Pope visits art exhibition in prison for first time at Venice Biennale

Helicopter lands at Vatican-built women’s prison Venice Biennale pavilion At an international art exhibition, Pope Francis said Sunday that the women imprisoned there “have a special place in my heart.”

“Grazie,” one woman called out. Others applauded.

Many of the women were working with artists to create artwork that will be displayed inside the prison for an exhibition titled “With My Eyes.” Pope Francis, who visited the Venice Biennale for the first time in history, said: “To provide detainees with the means and space for human, spiritual, cultural and professional growth, and to create the conditions for their growth. is the “fundamentals” of the prison system.” A healthy return to society. ”

“Rather than isolate dignity, we give it new possibilities,” Francisco said to applause.

For decades, countries participating in the Biennale, the world’s major exhibition of new art, have used unconsecrated churches, former breweries, water buses and various other locations to display their art. However, this was the first time that a prison was chosen.

That made the project “more complex and more difficult to execute,” Bruno Racine, director of two venues at the Pinault Collection in Venice and co-curator of the Vatican Pavilion, said in an interview. . But he added that the setting is consistent with Francis’ message of inclusivity for marginalized people.

Although the Vatican’s project has been overwhelmingly well received by the public, it is not without controversy. Some critics expressed ethical concerns About the intersection between powerful institutions like the Vatican and the Biennale and the limited autonomy of incarcerated women. Others suggested that by hosting the show, the Vatican was complicit in a penal system where overcrowding remains a problem. serious problem.

Still others called on the pope to request pardons or at least commutation of sentences for women imprisoned for violently responding to domestic violence.

“I don’t think the Vatican has the power to influence the Italian judiciary,” Racine said of that idea.

The Vatican has not publicly responded to the criticism, but Francis has consistently been outspoken about domestic violence, saying in 2021 that the high number of domestic violence against women was “almost satanic”. “There is something,” he said.

He has been a vocal advocate of prison reform, denouncing overcrowding, and often meets with inmates during his travels.

On Sunday, Francis said prisons are a “harsh reality, and problems such as overcrowding, lack of facilities and resources, and acts of violence are causing great suffering there.” But he said prisons can also be places “promoted by mutual respect and nurturing of the talents and abilities of people who are perhaps dormant or imprisoned through the ups and downs of life.”

The Pope explained his artistic vision to the artists he invited to the Sistine Chapel last year, telling them to “think about the poor and make sure that art reaches the margins,” according to Vatican Culture. Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, head of the department, spoke earlier. Year. On Sunday, Francis told artists working on Vatican projects: “The world needs artists.”

Racine and Chiara Parisi, curators at France’s Center Pompidou-Metz, have selected several artists to work with incarcerated women to create works that will be scattered throughout the prison.

One of them, a 1965 silkscreen with the word “Hope” painted backwards, hung on the prison cafeteria door. It is in this cafeteria that one-quarter of her 80-odd inmates, who have agreed to serve as guides for the show, meet visitors for the first time. The silkscreen was created by artist Corita Kent, a former nun and social justice activist who died in 1986.

“I thought I was going to suffocate,” said Lebanese artist Simone Fattal, who copied the poems and thoughts of imprisoned women onto the lava slabs lining the brick hallway. “I often think about my family.” “I feel very sad.”

In another room were small stylized paintings by French artist Claire Tabboulet, based on family photographs given to her by the women.

Visitors only get a brief glimpse of prison life, but during the tour a short film directed by Marco Perego and starring his wife, actor Zoe Saldaña, reveals shared rooms, shared showers and little privacy. The conditions inside the prison are shown in stark black and white. . Both inmates and professional actresses appeared in the film, Racine said.

This is the third time the Vatican has participated in the Biennale, with large numbers of participants attending the Arsenale, one of the fair’s main venues, in 2013 and 2015. And in preparation for the 2018 Architecture Biennale, the Vatican has built a series of chapels “for believers and non-believers alike.” be visited.

On Sunday, the pope personally greeted inmates at Giudecca Prison in the courtyard. Some gave him flowers, others pressed envelopes and notes into his hands.

Giovanni Russo, head of Italy’s Ministry of Justice’s prison administration, told reporters at a Vatican press conference in March that the women who took part in the project were entitled to unspecified benefits. While the Vatican Pavilion is unique, nearly all of Italy’s 190 prisons have some kind of “art project” going on, with more than 20,000 volunteers taking part, he said.

This is not the first time prison inmates have been involved in a major art project. Two years ago, French artist Pauline Cournier Jardin worked with inmates to create a film and paint a large common room where the women meet with visitors twice a week. The walls are now a soft purple and decorated with stylized leaves and figures designed by inmates during a series of workshops with artists.

Racine said the “With My Eyes” work will be removed when the biennale closes in November. But Ms. Cournier-Jardin’s pleasant addition remains.

After leaving prison, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Mark’s Square.

During his sermon, he praised Venice’s “captivating beauty” and said the city is vulnerable to climate change, overtourism and the vulnerability of its people, not just its architecture and cultural heritage, which threatens to undermine the city’s social foundations. He added that the country is also threatened by issues such as “The United States.” fabric. City officials this week began charging entrance fees to the city, aiming to discourage day-trippers from arriving on particularly busy days.

Many tourists hoping to visit St. Mark’s Square on Sunday were blocked by dozens of closures in the area as part of increased security for the Pope’s visit.

Julia Hsu, visiting from Augusta, Georgia, said at one of the lockdowns while watching Mass on her cell phone. “It’s a great honor. This is something they should be doing because of the increased security.”

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