One of the first works of choreographies of the impossible On the ground floor of the São Paulo Biennial Pavilion is the pedestal of a monument. This base was used for a performance by the artist of Mayan-Caqchiguel origin, from Guatemala, Marilyn Boror Bor, in which her legs were cemented. After a few minutes, however, she left the pedestal empty.
During the 35th São Paulo Biennial, living monument it will be seen as a pedestal that does not idolize anyone and has at its base the writing: “In memory of the defenders of the land; in memory of spiritual guides, in gratitude to political prisoners; in gratitude to community leaders; for the rivers, the lakes, the hills, the mountains.”
The emptiness of the monument is a gesture that seems to me to symbolize the exhibition, organized by Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes and Manuel Borja-Villel, the first time that a team with a black majority, in no less than 72 years of history, is responsible for the São Paulo Biennial.
It is not an exhibition of works with sensationalist effects, those that are usually called biennial works, but, like the living monument, point to gestures that seek to question the universal canon, without, however, putting another one in its place. And this is very good.
It's like the useless train track, which is right at the entrance to the exhibition, part of the installation Parliament of Ghosts (Parliament of ghosts) by Ibrahim Mahama, an artist from Ghana, who remembers the initiatives of the colonizers in Africa with all their structural violence. Next door, however, he recreates the red brick bleachers of his studio hall, a place for creation and dialogue.
Would this then be a decolonial biennial? This is not a concept claimed by the curatorial team, but there is no doubt that the option was to list a series of initiatives and narratives that question official history, through works and gestures not necessarily in the field of conventional art.
Among them are current collectives, such as the São Paulo-based Frente 3 de Fevereiro and the Argentinean Archivo de la Memoria Trans Argentina (AMT), as well as works from almost two centuries ago, such as those by the Bolivian Melchor María Mercado (1816-1871).
Market is seen with the Album of landscapes, human types and customs, made between 1841 and 1869, which presents a very surrealist narrative about the Bolivian nation in its beginnings, ironizing political power and pointing to the corruption of the colonial elite. It's brilliant.
The 3 de Fevereiro Front is seen in an installation that tells and contextualizes its history, marked by denunciations in public spaces, such as the iconic banners Where are the black people e Zombie is us extended in stadiums of the Brazilian football championship, in 2005. In the installation, using technological resources, Dona Maurinete Lima (1942-2018), one of the creators of the movement, appears narrating the work. It's moving.
Meanwhile, the Argentine collective AMT presents a selection of images from its collection of 12 thousand pieces, which aims to connect people, bringing together more than a thousand trans women in 2018. The archive is also accessible online, and on shows looks like a cloud of images.
These three initiatives point to how this Biennale aims to do more than look at the field of art, exposing initiatives that impact culture more broadly. This is also the case with the series of photos by Rosa Gauditano taken for two months in 1978, from 23 pm to 6 am, with the regulars of Ferro's Bar, a traditional lesbian bar in the center of São Paulo, a series censored by Veja magazine, and now staged with as if displayed in a bohemian environment. In the images, there is an unusual intimacy with women, at a time when photojournalism was still marked by coldness and detachment. It is these innovative gestures, even if invisible when carried out, that this Biennale exposes. The impossible becoming possible through small movements.
Regarding silencing, in fact, the selection of works by Aurora Cursino dos Santos (1896-1959) is particularly touching, which was part of her production at the Juquery psychiatric hospital, hospitalized after a life that mixed marriage, travels around Europe and prostitution. Moments of her life are narrated in her paintings, which the curators display in order to see how they were made on gum packets. Other inmates in asylums, such as Stella do Patrocínio, Arthur Bispo do Rosario and Ubirajara Ferreira Braga also appear in choreographies of the impossible with broad series of works.
Now, it is undeniable that this Biennale also has a resounding presence of production from within the art system, especially in works by women such as Citra Sasmita, Rosana Paulino and Carmézia Emiliano. Rosana's new series, large paintings of women who take root and merge with trees, is breathtaking, as are Citra's paintings. The Balinese artist presents the project Timur Merah (Red East), in which Indonesian women with long black hair play various roles, human and animal, nude, returning here to the perspective that makes nature a big family, as in Rosana Paulino. This holistic vision is also seen in Carmézia's paintings, which expose the daily life of the Macuxi people, in Roraima. In fact, there is a constellation of indigenous works, whether in the poetic videos of Aida, Edmar and Roseana Yanomami, or in the paintings of the Huni Kuin Artists Movement (Mahku), or in the works of Denilson Baniwa and Edgar Calel.
As you can see, the exhibition is full of friction, but it is not at all literal, which is a relief, since there is no concept that defines how to look at the works. Temporality is also something relativized in the exhibition, without arranging the works as if they were part of a Cartesian linearity. One of the highlights in this sense is the painting by Juan van der Hamen y León, the Portrait of Dona Catalina de Erauso. The ensign nun, from around 1625, which presents a masculinized image of a nun, pointing to a liquid sexuality already in the XNUMXth century, alongside documents from the XNUMXth century that point to the enslaved Xica Manicongo as the first transvestite in Brazil.
In fact, the portrait is the theme of the video A voice for Erauso. An epilogue for a trans time, by the Spanish duo Helena Cabello and Ana Carceller, who two years ago brought to public the complex figure of the Spanish shack, which freed itself from gender binarism.
The LGBTQIAPN+ issue is in fact a strong axis of the exhibition, and another work that deserves attention is the film Untied tongues, from 1989, made by Marlon Riggs (1957-1994), an authorial documentary about the lives of black gays in the United States.
By bringing together works from different periods, such as these last three, this Biennial chooses to be less explicit in relation to the present time, as many exhibitions of this genre tend to do, but talks about current debates from a broader perspective, transforming the exhibition into a more museographic context.
This impression is reinforced by the architecture of the exhibition itself. It is not easy to face Oscar Niemeyer's modernist pavilion, which, with its amplitude and curved lines, tends to dominate the spaces. The group of architects Vão wisely used these curves to question the space itself, reorganizing the route of the building – from the first floor we jump to the third to end the visit on the second floor, closing the central gap, in a radical but effective gesture.
White walls, few rooms with more radical intervention, this is a Biennale with lots of breath and large spaces, but which also takes the visitor to more intimate environments when necessary. It is with great elegance that the ills of the world are addressed in (im)possible gestures of overcoming.
Elegance and criticism are present in the works selected by Sidney Amaral (1973-2017) for the exhibition. In your painting The foreigner (2011), he portrays himself as a boatman who would be in the dark underground of the Biennale pavilion, without having the chance to belong to this territory – hence the title of the work. Now in 2023, who would have thought, he is no longer a foreigner, but part of a large chorus of black bodies, the largest this biennial has ever seen. Finally, the impossible has now become possible. ✱