difficult relationship with family, they are a high point; one matched and complemented by the paintings of Salman Toor in the Arsenale, perhaps even more overt in capturing the vicissitudes of queer existence. Toor’s paintings, with their extraordinary light, evocative touch and nods to the art of the past—is that Goya? Is that Fragonard? Watteau?—just get better and better. Another discovery, and the Silver Lion winner, were it up to me, is Kang Seung Lee, the Seoul-born, Los-Angeles based artist who pays elegiac and exquisite homage to cultural figures who died of Aids-related illnesses. He samples the hand-shaped letters that Martin Wong used in his paintings for his own text, for instance. They forge the titles that appear in Lee’s Lazarus, a video in the small vaulted warehouses right at the end of the Giardini complex, which fuses a text from Your Denim Shirt (1998)—a video by a Chicano artist, Samuel Rodriguez—and the movement of the Singaporean choreographer Goh Choo San, which dancers perform with a version of a sculpture formed from two conjoined shirts (itself about queer grief) by the Brazilian artist José Leonilson. It is breathtaking. Lee’s assemblages in the Giardini, on the same themes, realised with parchment, pencil, gold embroidery among much else, are similarly rich.
Salman Toor's paintings in the Arsenale Image: courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
Much of the power of the Biennale lies in the leitmotifs that Pedrosa identified almost by default during his research. He noticed that families of artists kept appearing, and he punctuates the show rhythmically with them. It is here that Indigenous art is reflected most strongly: the pairing of father Santiago Yahuarcani and his son Rember is astonishing. Both work on a vast scale, and present pictures teeming with imagery of humans, animals, spirits and hybrid beings. But they document an evolution in language from father to son, with Santiago working on paper and Rember on canvas, the former working on light ground, the latter on black, so that the figures and activist text about Indigenous rights and precarity, and environmental destruction, loom vividly from the darkness.
The second leitmotif is that textiles are—I will go there—a thread through the show. Often it is in the counterintuitive enormity that they work best. Dana Awartani’s huge hanging expanses of silk coloured with medicinal Indian dye are pocked with sutured swatches, where she has torn the fabric to represent an instance of heritage destruction due to war or terrorism, and darned the tear. The latest wounds were inspired by Gaza. And the Mataaho Collective, a Maori group from Aotearoa/New Zealand create a dramatic woven canopy from industrial tie-downs used in cargo transportation, intended as a womb-like vestibule at the start of the Arsenale.
Foreigners Everywhere is a show of polarities: the intimacy and tenderness of community, family, love and sex; the violence of colonial histories, extraction, migration policies in rich nations, homophobia and racism, and war. This is the vital tension at the heart of a deeply stimulating Biennale.