In the Arsenale portion of Cecilia Alemani’s main exhibition of the Venice Biennale, titled “The Milk of Dreams,” the best is quite literally saved for last.
Just before the exit, Alemani has given Precious Okoyomon an entire sizable room all to themselves—something that few other participants in the main show can say. In the installation, titled To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2022), the artist has arrayed an environment in which mysterious figures loom. Kudzu and sugar cane planted in soil appear all over. Live butterflies mingle with the plants around them. Amid all of this run streams of water that make gentle noises as they flow.
This isn’t the first time Okoyomon has worked with kudzu, an invasive vine species that is native to parts of China and Japan. The species was first introduced to U.S. audiences in 1876 at a world’s fair in Philadelphia, and several decades later, it was utilized by the U.S. government to fight the erosion of soil. Now, however, it has become something akin to a weed for American Southerners, one that grows quickly and often in ways that are difficult to impede.
But the kudzu in Okoyomon’s work is hardly a villain. If anything, it’s something more like a protagonist we’re meant to sympathize with. Like most other parts of this installation, the kudzu has a name: resistance is an atmospheric condition.
In Okoyomon’s hands, the act of planting kudzu is a form of anti-colonial protest. While its growth at the Biennale is likely contained, one could imagine a context in which it were not. And this room looks like no other at the exhibition—it seeks to portray a world in which plants have taken over, displacing the humans around them. (Visitors to Okoyomon’s installation will have to take some care to keep to the narrow pathways and to avoid stepping onto the dirt around them.)
As for the sculpted figures that are appear throughout, they are made from wool, yarn, dirt, and—rather ominously—blood, according to the Biennale’s organizers. Produced at larger-than-life scale and without facial features, the sculptures may seem scary, but don’t be afraid. Their names make clear that they come in peace and that they are, if anything, meant to be beautiful: Efua, The Sun is my Own Darkness Swallowed in Flames an Angel Reborn and Omoehi, Child of Destiny I am Blood are two of their titles.