Venice Biennale 2024 – From Inside A Women’s Prison – Pavilion Of The Holy See – James Payne

Venice Biennale 2024, Inside A Women's Prison

The most coveted ticket at this year’s Venice Biennale was entry to the Giudecca women’s prison on an island in the lagoon, which dates back to the 13th century and was once a reformatory for prostitutes and unwed mothers.

Why? Because it is still a high-security women’s prison with limited accessibility and spaces, which few art goers have ever had the chance to visit.

The exhibition in the prison is called With My Eyes and is the Vatican’s exhibition for the Holy See Pavilion, dedicated to the theme of human rights and people living on the margins of society.

The curators have invited eight artists to participate: Maurizio Cattelan, Bintou Dembélé, Simone Fattal, Claire Fontaine, Sonia Gomes, Corita Kent, Marco Perego & Zoe Saldana, and Claire Tabouret.

Naturally, there are a lot of rules and a lot of security, showing and emailing of passports, checks and forms to fill out. You cannot take in a phone (leave with the prison guards), but you can take in a camera as long as you notify them beforehand with the make and type of camera. The tour is led by two prisoners on a rotation basis, and several guards follow the tour (25 people maximum) with huge sets of keys and a new door is opened only once all the previous ones are locked.

On arrival, you see the first work, which is actually outside the prison. This is by Maurizio Cattelan, the artist known for his hyper-realistic and often satirical sculptures, who came to the world’s attention with a provocative life-sized effigy of Pope John Paul II lying on his side, crushed by a massive black meteorite. That work was created in 1999 and was called The Ninth Hour (La Nona Ora), and 25 years later, it seems the Vatican has forgiven him (mind you, he is outside).

His mural is painted on the façade of the prison chapel (we will visit it on the tour). It is a huge depiction of his own dirty feet, based on the feet of Christ and referencing Andrea Mantegna’s painting Lamentation Over the Dead Christ.

Our tour inside the prison is led by two middle-aged prisoners, of whom you are not allowed to ask personal questions or take photos of. They are extremely informative and make the tour so much more meaningful.

We are led down a brick alleyway, which we are informed is only ever walked by female prisoners when arriving or leaving the institution. The alley is lined with enamelled lava plaques, a collaboration by prisoners (using their poems and letters) and the Syrian-Lebanese artist Simone Fattal, who has adapted them into text paintings and storytelling. Many are in languages other than Italian (One in English) reflecting that prisons don’t have borders.

Pavilion of the Holy See, Venice Biennale 2024
Claire Fontaine, Pavilion of the Holy See, Installation view photo by Marco Cremascoli

In the distance is the lookout tower, and placed on the side of it, is a work by the Italian-British artist duo Claire Fontaine of a neon eye with a line through it, the kind of symbol you see on social media warning you that the content is “hidden”.

Our first stop is in the prison guard’s cafeteria. Here, the walls are covered in works by Corita Kent, the only dead artist in the show. Kent was a nun known as Sister Mary Corita Kent or the pop art nun. She was an artist, an educator, and a powerful voice for social justice. She had an epiphany in 1962 when she went to see an Andy Warhol show in L.A., which including his soup can prints, and her aesthetic reflected that, but she was altogether more political than Warhol and created slogans attacking poverty, racism, and injustices. More or less forgotten after her death in 1986, she is slowly being rediscovered.

The words “Siamo con voi nella notte” (“We are with you at night”) were first graffitied in front of the federal jail in Florence in the 1970s by the Italian prison reform movement. These words have been replicated in neon and are placed on the wall of the main prison yard, another work by Claire Fontaine. All around the yard are barred windows, the cells of the prisoners, and our guide/inmate points out her own cell and tells us the women find the message and slight neon glow comforting at night.

Then we are led through a small children’s playground where women can play with their visiting children and grandchildren under the watch of guards. The bright playthings are a poignant reminder that women are not just separated from society, they are separated from their families. Off to the side, a small, cramped cinema has been set up in the inmates meeting room and we are invited to sit down.

Pavilion of the Holy See
Dovecote, video by Marco Perego, Installation view photo by Marco Cremascoli

We watch “Dovecote”, a 15-minute film by Italian director Marco Perego starring his wife, the actor Zoe Saldaña (from Avatar), who plays an inmate in her final hours before release.

It is a short, nearly wordless film, and the other 20 actresses are inmates from the prison. It begins with beautiful shots of Venice waking up, then cuts to the silence of the prison.

Saldaña’s character walks through areas of the prison-like the laundry room, the showers, and the dorms, and then gets her civilian clothes from the guard (leaving behind a crucifix she had brought in with her), and walks (through the same alleyway we did) into a courtyard, to freedom. From a balcony above her, the inmates watch her leave and bang their tin mugs on a ledge in a time-honoured tradition to celebrate a prisoner’s release. It is a moment that the inmates (including the two leading us around) must dream about daily, and it is hard not to find it anything other than profoundly moving.

After, we enter a picture gallery by Claire Tabouret who has created portraits from photos of inmates as children as well as their children and grandchildren. Some of the children pictured play or played on the playground we just saw, on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 10am and 2pm, we are informed. One of our guides points out a painting that was created from her own treasured photo collection of herself as a one-year-old child learning to walk with her mother. It is a powerful moment.

The last stop is the Baroque-era chapel (Catallan’s mural is on the street/canal facing side) for “Sinfonia”, an installation by Brazilian artist Sonia Gomes, consisting of suspended sculptures hung among the balconies, pews, and confessional booths in a chapel that once preached to fallen women and where many confessed their sins. Gomes has said that she wanted to take “the original function of the place, the Baroque convent for ‘reconverted’ women with the current life of the prison house, and the stories of women from all over the world.”

When we visited, it had just been announced that the Pope was going to visit the Biennale for the first time and would also be visiting the women’s prison. The chapel seemed an appropriate place to ask them what they thought of this. Their shrug spoke volumes.

The pavilion has faced some criticism over exploitation and for not addressing the broader concerns over women’s rights, but many of the prisoners have seen it, as I think many of us would, as a way to break up the monotony of institutional life. There are 80 inmates in the prison, and all of them volunteered to participate in the exhibition in some way. The women who guided us around told us that they found working on the project not just a distraction but therapeutic.

We all want our story to be heard, and we all want to connect and to be visible. Why should this be different for prisoners? This exhibition is designed to make us confront our preconceived ideas about prison and the life of its inmates and to reflect on power structures and institutions, from the inside.


“With My Eyes. Holy See Pavilion” is on view through November 24 at the Guidecca Women’s Detention Home in Venice.

To book (free) tickets, See Here

Lead photo by James Payne ©Artlyst 2024

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