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Kapwani Kiwanga covered the Venice Biennale Canada Pavilion with millions of beads for her exhibit, Trinket.National Gallery Of Canada

Artist Kapwani Kiwanga has covered the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale with tiny glass beads – millions and millions of them. In the interior, tightly spaced strands colour the walls from top to bottom in swathes of yellow, orange and purple, while carefully placed passages of white and grey are used to create long arching lines – almost as though the artist had painted abstract murals directly on the walls. On the outside, long strands of cobalt blue beads form a looser curtain, only partly obscuring the red brick of the pavilion’s simple façade.

“There are 7.2 million. That’s what they told me, but I didn’t count,” Kiwanga said in an interview as the pavilion opened this week. Of course, the artist didn’t count the beads. Nor did she thread them: She had helpers in Berlin, Montreal and Venice, a city famed for its glassmaking centred on the isle of Murano.

“The work is really precise, but it shows that it was lovingly done,” Kiwanga said. “It had to be a good working environment because it’s such repetitive work.”

Visiting the Venice workshop, close to the Biennale grounds, Kiwanga found the atmosphere was particularly calm as the female beaders practised a craft that dates back to the 14th century, when it was key to the city’s role in global trade. Over the centuries and on different continents, strands of Venetian glass beads were exchanged for precious metals, for furs and even for people in the slave trade.

Kiwanga’s interest lies in the value ascribed to the beads. You might sense that an East African who handed over gold or copper in exchange was being cheated. Likewise an Indigenous person in North America who traded beaver pelts for beads. But that is not Kiwanga’s point.

“You can say unfair trade. It depends. The lack of value of an object in one context can have extreme value in another,” she said, pointing out that the beads, used for ornamentation and ultimately as a form of currency, allowed people in different cultures to accumulate wealth. “It depends on whether you position yourself in Europe looking out – or in East Africa.”

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The exterior of the building is draped in long strands of cobalt blue beads to form a looser curtain, only partly obscuring the red brick of the pavilion’s simple façade.

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Valentina Mori/National Gallery Of Canada

It’s these “regimes of value” that Kiwanga takes as her theme. The installation in the pavilion also includes several abstract sculptures incorporating some of the precious metals, rare wood and palm oil that beads were once able to buy. The title of the show speaks to these tensions: Kiwanga has called it Trinket.

The artist, who grew up in Brantford, Ont., but now lives in France, has a history of creating multimedia work that straddles the formal and the documentary. She has fashioned huge space-defining fabric curtains for some installations but is also well known for a series in which she recreates the floral arrangements that she finds in old photos of African independence ceremonies. (Her father is Tanzanian and, in earlier work, she more directly investigated her own links to Africa.)

She was selected as Canada’s biennale artist for 2024 by a curatorial committee established by the National Gallery of Canada, the commissioner for the pavilion. She then turned to Gaëtane Verna, former director of the Power Plant in Toronto, now director of the Wexner Centre for the Arts at Ohio State University, to curate the piece, overseeing it from concept to execution.

Kiwanga, who studied anthropology at McGill University before her move to Europe, estimates that 70 per cent of her work on any project is research. This time she spent hours in archives studying the history of beads.

“My starting point is always: How did we get to where we are? And that means looking at the past.”

The installation’s program credits a dozen collaborators, including design studios, beadworks and foundries. Venice no longer makes glass beads – apparently the craft fell afoul of European regulations – but the coloured beads inside the pavilion were historic Venetian stock. Meanwhile, the cobalt beads that cover the outside were sourced in the Czech Republic.

In the days when beads were a currency, traders used short strands, not much longer than the span of a man’s hand. For this project, the beaders laboured to create much longer pieces, while the technical team had to figure out how to hang them on mounted supports. (Each strand has a number assigned to it so that if one breaks it can be quickly replaced.)

Kiwanga also required that a wooden section of the pavilion’s façade be replaced with glass, creating a luminescent effect as the interior installation can be seen from outside. The Canada Pavilion, a small modernist shed with a spiralling floorplan constructed in the 1950s, has the reputation of being a tricky space in which to mount art – but, after exhibitions in 2019 and 2022 where Canada’s artists used it as a venue for video and photography, Kiwanga wanted to engage with the building itself.

“It’s a really strong building. I love it, but you have to consider it. You can’t just plop your thing in it,” she said. “It is itself a sculpture, so I tried to make a sculpture on top of it.”

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Tightly spaced strands of beads colour the walls from top to bottom in swathes of yellow, orange and purple, while carefully placed passages of white and grey are used to create long arching lines.National Gallery Of Canada

In that regard, the geometric shapes of her beaded wall hangings echo the building’s pleasing modernist aesthetic – while their arching lines also refer to the maps that took traders all over the world. Verna points out that the Canada Pavilion is sandwiched between those of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, the three European powers engaged in the Scramble for Africa in the decades before the First World War. But in an art world currently fascinated by decolonization, Kiwanga takes a subtle approach.

“It’s how I want to be in the world, how I want to interact with the audience,” she said. “The violence, the politics, the difficult questions are always there, but I don’t know if you have to address them in the same way all the time.”

The 60th Venice Biennale continues to Nov. 24.

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