The São Paulo Biennial Ventures Deep Into the Brazilian Darkness

The 34th edition is a parade of monstrous and transgressive bodies.

Uýra, Mil Quase Mortos (A Thousand Near Deaths, 2019. Photo: Matheus Belém.

The 34th edition of the São Paulo Biennial draws its title, Faz escuro, mas eu canto (“Though it’s dark, still I sing”), from a verse that the Amazonian poet Thiago de Mello wrote during the lead-up to Brazil’s military coup in 1964. During the dictatorship, Mello’s poem came to symbolise the hope for a brighter future, yet the biennial’s strength lies in its insight that the dawn has yet to arrive. On my way there, I passed homeless families camping in parks and along the highway. The present moment in Brazil is a dark one, and it isn’t art’s job to brighten the mood.

The big opening in September was preceded by several smaller exhibitions and performances. The curatorial team – consisting of Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Paulo Miyada, Carla Zaccagnini, Francesco Stocchi and Ruth Estéve – intended to make the biennial a process that changes over time, which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy during the pandemic when the grand opening was delayed for more than a year. In the meantime, a digital program was staged, as well as the exhibition Vento with sound works installed at a safe distance from one and other. During my visit, the biennial was open as usual in the classic Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion in the Ibirapuera Park, and a number of satellite venues across São Paulo.

E.B Itsos, We Resist Therefore We Exist, 2015. Photo: Levi Fanan.

One of the pieces opening the exhibition in the pavilion is a meteorite recovered from the ashes of the Museu Nacional, which burned down in 2018. It is difficult to imagine a gloomier spectacle than this remnant of the destruction of Brazilian cultural heritage, but the rock signals an unshakable and cosmic resistance here. Next door is the Danish artist E.B Itsos’s We Resist Therefore We Exist (2015), a series of photographs of barricaded windows taken from inside an occupied house. We must not have any illusions: the daylight penetrating the wooden slats does not symbolise any expectation other than that we can hold this position for a little while longer. What I see as the biennial’s main argument is this idea of not giving in. Perhaps we even need to learn to thrive in the socio-political ruins of our time. 

The spaceship-like biennial pavilion was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1940s as a symbol of Brazil’s modernisation, which can also be seen as a way of escaping the country’s colonial history. As if to stop this movement, the Argentine artist Arjan Martin has installed a rusty anchor and stretched a thick rope between the building’s wave-like floors. The biennial has also brought back the German artist Lothar Baumgarten’s work on South American Indigenous Peoples presented at Documenta 7 in 1982. The names of ethnic groups threatened by exploitation have been printed in black and red capitals on the pavilion’s chalky white walls, making the biennial’s decolonial message visible while also reflecting Baumgarten’s white, ethnographic gaze.

Lothar Baumgarten, Monument for the Native Societies of South America, 1982. Photo: Levi Fanan.

What I find more interesting, however, is the biennial’s confrontation with Brazilian modernism, and in particular the idea of anthropophagism formulated by the author Oswald de Andrade in the 1920s. In a crucial move, the exhibition presents several Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian artists, but only a few of the country’s well-known modernists. What such a shift entails is illustrated by the Makuxi artist and activist Jaider Esbell, whose wall installation Carta ao velho mundo (Letter to the Old World, 2018) was created from pages torn from a book of European art history. Like a mischievous schoolboy, Esbell has transformed the book’s story of art’s progress into a kind of cartoon in which iconic works from art history are linked to the exploitation of Amazonian Indigenous Peoples through speech balloons and graphic retouches.

Another instance of an older work is Andrea Fraser’s video performance from the 24th São Paulo Biennial in 1998, in which the American artist takes on the role of a reporter who reveals anthropophagy as a commercialised stunt organised by Brazil’s white cultural elite. Through this a new anthropophagism comes to the fore, whose devouring of European art history this time takes place on the terms of the Indigenous Peoples and literally merges with their ongoing struggle in Brazil today.

Jaider Esbell, Carta ao velho mundo, detail, (Letter to the Old World, 2018).

Instead of employing an overarching theme, the curators have started from artworks that, according to them, have special significance. It is a successful method that produces echoes between works from different times and places. For me, the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s Chiaroscuro (2021) acts like the exhibition’s Ariadne’s thread. The work consists of a poster with a quote from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s prison diaries printed in the colours of the Brazilian flag: “The old world is dying. The new one is waiting to be born. In this chiaroscuro, the monsters make themselves known.” The words aptly describe the biennial’s temporality, situated between the new and the old.

Of course, the monster that most alarmingly reveals himself in Brazil today is the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who, nevertheless, is given surprisingly little space in the biennial. As far as I can tell, he only appears once, in the form of a giant inflatable doll that his followers wave about in the Brazilian artist Mauro Restiffe’s photographs of the presidential inauguration.

Pierre Verger, Untitled (from the Candomblé do Pai Cosmes-series), 1950.

Instead, my attention is turned to other, more subversive monsters. It is easy to be amazed by the French photographer Pierre Verger’s images of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé that are displayed in a separate gallery. The participants have been photographed with their bodies painted, doused in goat blood, sucking on pig’s feet, and staring blindly into the room. In the 1950s, Verger’s photographs were published in sensational news articles, but they were also taken up by the French philosopher George Bataille to support of his view of eroticism as a sacred and transgressive excess. Perhaps something of this calibre is needed to heal the socially distant neurosis of the pandemic and to fight Bolsonaro’s hyper conservative and racist gospel.

To me, the 34th São Paulo Biennial appears as an attempt to create a politicised bestiary. In the Norwegian artist Frida Orupabo’s paper doll cutouts of Black women and children, which are shown alongside the Brazilian filmmaker Zózimo Bulbul’s Alma no olho (Soul in the Eye, 1973), Black stereotypes are given their own gaze, allowing me to see and feel the monstrous in the visual regime of whiteness. And the American Mexican artist Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s video work Sangre Pesada (Heavy Blood, 2018) – in which a woman wearing a peacock mask and fake breasts hisses a protest song in an exploited mining landscape – is both a hysterically amplified response to de Mello’s poetic call to sing (even in the worst of times) and a soundtrack to the monstrous collection that is the biennial as a whole.

The 34e Sao Paulo Biennial, installation view with works by E.B Itsos (to the left) and Frida Orupabo (in the middle). Photo: Levi Fanan.

Also standing out are the Cuban artist Belkis Ayón’s prints depicting the ghost princess Sikán, who plays an important albeit little-known role for the Afro-Cuban secret society Abakuá. I have never seen a more powerful ghost than Sikán, which in Ayón’s work appears as a mixture of a Christian saint and demonic archetype. In one of the pieces, reminiscent of an altar painting, Sikán sits on a shadow-like throne crowned by a cross. She holds a cane with goat heads in one hand, while the other forms an enigmatic sign in front of her crotch. According to the legend, Sikán was sacrificed by men who wanted to seize her powers. Here, she returns to pierce contemporary viewers with her gaze of steel.

There is a stage in the middle of the biennial, and during my visit I saw a performance there by the duo Irmãs Brasil, a transsexual twin couple known from the Brazilian carnival and ballroom culture. When the twins, in thongs, hauled their oiled bodies up the ramp in Niemeyer’s modernist spaceship, it was like watching a catwalk from another planet. Their otherworldly beauty sketched an incredibly spectacular transsexual genesis that pressed so many buttons in my unconscious that it turned my stomach. When one of them performed their transsexual manifesto in a spine-chilling robotic voice while standing on their head, I was struck with the realisation that the future belongs to them.    

What could have been just one in a long line of exhibitions dealing with issues of decoloniality harbours suggestive provocations for our polarised time. What I admire most about the 34th edition of the São Paulo Biennial is that it manages to combine art historical depth and critical consciousness with a monstrous ruthlessness. This biennial is not for cowards, and the cosmopolitan liberal subject is attacked from several directions. Rather than feeding us false hopes about better times, it gives valuable insights into the many guises of political struggle – and what it takes to survive in the darkness of contemporary Brazil.

Arjan Martins, Complexo atlântico (Corda) (Atlantic Complex (Rope), 2020). Photo: Levi Fanan.