country art biennial
"Traces we leave on the face of the land", 2021, by Edgar Calel. Photo: Hugo Quinto/ Courtesy of Alexia Tala

Lost. In the middle. Together was the title of the 22nd Bienal de Arte Paiz, held in Guatemala City, the capital of the Central American country, and in the small town of Antigua Guatemala. Inspired by a publication by the Dutch artist Jonas Staal about a group of refugees in Amsterdam, the title gained new meanings as it was moved to the Latin American reality, especially in a country with almost half of its population of indigenous origin.

“What is generally seen in Latin America is not the denial of citizenship to minorities, but the denial of a dignified life,” says the editor’s chief curator, Chilean Alexia Tala, referring to indigenous peoples who “have been denied their rights to live respecting their cosmovisions, their forms of medicine and community organization”. The title also refers to the many immigrants who leave Latin America for the countries of the North, as a result of unemployment and poverty, and who live as refugees in these countries.

Raising these and many other questions, the 22nd Bienal de Arte Paiz, which ended on June 6, brought together works by 40 artists – among them the Brazilians Ayrson Heráclito, Detánico & Lain, Jonathas de Andrade and Vanderlei Lopes – and spread across six institutions. of the two Guatemalan cities. In addition to the group shows, with a large presence of local artists, two solo exhibitions completed the show: one by the Guatemalan artist Hannibal Lopez and another by Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz (which is still on view after the end of the biennial).

country art biennial
Curator Alexia Tala. Photo: Disclosure

In interview with arte!brasileiros, Alexia spoke about the curatorship of the Bienal – made by her in partnership with the assistant curator Gabriel Rodríguez Pellecer -, about the Latin American political context, the pandemic moment and a series of other subjects. Read on.

ARTE! – First of all, I would like you to tell us a little about how the curatorial project for the 22nd Bienal de Arte Paiz was conceived and which are the main themes that run through the show. Within that, I could also talk a little about the title lost. in medium. together.

I'll start answering for the second part. The title comes from a publication by Dutch artist Jonas Staal and the BAK project that focuses on a group of 200 refugees who were denied citizenship. This fact seemed to us to be a mirror of the situation of the indigenous communities of Central America and of many people who are forced to migrate, who on the one hand are recognized as citizens, but on the other hand they are denied their rights to live respecting their cosmovisions, their ways of medicine and community organization. In addition, we also associate the title with all immigrants who we can also think of as refugees, in the sense that the main reason for migration to the north is unemployment, which is itself a form of economic violence.

What is generally seen in Latin America is not the denial of citizenship to minorities, but the denial of a dignified life and of being able to live in peace. Then came the pandemic and the title gained strength of its own.

Jonas Staal's work, the way he approaches his research and projects, was an inspiration, a kind of base from which we started to consider the biennial as a project. Its political formation proposals, its discussion workshops, the different ways of working at the collective level and its particular ways of problematizing served as a starting point for us to discuss the local, the regional and the southern hemisphere in relation to the north. And, within that, its basis in inequality.

The curatorial project is divided into three thematic axes: Universes of matter; past. eternal. futures; is Evil Geography / Cursed Geography. All three address issues that are interconnected and that touch right there, at that point where everything is unbalanced both socially and politically, where ancestral history is confronted with contemporary history and where the matter and the ways of approaching objects and nature are intertwined. oppose.

General view of the exhibition “Universos de la materia”, part of the biennial. Photo: Hugo Quinto/ Courtesy of Alexia Tala

ARTE! – In your curatorial text you talk about the concept of “presentism” to refer to a kind of disorientation that we live in the current moment of the world, also related to a difficulty in looking both at the past and the future. Could you talk a little about this idea, about how it is approached by the curatorship and how it relates to contemporary artistic production?

Precisely, this presentism that Koselleck talks about led us to think about a question of temporality, of analyzing the ability and inability to envision futures at a time when – even more so with the pandemic – this false idea of ​​interconnectivity was accentuated, which at the same time bombards us and blinds us. Within this temporality is the Mayan ancestral past, which in a multi-ethnic and multilingual country where 60% of the population is indigenous, assumes crucial importance.

The curatorship sought to approach this, from our place as whites mestizos speaking from the historical juncture of an overdose of the present and allowing us to enter ancestral territories that belong to these artists from the altiplano and other guests. The important thing was to do this through their own voices, the artists Kakchiquel, Tz'utujil, Garífunas and Afro-descendants from elsewhere in Latin America, as well as artists from Africa.

The works presented at the biennial dialogue with each other and between the thematic axes. There are a multitude of voices that, two weeks after the opening, have proved to be more powerful than I myself as a curator could have imagined. The decision to open a space for indigenous and popular voices, without intending to translate anything, resulted in a collective perception by the Guatemalan public that everything that is exposed there makes sense in their lives. And that's the biggest reward for the team's work.

country art biennial
Work by Panamanian Antonio José Guzmán at the Paiz Art Biennial. Photo: Juan Carlos Mencos/ Courtesy Silvia de Tres

ARTE! – Regarding the selection of artists, there is a predominance of Latin Americans (35 of the 40 participants). Is this view that starts from what we call the Global South, and more specifically from Latin America, the main focus of the exhibition? I would like you to talk a little about this choice.

Yes, the focus was on Latin America, both for curatorial and logistical reasons. Although many of the works respond to the Guatemalan context, the idea has always been to take Guatemala as the mirror from which we can see all these inequalities that historically afflict the Global South. That's why, together with Gabriel Rodriguez, my co-curator, we also invited artists like Nelson Makengo, from Congo, Emo de Medeiros, from Benin, and Heba Y. Amin, from Egypt. The works of these three artists have functioned as a kind of connector for realities often unknown to the Central American public.

ARTE! – But even if there is this regional cut, there is a production made within this vast region that is also quite diverse. How does this diversity arise in the show? 

Yes, it is a very diverse production and also very unknown, as it is a very marginalized and invisible region for the global circuit of contemporary art. This circuit misses the opportunity to find a multitude of incredibly interesting and talented artists and, in addition, misses the chance to get closer to a phenomenon that is occurring with the artists of the altiplano and their ways of approaching contemporary art from their own perspective. indigeneity that, despite making terribly profound criticisms, are resolved in highly aesthetic and poetic ways.

Diversity also appears in the show from the moment we decided that 70% of the works would be commissioned, that is, new projects. We carried out preliminary research to be able to deliver material to artists that culminated in a publication entitled (re)broken paradise, which contains a range of context-relevant themes, from historical issues to contemporary affairs.

The foreign artists traveled to Guatemala, which resulted in a series of collaborations that emerged organically not only with local artists, but also with people from other fields, from spiritual guides and botanical healers, waist loom weavers, poets, filmmakers, forensic archaeologists and lawyers. Ayrson Heráclito, for example, worked with Wingston González on the work Onagulei: Messenger of the Ancestors. Finally, a series of other types of knowledge entered the biennial and, together with art, arrived at aesthetic solutions.

country art biennial
Series “Ladino Hardware, at the exhibition by Aníbal López at the Paiz Art Biennial. Photo: Hugo Quinto.

ARTE! – Considering the more local scope of the show, almost half of the artists are from Guatemala. I would like to know a little about how this research was carried out in the country and what concerns you perceive most latent in the production of these artists. 

Exactly, this edition has a fairly balanced proportion of national and international artists. We set out to include several artists Tzutujil, Kakchiquel and Garífuna who, as I said, are making contemporary art more surprising and who – not interested in or influenced by institutional criticism – are deeply rooted in their ancestral worldview. And we integrate popular artists who use traditional or ancestral techniques, but who managed to develop their own imagination within what they do.

This research, in fact, I have been doing for 6 years, when I got involved with several projects in Guatemala. When I was invited to curate the biennial, I was already familiar with the local scene and the context, and this very organically led me to develop a highly contextual project.

The concerns present in the production of Central American artists, I would say, are quite marked. Without homogenization, I could think of two issues that cross them: inequality in all its senses and territorial issues. These invisible borders that exist within the same territory called the nation-state, borders that are inhabited, that are a territory more than a limit – and what they have in common is that they speak to us of political segregation, as they have the component of racialization and inequality.

ARTE! – Speaking of racialization, there are a large number of artists of indigenous origin. Could you comment a little on this aspect of the show?

First of all, I would like to say that I avoid categorizations. What we see in this biennial are many indigenous artists who are producing contemporary art. It is not because of its origin that a new category could be created. But thinking about how they can differ from other contemporary artists, I see that the difference is that they developed their works, many of them highly conceptual, from their own place, speaking from their own indigeneity, from their own worldview. And they have avoided institutional art criticism, that is, under no circumstances do you see these artists trying to fit in with what the circuit is looking for. Even his way of approaching political issues is very unique. His works speak of his history, inequality, destitution, his cosmovision and the personality (person status) that nature and objects have in their daily life. I would not say that we developed a focus on indigenous art, on the contrary, we created the scenarios where their works, together with those of other artists, gain greater strength through dialogue.

country art biennial
“Lacandón”, 2006, by Aníbal López. Photo: Courtesy Quinto Collection – Lojo

ARTE! – It would also be interesting to talk about the two individual exhibitions, one by the Guatemalan artist Aníbal Lopez and the other by the Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz. How were these artists chosen and how do their works dialogue with the Bienal as a whole? 

These two exhibitions work within two axes of the Bienal, both in terms of Perverse Geography / Cursed Geography as on the axis of past. eternal. futures. Both proposals seek to make visible the cracks in the social fabric, cracks that come from past historical problems and others that come from local problems. In the case of Aníbal, it comes from the Guatemalan reality and in the case of Paz from the reality of the Chilean context, a highly classist country where the margins of society never manage to integrate.

We always knew that we wanted to do two solo shows, one in honor of an artist from Latin America and the other to an artist from Guatemala. Aníbal is without a doubt the most influential artist in Central America, his ideas emerge with strong intellectual roots and with a force that often surpasses themselves. The confrontation that López makes between art and reality is very crude and highlights questions related to ethics and morals. It was very important to rescue his legacy through this retrospective – A1-53167: Places under siege – and investigate and produce material to make available to researchers. That's why we developed part of the Aníbal López Oral Archive, an archive that contains interviews with people close to him in terms of thought and production.

Debates about identity and especially about racism are latent in the exhibitions, mainly in the past. eternal. futures. Racial hierarchies have existed since the past and continue to this day, and it is in this today that we are building the past for the future.

Paz Errázuriz has struggled for years to give visibility and recognition to the social rights of minorities in general. Today, in a world united by the internet, these struggles are as local as they are global, and that is why the strength they acquire dialogues with so many other historical-cultural differences in other geographies.

country art biennial
Paz Errázuriz, series “La Manzana de Adán”, 1982-1990. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Sample The greatness of the margin, for the Paiz Art Biennial, this is the first time that Errázuriz has photographed outside the Chilean context. She portrays a transgender community in her series Trans Guatemala (2020), following the line of La Manzana de Adan. The second commissioned work that Errázuriz develops is the series Zarco's purge (2020), where she portrays a group of Quechí women who brought to trial military personnel who, during the war, subjected them to domestic and sexual slavery. This trial was successful, giving the military sentences of 120 and 240 years in prison. So it was a lot of media coverage, but they hid their faces throughout the process. Today, Paz portrays them in an attempt to dignify their fragile bodies that they carry with a lot of suffering but, at the same time, with a lot of strength.

ARTE! - The Paiz Art Biennial, like so many exhibitions and cultural events around the world, had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Did this postponement and this new context result in changes in the form and contents of the show?

Yes, it was postponed. I would say that we first considered doing a face-to-face biennial, then an online solution, which we quickly discarded, and then a hybrid biennial, to finally return to the idea of ​​a face-to-face biennial, but with a strong focus on the location and with a reinforced educational project. At the same time, we have developed several online events, lectures, workshops and a symposium that have tried not to disconnect us from the international dialogue. Although planes do not arrive and many borders are closed, this dialogue has been important. As for the content of the shows, this was not affected, only some production strategies had to be modified due to the impossibility of displacement.

ARTE! – Also, how do you think this Bienal dialogues with the new global reality?

This biennial was conceived as a platform to catalyze relations between history and the contemporary. In this sense, the dialogue with the global reality is constant, because the global reality is not only composed of today, it is something that has been dragging on and adding events. The biennial addresses these debates that prevail today worldwide.

For example, the works by Paz Errázuriz that I mentioned; or those of Uriel Orlow, who worked with botanical healers at the time when Dom Domingo Choc was murdered accused of witchcraft; Oswaldo Maciá, who created a sound and olfactory installation to talk about migration at a planetary level; Edgar Calel, who addresses ecological issues metaphorizing with the marks we leave on the earth; and Andrea Monroy, who works on the syncretism of ancestral wisdom and religion.

“Cómo se llamaban las plantas antes de que tuvieran nombre”, 2020-2021, by Swiss artist Uriel Orlow, at the Paiz Art Biennial. Photo: Hugo Quinto/ Courtesy of Alexia Tala

ARTE! – Returning to the issue of the Bienal’s focus on the territory, which you mentioned, in the current context much has been said that exhibitions, art fairs and biennials may start to receive mainly a more local audience, as a result of a decrease in travel around the city. world. I want to know how you perceive this...

As we know, fairs and biennials have acquired an increasingly strong international position over time, having a massive audience and, in the best of cases, a pedagogical project with relevant work especially with local schools, which takes place through art. , of the exhibited works and their various approaches. This is thinking from the place, but all these events that are repeated over time are not only relevant for the region's public, but for the entire art ecosystem: curators, critics, artists and even gallery owners and collectors. That is why it is important to think of new ways of allocating budgets, because although exhibitions and direct contact with the work of art are not comparable to online contact, part of these resources should serve to strengthen educational projects both in person and online, this is something indispensable. At the same time, you must work hard to have an international reach for many reasons that we all know, but mainly to be able to make visible the thinking of artists, their creative processes, their works and the dialogues they generate with each other.

ARTE! – And how has the public received this edition of the Paiz Art Biennial?

I cannot hide the great satisfaction I feel. The biennial surpassed all the expectations that I myself had in relation to the local public, it has been a hit with visitors and critics. But most importantly, this effort to create a deeply contextual biennial was noticed by the non-specialist audience, who fully identified with it. I have been receiving very emotional messages on Instagram from unknown people who have been visiting the exhibitions. In addition, museum directors are calling for the closing dates of exhibitions to be postponed. We have just received confirmation that the Paz Errázuriz exhibition will be open for a month longer than planned. This for me makes the project even more meaningful and makes me feel that three years of hard work and a year of pandemic uncertainty have paid off.

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