The announcement yesterday that Jeffrey Gibson will represent the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale marks a historic moment. A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians with Cherokee ancestral roots, Gibson will be the first Indigenous artist to have a solo exhibition for the US pavilion at the international contemporary art exhibition. Running since 1895, the show attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the eastern edge of the Italian city each year.
In 1932, Hopi artist Fred Kabotie also represented the US in a group exhibition at the Biennale. Recognized for his paintings of Pueblo ceremonial dances in Santa Fe during the 1910s, his artwork explored themes of displacement and memory during a period widely remembered for federal assimilation policies targeting Indigenous communities in the US.
Raised in the US, Korea, and Germany and based in New York, Gibson draws inspiration from an array of sources including pop culture and music, literature, his familial heritage, and his international upbringing. In works such as “People Like Us” (2019), one of his sculptural garments that are suspended from the ceiling using tipi poles, Gibson weaves a multilayered exploration of culture, history, and identity, incorporating traditional Indigenous beading, weaving, and metalwork techniques with contemporary aesthetics.
Kaleidoscopic and evocative, Gibson’s works tend to walk a fine line between campy whimsicality and seriousness. Commissioned in 2020 for Long Island City’s Socrates Sculpture Park, his rainbow ziggurat “Because Once You Enter My House, It Becomes Our House” pays tribute to Mesoamerican architecture and culture while simultaneously bringing visibility to marginalized queer communities. Last year, at the Portland Art Museum, he presented They Come From Fire (2022), a site-responsive installation that used suspended glass panels, text, and photographs to transform the exterior windows of the museum’s main façade plus an interior two-story gallery space into an immersive artwork that celebrates Oregon’s past and present Indigenous peoples.
In 2019, Gibson presented the large-scale performance “To Name An Other” for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery program Identify. Featuring 50 volunteer BIPOC and LGBTQ+ performers dressed in matching tunics decorated with protest phrases, the work drew from traditional drumming to focus on sociopolitical issues of injustice and marginalization, and to celebrate community.
Among Gibson’s most recognizable works are his repurposed vinyl punching bags, which the artist wraps in strips of painted canvases and embellishes with beads, fringe, jingle bells, and more. He began the series in 2010, after a physical trainer recommended by his therapist introduced him to boxing; the physical practice was a way for him to work through struggles related to race, class, and being an artist in New York City.
“I could personify and direct my anger at them,” Gibson explained in a 2017 interview. “At the same time, I traveled and met Native American artists who made things for powwows. I would commission them to make parts of my sculptures because they had skills I did not.”
“When I came back, I realized the importance of what was worn and how it was worn, how much respect it commanded, and how it forced people to look at you in a certain way,” he continued. “I realized that by adorning the punching bags, suddenly there was a presence about it.”
Currently, Gibson’s exhibition and corresponding performance The Spirits Are Laughing (2022) is on view at the Aspen Art Museum until November 5. The show features a collection of human-like heads assembled out of stones, fossils, and other natural materials as well as a set of uniquely designed flags presented alongside a performance video of 15 flag spinners in several outdoor natural locations in Roaring Fork Valley.
For the US Pavilion, a three-room Neoclassical building owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation that houses the US representation in Venice’s Giardini della Biennale, Gibson will construct interior and exterior installations that feature a mix of new and recent paintings, sculptures, and multimedia works. He will also create a site-specific installation for the pavilion’s courtyard.
“Jeffrey [Gibson] has challenged us to look at the world differently through his innovative and vibrant work,” Kathleen Ash-Milby, a member of the Navajo Nation who works as the Native American Art curator at the Portland Art Museum, said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. Ash-Milby will also be the pavilion’s first Native American curator to co-organize and co-commission an exhibition, alongside independent curator Abigail Winograd. Louis Grachos, the executive director of SITE Santa Fe, which held the survey of Gibson’s work The Body Electric last year, will co-commission the show.
“His inclusive and collaborative approach is a powerful commentary on the influence and persistence of Native American cultures within the United States and globally, making him the ideal representative for the United States at this moment,” Ash-Milby said.
Next year’s US exhibition will also feature an educational element that will involve bringing students from the Institute of American Indian Arts for a summer arts program. Additionally, there will be a fall program that brings together students, scholars, and the public.
The 60th edition of the Venice Biennale will run from April 20, 2024 to November 24, 2024.