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This year’s event shines a spotlight on women for the very first time in its long history

The Venice Biennale has returned for its 59th edition, opening on April 23 in Italy after a year-long delay thanks to pandemic restrictions.

For the first time in its 127-year history, the biennale’s main exhibition—titled A Milk of Dreams—features mainly female and gender non-conforming artists. Of the 213 artists featured in the exhibition, approximately 90 per cent are female.

The main exhibition is curated by Cecilia Alemani, chief curator of the High Line Art programme in New York. The exhibition takes its name from a book written in the 1950s by the late British-Mexican surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, which was published in 2017, six years after her death.

Some of the female artists featured in A Milk of Dreams were under-recognised during their lifetimes, while others have begun to gain traction in the art world over the last few years at later stages of their career. Here are three to know.

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1. Ruth Asawa (1926-2013)

The late Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa’s ethereal wire sculptures are featured in a sub-section of the exhibition titled A leaf, a gourd, a shell, a net, a bag, a sling, a sack, a bottle, a pot, a box, a container, taken from Ursula K Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. The book, much like the exhibition, explores how technology is a cultural vessel in shaping the human experience.

The suspended wire sculptures, deceptively reminiscent of wicker baskets, were constructed using traditional basket weaving techniques. Considered avant-garde in her time, Asawa’s creations are now widely recognised across the international art community, almost a decade after her death. In 2021, an exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery New York titled All is Possible offered a retrospective of the artist’s work.

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2. Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015)

Mukherjee’s pieces appear in A leaf, a gourd, a shell, a net, a bag, a sling, a sack, a bottle, a pot, a box, a container. With a practice based in both craft and fine art, Mukherjee weaves her natural textiles into figurative-like forms, which assume various characteristics ranging from the mystical to sexual to the grotesque.

Mukherjee began her career in the 1970s. In 2019, four years after her passing, a selection of Mukherjee’s works was exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, making her work significantly visible on a large international platform.

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3. Cecilia Vicuña (b. 1948)

Following a decades-long career, Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña has recently gained widespread recognition for her work. She is the recipient of the Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s Venice Biennale—an award that recognises excellence in creating an impactful and pioneering artistic legacy.

Vicuña’s pieces that are exhibited at the Venice Biennale include paintings, ephemeral sculptures made of stone and feather, as well as colourful textile sculptures created with quipus, an ancient knotting technique once used in parts of South America for visual communication and record-keeping.

At the age of 74, the artist is showing no signs of stopping. She is working on the Hyundai Commission, a partnership between the car manufacturer and the Tate Modern in London that offers artists the opportunity to create pieces to be displayed at the museum’s Turbine Hall gallery. She also has an upcoming solo exhibition at the Guggenheim New York.

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