An unforgettable artwork at this year’s Venice Biennale captivates visitors long before they step foot in the Giardini or the Arsenale. Gazing out from Venice’s vaporetti, the iconic public water buses that ferry passengers across the greenish lagoon, are the eyes of Cecilia Vicuña’s mother. As visitors disembark at the aquatic city’s buoyant docks against a soundscape of gurgles and splashes and churning motors, they look on patiently, deep brown wells of gentleness and intensity. A 97-year-old woman stares back. These are her eyes; she traveled to Venice to see them, more than four decades after her daughter painted them.

“Bendígame Mamita” (“Bless Me, Mommy”) dates from 1977, when Vicuña was living in Bogotá, and it has since then hung in the relative obscurity of her mother Norma Ramírez’s house. Now it is reproduced throughout the Biennale, not just on the vaporetti but on posters and signage, and the work itself is on view in the Central Pavilion, where the composition can be appreciated in its entirety. “I suffered very much when the painting disappeared,” Ramírez admitted in an interview from Venice, remembering the day when the canvas left her home. “But seeing it here, I understand that it could not just be for me. It had to be for everyone.”

Cecilia Vicuña, “Bendígame Mamita” (1977), oil on canvas, 55 x 47 inches (image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London)

The work portrays Ramírez suspended in a celestial expanse, her face bisected by the sinuous curve of a guitar whose circular chamber exposes one eye. She disencumbers herself of her high-heeled shoes as her locks flow freely. Hovering above, frieze-like vignettes narrate moments from Ramírez’s life up until her eldest daughter’s departure from Chile on the brink of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, when Vicuña was forced into exile in London; in the painting, the artist drifts away in a rivulet of blood. Years later, the two were reunited in Colombia for the first time since they parted ways, a scene also memorialized in the piece — in another vignette, they are standing side by side, beaming, Vicuña holding a paintbrush.

“My mom arrived and with her presence and her visit, I recovered a reality that the coup had taken from me: the unstoppable, indestructible happiness of the love between a mother and daughter,” said Vicuña. “She came from suffering, death, and horror in Chile, and I from exile and extreme poverty, and yet this encounter was such an absolute joy, a joy that radiated.”

97-year-old Norma Ramírez in Venice (photo courtesy Cecilia Vicuña)

In a final episode, illustrated at the top of the canvas, an eight-year-old Vicuña poses with her mother’s arm around her, the two linking hands. It’s based on a photograph Vicuña has always carried with her, of special significance because it depicts them in a symbiotic embrace, “as if we were a single unit.”

The painting hanging in the Central Pavilion (photo by Marco Cappelletti, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia)

“Then, my mom becomes a guitar that sings,” Vicuña continued. “But the guitar is a prisoner and even in its sorrow, in that prison of the dictatorship, her body takes the form of a whirlwind of passion and love, and she kicks off her shoes. And she is dance itself.” In spite of her serious gaze and a drooping flower in her hand, Ramírez — whom Vicuña and her siblings nicknamed la reina del mambo because she “danced like a serpent” — exudes a sense of dynamic movement.

“Bendígame Mamita” is one of the few works by Vicuña that survived from this period: More than half of the paintings she made in the 1960s and ’70s, most of which she gifted to friends and family, were lost or discarded. But two people held on to them — her mother and her brother Ricardo, both of whom joined Vicuña in Venice.

The story of the painting’s passage to Italy was also serendipitous. Cecilia Alemani, curator of the Biennale’s 59th edition, had asked participating artists to submit works depicting eyes for the exhibition’s graphic identity. Vicuña’s was one of four selected, along with pieces by Belkis Ayón, Felipe Baeza, and Tatsuo Ikeda. She was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the Biennale’s highest honor, and her survey exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Cecilia Vicuña: Spin Spin Triangulene, opened a month later. It is, rather unbelievably, the Chilean artist and poet’s first solo show in a New York museum.

Mother and daughter (photo courtesy Cecilia Vicuña)

A tribute to the credo of motherly love, “Bendígame Mamita,” fathomed from the pain of separation and the elation of reunification, is also a cri de cœur against displacement, one of war’s silent reverberations. Tens of thousands were tortured, imprisoned, or killed under Pinochet’s 17-year regime; countless others isolated and exiled.

“That is my portrait,” Vicuña concludes matter-of-factly. “It is a rebellion against the dreadful suffering of oppression.”

“It is a wonderful painting,” said Ramírez. “Made from a marvelous inspiration, made with tenderness and creativity.”

Vicuña pauses. “Gracias, mamita.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...