Pope’s Visit to Art Exhibition in Prison is a First for Venice Biennale

Landing by helicopter at a women’s prison where the Vatican has mounted its pavilion for the Venice Biennale international art exhibition, Pope Francis on Sunday told the women incarcerated there that they had a “special place in my heart.”

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

Many of the women had participated with artists in creating works that hang throughout the prison for the exhibition, titled “With My Eyes.” Francis, the first pope ever to visit — if briefly — a Venice Biennale, said that it was “fundamental” for the prison system “to offer detainees the tools and room for human, spiritual, cultural and professional growth, creating the conditions for their healthy reintegration.”

“Not to isolate dignity, but to give new possibilities,” Francis said to applause.

Over the decades, countries participating in the Biennale — the world’s principal showcase for new art — have used deconsecrated churches, former beer factories, water buses and various other sites to display their art, but this was the first time a prison was selected.

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

The Vatican project has received an overwhelmingly positive public reception, but it has not been without controversy. Some critics raised ethical concerns about the intersection of powerful institutions like the Vatican and the Biennale with the limited autonomy of imprisoned women. Others suggested that the Vatican, in mounting the show, was complicit in a penal system in which overcrowding remains a serious issue.

Still others demanded that the pope request pardons or at least reduced sentences for any women who were incarcerated because they had responded violently to domestic abuse.

“I don’t think the Vatican has the power to have any influence over Italian justice,” Mr. Racine said of that idea.

While the Vatican has not publicly responded to the critiques, Francis has been consistently outspoken about domestic abuse, saying in 2021 that there was something “almost satanic” about the high number of cases of domestic violence against women.

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

On Sunday, Francis said that prison was “a harsh reality, and problems such as overcrowding, the lack of facilities and resources, and episodes of violence give rise to a great deal of suffering there.” But he said prison could also be a place where people’s dignity could be “promoted through mutual respect and the nurturing of talents and abilities, perhaps dormant or imprisoned by the vicissitudes of life.”

The pope described his artistic vision to artists he called to the Sistine Chapel last year, telling them to “think of the poor and to ensure that art went into the peripheries,” the Vatican’s culture chief, Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, said earlier this year. On Sunday, Francis told artists involved with the Vatican project that “the world needs artists.”

The curators, Mr. Racine and Chiara Parisi, of Centre Pompidou-Metz, the French museum, selected a handful of artists to work with the incarcerated women to create works that are scattered through the prison.

One, a 1965 serigraph featuring the word Hope backward, was hung over the door of the prison canteen, where about a quarter of the 80-odd inmates who agreed to serve as guides to the show first meet visitors. The serigraph was created by the artist Corita Kent, a former nun and an activist for social justice who died in 1986.

The Lebanese artist Simone Fattal transcribed poems and reflections by the incarcerated women on lava slabs that line a brick corridor: “I thought I was suffocating.” “I often think of my family.” “I am so sad.”

In another room were small stylized paintings by the French artist Claire Tabouret that were based on family photos the women had given her.

Visitors get only a brief glimpse of penitentiary life, but during the tour a short film, directed by Marco Perego and starring his wife, the actor Zoe Saldaña, shows the conditions inside in bleak black and white: shared rooms, shared showers, little privacy. Both inmates and professional actresses acted in the film, Mr. Racine said.

This is the third time the Vatican has participated in the Biennale: In 2013 and 2015, it was among many participants at the Arsenale, one the fair’s main venues. And for the 2018 Architecture Biennale, the Vatican built a series of chapels, “for believers and nonbelievers alike,” that can still be visited.

On Sunday, the pope greeted the inmates of the Giudecca prison individually in an inner courtyard. Some gave him flowers, and others pressed envelopes and notes in his hands.

Giovanni Russo, the head of the Department of Penitentiary Administration in the Italian Ministry of Justice, told reporters at a Vatican news conference in March that the women who participated in the project were entitled to unspecified benefits. While the Vatican Pavilion was unique, he said, nearly all of Italy’s 190 penitentiaries had “artistic projects” of some kind or another, involving more than 20,000 volunteers.

Visitors to the pavilion must book in advance, and time slots have been filling up fast.

It’s not the first time that the inmates at the prison have participated in major art projects. Two years ago, the French artist Pauline Curnier Jardin worked with inmates to make a film and paint a large common room where the women meet visitors twice a week. The walls are now a soft purple, decorated with stylized leaves and figures designed by the inmates during a series of workshops with the artist.

After the Biennale closes in November, the artworks in “With My Eyes” will be removed, Mr. Racine said. But Ms. Curnier Jardin’s soothing additions will remain.

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