Oregon Cultural Trust

U.S. chooses Jeffrey Gibson for Venice Biennale

Portland Art Museum and curator Kathleen Ash-Milby play key roles in spotlighting the first solo Indigenous artist at the U.S. Pavilion in the international art showcase's 129-year history.

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Jeffrey Gibson will represnt the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Brian Barlow

When the 60th Venice Biennale opens on April 20,2024, Jeffrey Gibson will take center stage at the United States Pavilion as the nation’s official solo artist — and the Portland Art Museum will have a piece of the action.

Gibson, 51, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, will be the first Indigenous artist to represent the United States as a solo artist in the 129-year history of the Venice Biennale, perhaps the art world’s most prestigious recurring event. And Kathleen Ash-Milby, the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Native American Art and a member of the Navajo Nation, will be the U.S. Pavilion’s first Indigenous co-commissioner and co-curator.

Ash-Milby curated They Come from Fire, a recent show at the Portland museum of Gibson’s work, in conjunction with Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, both of which ArtsWatch’s Laurel Reed Pavic wrote about here. Gibson’s show ran through February of this year.

Gibson’s Portland show roamed around the museum’s sculpture court and into the neighboring South Park Blocks, where statues had been toppled during the city’s 2020 social protests.

Jeffrey Gibson, They Come From Fire (detail), 2022, site-specific installation, Portland Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Bullseye Glass Co.

“The idea to use empty Park Block pedestals captured Gibson when he came to Portland for an initial site visit with Ash-Milby to determine the scope of the project,” Reed Pavic wrote. “The plinths have been empty since 2020, when sculptures of Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and The Promised Land were removed as part of the 2020 protests. Gibson’s photos give new life to the barren plinths, with a cast of individuals and groups, natal and chosen-family groupings. … A wall tag explains: ‘I want the overall work to point to narratives that may not be popularly known outside of these local communities and to celebrate the photographed individuals as leaders and innovators in the world today.’”

The Venice exhibition is curated by Ash-Milby and independent curator Abigail Winograd, and co-commissioned by Ash-Milby, Winograd, and Louis Grachos, executive director of SITE Santa Fe.

“Gibson’s pavilion will be titled ‘the space in which to place me,’ after a poem by Layli Long Soldier, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation,” ArtForum reported Thursday afternoon. “The show will explore the notion of individual and collective identity through new and recent works including sculpture, paintings, multimedia works, and a site-specific installation in the pavilion’s courtyard. The pavilion, which is commissioned by Ash-Milby, Winograd, and SITE Santa Fe executive director Louis Grachos, will be Gibson’s first major exhibition outside the U.S.”

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Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum and co-curator of the U.S. Pavilion exhibit at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Photo: Nina Johnson

“Throughout his career, Jeffrey has challenged us to look at the world differently through his innovative and vibrant work,” Ash-Milby said in a prepared statement. “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.”

The same museum statement described Gibson’s work: “Celebrated for an artistic practice that combines American, Indigenous, and Queer histories with influences from music and pop culture, Gibson creates a dynamic visual language that reflects the inherent diversity and hybridity of American culture. Using abundant color, complex pattern, and text, he invites deep reflection on identity, inspires empathy, and advocates for a widening of access to democracy and freedom for all.”

“Jeffrey’s work embodies the aspirations of the Portland Art Museum’s program to reveal the beauty and complexities of the world, and creates a deeper understanding of our shared humanity,” said Brian Ferriso, Director of the Portland Art Museum. “We are incredibly honored to help bring his vision to an international audience through this presentation at the Venice Biennale.” 

Jeffrey Gibson, “The Body Electric.” Photo: Shayla Blatchford

The exhibition will spark educational initiatives, too, the museum release said: “In conjunction with the presentation at the U.S. Pavilion and in partnerships with the Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe, N.M.) and Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.), Portland and SITE will also develop year-long educational programming. They will focus on connecting Indigenous, Native American and international undergraduate humanities students and graduate art students, including bringing students from the Institute of American Indian Arts to Venice for a summer arts program and organizing a fall 2024 convening for students, scholars, and the public.”

Gibson’s selection is the first with an Oregon connection as the official entry in the biennale’s U.S. Pavilion, but Oregon artists Arvie Smith, Susan Seubert, and James Lavadour have had biennale affiliate exhibitions in recent years. The 2024 Venice Biennale runs through November 24.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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