The Peripheries Emerge as New Centers of Contemporary Art

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Read about the ten highlights of the 32nd São Paulo Biennial

by Mayra Fonseca cover Dalton Paula (Paulo Resende / Sé Galeria / Divulgação) translated by Pronoia Tradutória

“This is not art.” The phrase is written on the ground, like a welcome mat to the mud hut in “OcaTaperaTerreiro”, a work by Bené Fonteles that represents the uniting of different Brazilian styles of architecture: the work incorporates Oca, Tapera, and Terreiro styles.

Ágora: OcaTaperaTerreiro (2016), obra por Bené Fonteles
Ágora: OcaTaperaTerreiro (2016), a work by Bené Fonteles

Without suppressing or enhancing any one culture in particular, the work is one of the many possible syntheses of the 32nd São Paulo Biennial: in uncertain times, the solutions to our dilemmas can be found in that which is different.

Designed to generate “conversations about avoiding the end of the world”, the work proposes putting the art of unity on a pedestal. The construction occupies a large area in the exhibition space, and there are various objects inside that are normally displayed in the artist’s home. The welcome mat is an invitation to take our stories from the back of the closet, and to treat family objects as the important collection that they are.

“Live Uncertainty is felt everywhere. It is a condition that infiltrates our minds, our bodies, the streets, the market, the forest, and the fields.” — Jochen Volz

One of the calls of the Biennial is to unlearn: to reflect and revise what it means to know and to value. In contemporary art, the peripheries are emerging as new artistic centers and curators are proposing diversity as a creative potential for changing the world.

A stroll through the exhibition space reveals the places that inspired the artists in their works: the feminine (and feminist), the countryside, the river banks, the plantations, and the gardens. Women, indigenous communities and African descendants are referenced and remembered in work after work.

The creativity displayed at this Biennial reflects the immersive processes and research involved, with visits and works developed in Mato Grosso, Chapada dos Guimarães, Cuiabá, in the Cerrado, and Xingu. It is a pleasant surprise to hear speeches by anthropologists from the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, by indigenous thinkers like Ailton Krenak, or writers such as Grada Kilomba.

The Biennial covers Brazil, the Americas, Africa, and so many of us who are uncertain and living in this contemporary world. Whether it is art or not, it is up to each of us to decide.

Original inspiration and driving energy – 10 highlights of the exhibition

1. Bárbara Wagner – Mestres de Cerimônias [Masters of Cerimonies] (2016) and Estás vendo coisas [You are seeing things] (2016)

In these visual works (photographs and film), the artist reveals the world of funk and “brega” MCs in Pernambuco and São Paulo, documenting the lives of young people within this subculture. The popular body and social choreography are some of the themes of the production.

Brega is an informal term used to define various forms of mass produced popular music in Brazil since the 1970s, and strongly associated with a sense of bad taste. Now rooted in broader socio-economic contexts, today Brega incorporates sophisticated production and distribution methods, increasing the visibility of a middle class that extrapolates the favelas of Brazil.” — Bárbara Wagner

Bené Fonteles

2. Bené Fonteles – Ágora: OcaTaperaTerreiro (2016)

This is an installation about uniting different Brazilian cultures. Mud walls, thatched roof. The use of space and the ways of ritualizing human existence. Inside, there are objects collected by the artist while traveling to various regions of the country: lamps, altars, fishing nets. The work is an invitation to unify and to re-enchant the world, to break down the boundaries between the popular and the niche.

Carolina Caycedo

3. Carolina Caycedo – A Gente Rio [The River People] (2016)

A study and art project about life on the river and its banks, and about riverside communities, provoking reflections on the impact of works related to the privatization of water bodies. The work includes satellite photos, videos, cast nets collected during her field trips, and designs based on indigenous narratives from the Doce and Iguaçu rivers, for example.

Dalton Paula

4. Dalton Paula – Rota do Tabaco [The Tobacco Route] (2016)

Healing on the Goiás-Bahia-Cuba axis and the invisibility of African-Brazilian culture are the themes portrayed in this work, by an artist who questions the support for telling plural and fair stories. In this work, offerings and kitchen objects explain that daily life offers valuable information for understanding who we are.

Grada Kilomba

5. Grada Kilomba – The Desire Project (2016)

If anyone asks what is the must-see piece when visiting the Biennial, the response is undoubtedly the video installation by black Portuguese writer, thinker, and artist Grada Kilomba, whose work decolonizes thought. While I Speak, While I Write and While I Walk are three moments in the work, which puts words and sounds in the foreground in a movement against the silencing and erasing of marginalized voices.

Jonathas de Andrade

6. Jonathas de Andrade – O peixe [The Fish] (2016)

The Northeastern man, the world of work and the worker, a palette of colors that highlights everyday life, the collective process as a result in itself. These are characteristics of the works by this artist from Maceió, which also appear in O peixe (The Fish). He accompanied fishermen in Alagoas that use traditional fishing methods such as nets and harpoons, to recount the time spent fishing and the affection between the worker and the fish. A work that questions the pace of contemporary life and reveals the timing in the last breath of their food source.

Jorge Menna Barreto

7. Jorge Menna Barreto – Restauro [Restoration] (2016)

With a line of work that intends to raise awareness of the specificity of each place, the artist returns to the Biennial to once again demonstrate the artistic power of food as a space for education and mediation. The work is a restaurant, open throughout the Biennial and generating revenue from plants and production coordinated by a network of producers, chefs, and educators.

Maria Thereza Alves

8. Maria Thereza Alves – Uma possível reversão de oportunidades perdidas [A possible reversal of missed opportunities] (2016)

Where do indigenous people and women belong in the construction of insight, in institutionalized knowledge? It is this question that motivates the artist’s work. For this Biennial, she created posters for fictional conferences in a genuine exercise of imagination for diversity. She invited indigenous students to think about what scientific meetings are like, by highlighting the presence and knowledge of indigenous peoples. Health, engineering, education, science, art, culture, and philosophy: the work offers possibilities for studies based on non-colonial narratives of thought.

Coletivo Opavivará

9. Opavivará Collective – Transnômades [Transnomads] (2016)

The collective of artists from Rio de Janeiro reinterpreted everyday objects, changing images and social perceptions. Transnomads is an offshoot of the 2009 project Eu ♥ camelô and reflects on the way of life and work of nomadic street vendors in the urban context. This time, the objective was to transform the carts used by street vendors into furniture that they could use in their leisure time: a bed or a library, for example.

10. Vídeo nas Aldeias Collective – O Brasil dos índios: um arquivo aberto [Indigenous Brazil: an open archive] (2016)

The Vídeo nas Aldeias project was started in 1986 with the intention of training indigenous filmmakers, to give them control of their own narratives. A new selection, with footage of struggles and resistance, was created exclusively for the Biennial. In some sections, the videos are deliberately left without subtitles: the audience is not the protagonist and is not able to touch or be touched by the symbolic world being presented if they do not know the system of languages and world-view of the indigenous peoples.

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