While the last professional preview day for the 2024 Venice Biennale is Friday, the week’s hullabaloo technically ends on Saturday morning, when the exhibition opens to the public and the Biennale’s jury announces the winners for the Golden Lions at 11 am (local time). 

The Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement were announced last November, ahead of the artist list being released in January. Those went to Italian-born Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino and the Paris-based Turkish artist Nil Yalter, who are the only two artists to be included in both sections of the exhibition, the “Nucleo Contemporeano” and the “Nucleo Storico.” 

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The remaining prizes to be awarded are the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, the Golden Lion for Best Participant in the International Exhibition, and the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant in the International Exhibition, which this year carries the title of  “Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere” and is curated by Adriano Pedrosa. (Additionally, the jury can name a limited number of special mentions, one for a national pavilion and two for participants in the main exhibition, if they so choose.) 

This year’s five-person jury, selected by the board of the Biennale’s foundation but recommended by Pedrosa, is chaired Julia Bryan-Wilson, an art historian and professor at Columbia University who has collaborated with Pedrosa on several exhibitions as an adjunct curator at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, where he is artistic director. The other four members are curators Alia Swastika, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Elena Crippa, and María Inés Rodríguez.

While it may be the jury who ultimately decides the winners, ARTnews senior editors Maximilíano Durón and Alex Greenberger and Art in America senior editor Emily Watlington are weighing in as to which artists they feel should win—though with the sheer amount of artists in the main exhibition (331) and the number of national pavilions (88), it’s like trying to get a bullseye on a dart board, blindfolded and using your non-dominant hand. 

Golden Lion for Best National Participation 

Alex Greenberger: The German Pavilion floored me, as it seems to have done for many others. Spreading half the offerings to the island of La Certosa risks becoming a gimmick, but in this case, I do think it successfully undoes the very model of the national pavilion itself. Whether the jury members will agree with me will depend on whether they trekked beyond the Giardini portion, which was mobbed on all the preview days. Let’s hope they did.

Maximilíano Durón: The buzz around Venice for the German Pavilion is inescapable this year that’s for sure. I, however, found the Australian Pavilion by Archie Moore to be the most affecting. Not only does it perfectly tie in with the themes of Pedrosa’s exhibition (never a requirement), it would stand on its own in any given year. Moore has transformed the pavilion, painting the walls chalkboard black and scrawling 65,000 thousand years of First Nations Australian history onto the walls, adding in smudged sections that honor those whose names have been forgotten but whose life force still runs through Moore’s being. 

Emily Watlington: In Anna Jermolaewa’s Austrian pavilion, a live ballet dancer is rehearsing Swan Lake—which I watched, mesmerized, before reading on the wall that on Soviet TV, during times of political upheaval, Swan Lake would play on a loop for days in lieu of regular programming. In Jermolaewa’s Rehearsal for Swan Lake, a Ukrainian ballerina named Oksana Serheieva researses—for Swan Lake, for another regime change in Russia. Viewing the Biennale this year, I often felt the absurdity and frivolity of looking at art while waiting for war and genocide to end—and also, at times, distracted or even motivated by real moments of beauty. In Rehearsal for Swan Lake, Jermolaewa beautifully captured that swirl of feelings—and the totally bizarre ways grand narratives intersect with daily life.

An abstract painting with a slanted pink rectangle cutting across a black field. A purple rectangle and a blue triangle are nearby.
Work by Fanny Sanín at the Venice Biennale.
Maximilíano Durón/ARTnews

Golden Lion for Best Participant in the International Exhibition

MD: Given that “Foreigners Everywhere” is split into two sections, I think one of the few living artists in the “Nucleo Storico” has a very good shot at getting, at the very least, a special mention form the jury, though I wouldn’t rule out a Golden Lion either. I spent last night flipping through the catalogue to tally up the numbers. There are five living artists in the portraiture section, ten in abstraction, and five in “Italians Everywhere.” (It’s worth noting that the youngest of this cohort was born in 1954.) I think many of them have a very good shot at taking home the prize. Simone Forti (b. 1935) might have been the most obvious, but since she won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement for the Dance Biennale that seems unlikely. Zilia Sánchez (b. 1926) is one of the few artists who has participated in a previous edition of the Biennale; she was included in the 2017 iteration, which brought renewed attention to her decades-long career. Could this be her shot at the win? I could see it honestly. Her shaped canvases that protrude into our space are divine. 

Personally, I would love to see Fanny Sanín (b. 1938), a Bogotá-born, New York–based abstract artist who regrettably is new to me. I was almost immediately drawn to the deep yet muted four colors in her Oil No. 7 (1969): black, violet, magenta, and cerulean. The off-kilter tilt of the magenta rectangle that extends from the top to the bottom of the canvas is quite everything. And not for nothing, I personally think a win for her is the deserved boost and recognition her career not only needs but deserves. Her CV lists her inclusion in several recent exhibitions that are reevaluating abstraction but with an exhibition history that dates back to 1964, according to her CV, the fact that she hasn’t had a major retrospective in the US is a damn shame. 

AG: Should a dead artist be able to win a Golden Lion? My gut says no, but given that the main exhibition has more dead artists than living ones, hell, why not. My vote for that deceased winner would be Ṣàngódáre Gbádégẹsin Àjàlá, a batik painter I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of before. This Nigerian artist, who died in 2021, produced visually dazzling images of pressed-together throngs of multicolored humans. His work speaks well to this Biennale’s emphasis on people whose identities contain multitudes.

EW: One pet peeve I had with the show is that the Arsenale made a great argument for the formal innovations found in works made in fiber and that respond to lineages other than European Modernism, and yet, in the section in the central pavilion on abstractions from the Global South, so little fiber was included. I wondered, why separate the two?

But there were a couple works in fiber—hung salon-style rather than given room to be the monumental painting-sculpture-hybrids they are—and the best was the knotty, weighted tapestry by an overlooked Columbian nonagenarian named Olga De Amaral. The artist has so clearly thought about how to thread the needle, if you’ll pardon the pun, between marginalized lineages and the white cube context at the same time. And she was doing it before the term “fiber art” had even been invented. Her North American contemporaries—Anni Albers, Leonore Tawney, and Sheila Hicks—have recently gotten their dues; now, it’s Amaral’s turn.

Batik prints showing pressed-together figures.
Work by Ṣàngódáre Gbádégẹsin Àjàlá at the Venice Biennale.
Maximilíano Durón/ARTnews

Silver Lion for a Promising Young Participant in the International Exhibition

EW: One of the first things you see upon entering the arsenale is a giant polytich by Frieda Toranzo Jaeger—the work is shown on the heels of her MoMA PS1 survey, and I’m often saying she’s one of the smartest artists working today. I wrote in my diary about how her work really tied the show together for me: after she paints altarpiece-like constructions, Toranzo Jaeger hires her relatives, who are trained in traditional Mexican embroidery, to stitch scenes right on top of her canvases. When I interviewed her in 2021, she told me she does this because she wants to insert an Indigenous tradition into a Western one, and to fuck with the preciousness of painting. She also told me then that, while often and for good reason, Indigenous artists are concerned with preserving cultural heritage against all that has tried to kill it off, she thinks it’s important to imagine decolonial futures, and to carve a space to dream.

AG: The Silver Lion ought to be awarded to Dana Awartani, one of the select few artists who addressed the war in Gaza here. A Saudi artist who’s of Palestinian descent, she’s showing a jaw-dropping piece composed of hanging silks that she split in places and then darned back together. They evoke the carnage faced by Gazans daily without representing it, and double as a stoic form of protest and a powerful representation of healing. 

MD: Awartani is definitely at the top of my list for the Silver Lion win. I can’t get over how poetic, delicate, and beautiful her installation is. I’ve thought about it everyday since I’ve seen it and it’s already among the best things I’ve seen this year. And Toranzo Jaeger’s sculpture is something to behold, I must say. Before I say who my other pick is I want to give a quick shout out to the uncanny alien-humanoid sculpture by Agnes Questionmark that really defines the spirit of a promising career; however, because Questionmark’s inclusion is through the Biennale College Arte, she is technically out of competition. My other pick is Gabrielle Goliath who presents a room-size video installation that shows the moments before, after, and between her interviewees share their traumas. It’s a completely different way to present a lot of the themes that undergird this exhibition.