Vertical, color photo. Portrait of Grada Kilomba
Artist and writer Grada Kilomba. Photo: Ute Langkafel

By Ana Teixeira Pinto*

Last November 11, 2021, DGARTES (Direção Geral das Artes) announced the result of the competition for the official Portuguese representation at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. artist Grada Kilomba and the commissioner Bruno Leitão with the project The Wound was passed over by the jury. This decision is shocking not only because Grada Kilomba would, according to objective criteria, be the best choice – she is a visual artist whose work opens up critical horizons, in dialogue with the most important contemporary intellectual movements, with a unique path and work, of a complexity that extends to literary and performative registers – but because its pavilion would have an enormous symbolic value: Grada Kilomba is an artist with ancestry in São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola, two former Portuguese colonies, with Portugal carrying a brutal colonial legacy that remains under-theorized and which the white majority blatantly refuses to recognize. Of course, a pavilion in Venice cannot pay the country's immense colonial debt, this debt is unpayable, but that is precisely why this symbolic reparation would assume such great importance. What better option in terms of representation national than to represent the underrepresentation of Portuguese society in the figure of a brilliant artist, internationally recognized and respected?

kilomba grada
Artist and writer Grada Kilomba. Photo: Ute Langkafel

If the jury had made its decision, a decision that I can only classify as racist and misogynistic, only because of an inability to recognize the artist's merit and the urgency of the subject of her candidacy, the case would be serious. Questions of merit and demerit are not subjective questions, they are questions that reveal the racial dimension of semiotic and semantic structures. But this story is not just a story of neglect or intellectual deficit. This story is a story of malicious manipulation of the assigned score in order to prevent Grada Kilomba from being the chosen artist: her candidacy was literally boycotted by one of the members of the jury, Nuno Crespo, a professor at the Portuguese Catholic University.

In an open letter, Commissioner Bruno Leitão made it public that this jury gave his candidate an aberrant score, unjustifiable in terms of any impartial parameters, giving her a rating of ten points (on a scale of zero to twenty) in several categories, in blatant discrepancy not only with the other elements of the jury but also with the scores it gives to the other candidacies. The same member of the jury, justified his score saying:

“(…) the idea of ​​racism as an open wound has already been the subject of countless other approaches; so that the proposal presented does not show how in an exhibition you can review, criticize or prolong this idea that has already been discussed and even displayed in multiple ways (…).”

“(…) even though the technical and artistic team is competent, the artistic merit of the artist Grada Kilomba (…) is not satisfactory.”

“Grada Kilomba is a brilliant writer and thinker, and her skills in terms of the famous 'oral narrative' are undeniable. to possess (…)."

“(…) is not committed to the dynamization and internationalization of the Portuguese artistic and cultural 'scene'.”

It is difficult to interpret phrases such as “is not committed to the dynamization and internationalization of the Portuguese artistic and cultural 'scene'” as not connoting a racial idea of ​​citizenship: who, exactly, can represent the Portuguese art scene? Are there Portuguese more Portuguese than others? Or in a bizarre inversion of cause and consequence, is the juror using the fact that Grada Kilomba was never included in the Portuguese artistic “scene” to justify his exclusion from the national pavilion, instead of judging the lack of inclusiveness of the so-called “scene” ” art a symptom of the asymmetry and historical injustice that it would be your duty to rectify? Another indication of systemic disparity is the fact that artist Mónica de Miranda and curator Paula Nascimento had the lowest score in the group of candidates, with the jury once again selecting a white representation.

Furthermore, it is ironic that the arguments advanced to reject Grada Kilomba's candidacy, The Wound, whose project thematizes the continuities between past and present, between coloniality and the climate crisis, between the valorization of certain subjectivities and the devaluation of others, repeat the systematic pattern of devaluation, hierarchization, marginalization and trivialization that the project is dedicated to questioning .

It should also be stressed that this story is not just a story of individual prejudice: the rest of the jury accepted an arbitrary result without resigning or questioning the decision, although the disparity in votes was glaring; the supervisory entity, DGARTES, declined to intervene, demonstrating that the institution is incapable of recognizing procedural bad faith and is not equipped with adequate protocols to identify fraud and prevent this type of problem from recurring in the future; the ministry of culture did not comment, in a silence that screams that Portugal continues to invest in whiteness, historical revisionism and insular and isolationist chauvinism.

Perhaps, as Djamila Ribeiro writes in FSP, Grada Kilomba is too big for Portugal, or maybe Portugal is too small for Grada Kilomba, anyway, and for Portugal to grow to the point where it has the capacity to represent fairly and equitably, all those to whom it continues to deny representation, it is necessary to fight against this decision both formally, demanding intervention from the tutelage, and informally, forcing the public debate that Portugal refuses to have.

✱ The author published a previous opinion piece in the newspaper Public about this topic.


*Ana Teixeira Pinto is theorist and art critic, professor at DAI (Dutch Art Institute) and AdBK Nürnberg. edit the series On the Antipolice for Sternberg Press, and is organizing the project Whose Universal? at HKW in Berlin with Kader Attia and Anselm Franke. He is a member of the artistic team that organizes the 12th Berlin Biennale, together with the curator Kader Attia.

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