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Simone Leigh
Façade and Satellite, 2022 (In The Milk of Dreams , Venice Biennale, 2022)
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
© Simone Leigh
Photo: Timothy Schenck

The word biennale, derives from the Latin word ‘biennium’ which designates a period of two years. In the context of contemporary art, a biennale is a large-scale international exhibition that occurs every two years. The first ever biennale took place in Venice at the Palazzo dell’ Esposizione in 1895 titled, La Biennale di Venezia - now often referred to as “Olympics of the art world”, as it features contemporary art by artists from around the world linked by a common curatorial theme, as well as having 80 national pavilions, as of 2022.

Venice Biennale continues to be the most prestigious cultural institution in the world, being a global leader of contemporary art exhibitions. While the early years were dominated by European art, the exhibition now includes both artists and visitors from all over the world. The biennale also awards prizes for various achievements: Simone Leigh took a Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the main exhibition The Milk of Dreams, and Sonia Boyce also took a Golden Lion for her installation at the Great Britain pavilion.

As biennales are a form of cultural exchange between different nations, during the mid to late 20th century particularly, the number of biennales increasingly spread across the world in line with the acceleration of globalization. A handful of examples of these biennales are listed below.

São Paulo Biennial, started in 1951, is Latin America’s biggest, and the second oldest in the world, after the Venice Biennale. The initial aim of the biennale was to make contemporary art more widely known in Brazil.

Biennale of Sydney, began in 1973, is the third oldest biennale in the world after Venice and São Paulo. The biennale provides a significant role in Australia’s engagement with the rest of the world through art.

Dak’Art, conceived in 1989, is the largest biennale in the continent of Africa, that takes place in Senegal. With its first edition concentrating on literature, it now focuses on promoting contemporary African art.

Sharjah Biennial, established in 1993, is the large-scale contemporary art exhibition that takes place in the city of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates to foster international dialogue in all forms of art.

Gwangju Biennale, founded in 1995, takes place in the city of Gwangju in South Korea. It is also Asia's oldest biennale and has emerged as a network for international cultural exchange.

Liverpool Biennial, founded in 1998, is the largest international contemporary art event in the United Kingdom. Taking across the city, the biennale commissions artists to make and present the works within the context of Liverpool.

Although strictly speaking, the international art exhibitions listed below are not biennales, as they do not occur every two years. These are still noteworthy as they also reflect the contemporary time, and are represented in a more comprehensive approach.

Yokohama Triennale has been held every three years since 2001, which is Japan’s most prominent recurring international exhibition. It aims to foster new concepts and ideas that shape contemporary culture.

Documenta was founded in 1955 and takes place every 5 years in Kassel, Germany. Documenta also limited submitted works to Europe at first, but soon it began to expand internationally to be aligned with time.

Skulptur Projekte Münster was founded in 1977 in Münster, Germany, and it is held every ten years. The project focuses on the relationship between the urban environment and art through commissioning site-specific works.

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