Reflections on Venice

By Amina Lalor

During my four week stay in Venice, I spent a lot of time getting to know the Unceded Exhibit; the voices of nokomis Jane Chartrand, the stories of the participating Indigenous architects, the drums resounding from the gathering circle, and kind visitors from across the globe. Simultaneously, I grew to know the streets of Venice itself; the narrow calle, the waters of the canals. The lively campi and fondamente, the best places to order gelato. On my days off, I explored several of the islands of Venice by vaporetto (water bus), getting a sense of everyday life on the lagoon. I met so many generous people, ate endless amounts of cheese and pasta, and balanced the additional calories with profuse walking. My time working as a cultural host at the Unceded Exhibit was moving in ways that I didn’t expect. I am grateful for the experience. Here, through photographs and reflections, I hope to share some of that experience with you.

Fondamenta Santa Caterina in Cannaregio. Unlike my two previous trips to Venice, totaling only three days, this month-long visit allowed me to slow down and become acquainted with the city at a more intimate scale.

Our commute to work was about thirty minutes on foot through the heart of Castello. Every canal crossing (there were twelve in total) revealed a uniquely picturesque view of the city. This was one of many.

Campo Santa Maria Formosa.

The opening towards ‘Territories of Colonization’ at the Unceded Exhibit. I found inspiration and reassurance in the stories shared by the exhibition team. Having spent the past two years as a graduate student studying spatial design in the context of both settler-colonialism and Indigenous knowledge systems, this work has helped strengthen my understanding of what it means to design and build from an Indigenous perspective.

The Unceded Exhibit is located at the Arsenale site of the Biennale in an old warehouse called the Isolotto, just steps from this Bamboo Stalactite Pavilion by Vietnamese architect, Vo Trong Nghia.

Despite spending so much time working at the Biennale, I only managed to squeeze in a couple days of exploring the other pavilions. This is the Australian Pavilion. As described at the exhibit:

“Grassland Repair presents over 60 species of Western Plains Grasslands plants (south east Australia). Only 1% of this plant community remains from pre-European settlement times, having been removed through urbanisation, agriculture, grazing and industrial land use.”

On the vaporetto approaching Murano.

Early during my stay in Venice, I went to the island of Murano, renowned for its long history of glass production. I visited the Museo del Vetro and spent hours browsing countless shops for glass beads. Many of the glass beads that exchanged hands in the early days of colonization in North America would have been produced on this very island, contributing significantly to the widely practiced art of bead embroidery among many Indigenous nations.

One day, along my walk home from work, I had the privilege of meeting a shop owner named Moulaye who kindly demonstrated the production of a glass bulb. Moulaye came to Venice from Senegal, studied the art of glass making in Murano for many years, and now owns a small studio on Salizada del Pignater in Castello.

An early morning on the lagoon.

The vaporetto system is Venice’s essential form of public transit for locals and tourists alike. Here, the vaporetto is secured before passengers can descend onto the island of Mazzorbo. Gazing out over the waters of the lagoon from the vaporetti became one of my favourite pastimes in Venice. On this morning, I was headed to the island of Burano.

Not to be confused with Murano, Burano is known for its colourful fishermen’s houses and handmade lace.

The view over Burano from the bell tower in Torcello

Sea lavender grew quietly alongside a canal in Torcello.

The island of Giudecca is part of the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice. Easily accessible by vaporetto and less frequented by tourists, it was a serene place to people watch along the water’s edge.

Sant’Erasmo. A peaceful island cultivated primarily for agricultural use. I arrived in the evening, just in time to offer dinner to the mosquitoes.

Before finding dinner myself, I walked along the beach as the sunlight faded. The low tide revealed evidence of critters in the sand.

It didn’t take long before I became acutely attuned to the fact that the islands that make up the city are completely constructed. Even the “ground” under-foot is a form of architecture, containing both land and water, built on what was once a marsh. All at once the islands are in harmony with and in constant battle with the lagoon. I always found comfort in seeing “rogue” plant life reclaiming the nooks and crannies of this built environment. Subverting the ubiquity of hard stone, brick, and concrete.

My experience observing local residence in Venice often involved acts of maintenance. Cleaning window panes and frames. Repainting or repairing walls. Washing and sweeping balconies and sidewalks. Acts of taking-care.

My first two weeks in Venice overlapped with the Venice Film Festival and I decided that I would visit Lido to see at least one film. I spent many days prior flipping through the festival program and managed to narrow my selection down to three films. Two of them, I soon realized, were no longer screening. The third was a film called “The Nightingale,” by Australian director Jennifer Kent. The synopsis of the film read as follows:

“Set in 1825. Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.” [1]

For the past few years, I have been trying to understand the effects of colonization in Canada and how it frames our work as designers. I was interested to see how colonial times in Tasmania would be addressed in the film and, of course, the subject matter also fell in line with the themes addressed in the exhibition. It felt like the right choice. I bought my ticket.

September 6th arrived and I decided that I would spend a few hours in Lido before watching the film, scheduled to screen in the late afternoon. The travel time to Lido by vaporetto was forty minutes from Fondamenta Nove, a stop close to where we lived. With several hours to spare, I walked along Lido’s main street, appreciating the abundance of trees. The road culminated at the beach. After spending a week with primarily hard surfaces on the main islands of Venice, walking barefoot along the shores of the Adriatic Sea was an unexpected relief. The free beach (where you could enjoy the beach without renting a chair) was a mosaic of towels strewn across the sand, dotted with sunbathers on this warm weekday afternoon. I walked slowly along the gentle threshold between land and sea for almost two hours, appreciating the warmth of the sun, soft breeze, sea shells, and shallow waters. In stark contrast to several weeks of being busy with travel and work, this was a welcome moment of pause. The fact that I was in Venice, working at the Unceded Exhibit, finally had time to sink in.

In front of the Palazzo del Cinema.

I arrived early at the Palazzo del Cinema to find that a crowd of people already surrounded the red carpet. Seeing several guests arrive in full gowns, I felt slightly under dressed in my sandals and shorts. What hadn’t occurred to me when I bought my ticket was that this was the official public premiere of the film. The director and several actors would be present at the screening.

I entered the foyer of the Palazzo del Cinema and found myself gathered with the rest of the crowd flanking the crimson path into the theatre. I caught a glimpse of Naomi Watts, one of the festival jury members. Swept up by the energy of my fellow filmgoers, I attempted in vain to get Jennifer Kent to autograph my ticket.

I found my assigned seat near the front of the Sala Grande. The director and cast were introduced, and finally, the lights went out.<hr>

I have a hard time describing my experience watching this film. My intention here is not to write a film review, nor is this a critical analysis. But beyond all expectations, the act of watching this film became one of the most significant experiences of my time in Venice. This film was brutal in how bluntly and honestly it portrayed colonial violence towards women, towards the Indigenous peoples of Tasmania, and towards the land. It was difficult to watch. I spent about a third of the film with tears streaming from my eyes. Tears of shock, sadness, anger, and joy. Halfway through the film I gave up trying to dry the lines of water from my cheeks, sensing that tears would be flowing again before long. I found relief in the small moments of beauty in the film, among so much darkness.

Those who know me well know that I am quick to become invested in a film and cry during emotionally tense scenes. But this was different. It unearthed all of the emotions in me that had been intellectualized over the past two years and laid them bare. Of course, racism and violence continues today in settler-colonial societies, but under the shelter of my academic community, I rarely experience it so intimately. Before watching this film, I had never connected so viscerally to the experience of colonial violence that I carry in my blood.

When the film ended I had trouble maintaining my composure. As quickly as I had been transported into 1820’s Van Diemen’s Land, I was back to the reality of the Sala Grande, surrounded by hundreds of people. I forcefully held back my tears and joined the rest of the audience in sustaining a long standing-ovation. I left the theatre, emotionally raw, and walked straight towards the beach. The warm afternoon had dissolved into evening, and with the sun almost set, the wide beach was empty. A large garbage tractor drove by, collecting the day’s remains. I sat for some time at the water’s edge, processing what I had just experienced. Eventually, I brushed the sand from my feet and made my way home.

San Pietro di Castello

Via Giuseppe Garibaldi at sunset.

On my last full day in Venice, the air was cool and crisp and the Alps north of the lagoon revealed themselves for the first time since I had arrived.

Pellestrina was the last island I had the opportunity to visit before leaving the city. A forty-five minute bus ride (including a short ferry ride) from Lido took us to the centre of Pellestrina. Similar to Lido, Pellestrina is a long narrow island that separates the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. The beach along the east shore of the island was dotted with lovingly crafted shelters.

A long fishing harbour defines the west side of the island.

Sunset drew near, and it seemed like the whole town was out walking along the water’s edge. A little egret included.

Between working at the Biennale and visiting so many uniquely beautiful places, my time in Venice was truly remarkable. Thank you to the wonderful people that I met and worked with along the way, and the Unceded team that brought the exhibit into being.

This exhibit marks an important moment in time for all architects and designers. It has helped to set the foundation for what it means to build in a good way.

I am grateful to carry this powerful experience with me as I continue my journey as an Indigenous designer.

Photography by Amina Lalor

[1] “The Nightingale,” La Biennale di Venezia, accessed November 17, 2018,