Is There a Politics of Alchemy?

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Did diversity and inclusion at the 2023 São Paulo Biennial also signal a geopolitical critique beyond the mere representation of identity? 

When Choreographies of the Impossible: The 35th São Paulo Biennial opened, a number of critics noted the diversity of the curators and the artists included.1 They also pointed out that the biennial was more inclusive of not only identity positions but also critiques of racism and colonialism addressed through the work presented. Moreover, these representational politics indicated progress towards greater inclusion and equity in the biennial, in Brazil, and in the art world at large. While I believe this to be largely true, what might we say to those that are skeptical of the real political power of representation? What does the diversity of curators and artists in this biennial mean within a Brazilian context and how does this exhibition offer a way of thinking between local and global understandings of identity politics? Furthermore, how does this São Paulo Biennial navigate between local and global political discourses that the artworks included represent?

In the most immediate sense, the politics of diversity was a reaction against the conservatism of the last Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a political period which was consistently compared to that of the Trump administration in the US, and the racial unrest of 2020, a period that both leaders presided over.2 But as the art historian Roberto Conduru has pointed out, the racism of Brazilian society has consistently marginalized Afro-Brazilian art for most of its history, with the exception of Afro-Brazilian curators, critics, and art historians who highlighted these artists.3 This biennial takes an anti-racist and decolonial approach by centering an acknowledgement of  structural racism and the ways that it has historically been hidden within depoliticized aesthetics in one of the most important cultural institutions in Brazil.

These qualities were not only a reaction against recent history, but also were a departure from the history of the biennial itself. When it began in 1951, its goals were, in the words of the first artistic director, “‘to put modern art of Brazil not simply in proximity but in living contact with the rest of the world’ and ‘for São Paulo to conquer the position of international artistic center.’”4 Art was used to empower the social capital of Brazil on an international stage and it did so by staking a claim on modernism’s internationalism. On its surface this was predicated on a belief that modern art was a lexicon of abstract forms that could serve as a universal language, that it could be both created and understood in Paris, New York, or São Paulo. But some Brazilians saw the goal of putting Brazilian art in dialogue with European and American avant gardes as “an intent that not only evinced the institution’s Eurocentric foundations but also abetted an imperialist framework of regional cultural dominance.”5 In the 1960s, after Brazil was taken over by a military dictatorship, a combination of boycotts, artists in exile, and censorship made clear that politics were unavoidable in the biennial, despite what the Brazilian government may claim and despite what any of the artwork included looked like. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the São Paulo Biennial began to focus much more on Brazil’s relationship to Latin America.  After the advent of the Havana Biennial in the 1980s, which competed to be a leading voice in the region, this was accelerated. But just as claims of modernist art’s universalism were undone by the geopolitical pandering to European and American imperialism, the notion of art’s universalism was challenged by essentializing claims about Latin American art that flattened not only differences between Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, but even Brazilian regional differences between Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.6

In 2014, in a shift from twentieth century internationalism to twenty first century globalization, politics surfaced in the biennial once again, after it was made public that the Biennial had accepted payments from the Israeli government for its 31st edition. This resulted in a boycott by sixty one of the artists and the entire curatorial team who joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement in solidarity with Palestine.7 Aside from the fact that this echoed the boycott against the 1969 edition based on protests against the Brazilian dictatorship, this was also evidence of international solidarity around a political issue. But in both 1969 and the 2014 the political organizing was against the policies of nation states, as opposed to the triumphalist performativity of nation states imagined by the biennial’s founders. In this sense the biennial had become a space for the negotiation of politics because of global inclusion but in a way that mirrored the complexity of geopolitics itself. 

In discussions that I had with a number of artists in 2014 at the opening of the 31st biennial, some noted that many of the artists from the Middle East had much more global social capital than some of the lesser known Latin American artists, and this led to a discussion about the politics that many of them had depicted in their work. Should one region’s politics trump another? Especially since the São Paulo Biennial has been an important platform for Latin American artists and politics in recent decades.

“What did the greater diversity amongst the curators and artists represented at the biennial produce?”

As I noted at the beginning, the 35th edition of the biennial is unique in relation to previous editions in that three of the four curators are Black. This is significant because it shifts the  geopolitics that the biennial was centered on for many years to identity politics but also because Brazil is a nation with a white minority and this is the first time that the representation of the curatorial team more closely hews to its demographics.8 This decision followed recent global discourses about institutional racism and diversity in the art world, but it has a particular resonance in Brazil, where these conversations are relatively new in the mainstream. As Edward Eric Telles wrote in 2006, “the dominant assumption from [W. E. B.] Du Bois’ time until recent years has been that race does not really matter in Brazil.”9 But also that “a new generation of scholars largely holds that racism is pervasive throughout Brazilian society.”10 But while the curators, Diane Lima, and Hélio Menezes are both Afro-Brazilian, Grada Kilomba, who is also Black, is Portuguese and the Spanish curator Manuel Borja-Villel is white. The inclusion of curators from Spain and Portugal (the two primary colonial powers in Latin America) on the team signifies an intersection between histories of an African Diaspora and colonialism that haunt this exhibition and are addressed from a post-colonial perspective from either side of the Atlantic. 

The title Choreographies of the Impossible is in some ways, a response to the weight of the history of the biennial, the histories of racism, and the histories of violent traumas that enslavement and colonialism wrought on Brazil and the Global South more broadly. The reference to impossibility may refer to these heavy histories, and therefore possibly predetermining the response to them. Even if a biennial would follow a teleological line, positioning itself as the most progressive example of emancipation, it might have to do so by foregrounding the traumas of the past by shouting “look how bad it was and how free we are from these horrors now.” Ironically, this would situate freedom from a traumatic history by reproducing images of that very history – an impossible contradiction because the representation of trauma has the potential to reinscribe it. Instead the curators chose to elide a spectacle of death.

As the curator Hélio Menezes notes in his catalog essay, citing Sadiya Hartman, “Choreography was an art, a practice of moving even when there was nowhere to go, no place left to run. It was an arrangement of the body to elude capture, an effort to make the uninhabitable livable.”11 He says “in this sense, choreographing of the impossible connotes the social technologies and artistic practices that seek to circumvent the grammar of violence.” 

To follow this, the exhibition opens with a massive installation by the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama. It includes a series of human sized clay vessels; a square-like forum for visitors made of red brick; and a set of train tracks. The forum at the center echoes similar elements at his Red Clay Studio, an art space run by the artist in Tamale, Ghana. In the catalog, the architect Mario Gooden writes “The work of the alchemist has often been labeled “black work” referring to nigredo (“darkness” or “blackness” in Latin), the first step of the alchemical process, which means putrification of decomposition. Hence the terms black work and blackness take on nihilistic implications. However, the alchemical processes of Ibrahim Mahama’s black work and blackness are about the transmutation of coloniality.”12 Mahama’s installation, Parliament of Ghosts (2019) transforms the detritus of a colonial regime to produce a space for convening a post-colonial reality. It obliquely alludes to a violent past but centers on the commons as a productive space for politics to be negotiated, a representation of such a space with the potential for it to be embodied. When I visited, groups of people were gathered in different corners, but as Michael Warner has pointed out, a public is a social totality that is organized around a particular discourse.13 While this space represents the Red Clay Studio in Ghana, an actual space where publics and counterpublics are created, the installation in São Paulo set up a representation of that real social organization, rather than becoming one itself.  

Further along the concourse were huge geometric sculptures that look like slices of a pyramid’s shadow by the African American artist Torkwase Dyson. This work, On Ocular Brutality (2023), references a 16th  century castle in Mata de São, Bahia that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a sugar cane plantation on the other. This castle was the power center over enslaved indigenous and African peoples and the site where runaways were imprisoned and tortured. Rather than explicitly representing this, Dyson chooses to focus on the shape of one architectural detail of this castle that constituted a space of looking, out towards the shores of Africa where dehumanized labor was extracted, and over the captured labor where the gaze of surveillance was an instrument of control. For Dyson, the abstraction of this image speaks to the ways in which the presence of the dead can be embodied – not remembered through a figurative representation of their dehumanization but through shape and color. Drawing on Kobena Mercer, Kanitra Fletcher has described the difficulties of the representation of the Black subject as a unified self and the ways in which the representation of blind spots can create a redefinition “that depends on an incomplete othering of the self.”14 Perhaps the intentional use of abstraction refuses the total visibility, the ocular brutality (as the work’s title suggests) of colonialism and enslavement, but also reconfigures a new representation of a Black subject as an oblique referent, one that escapes immediate comprehension.

If there was a choreography at play in this exhibition, it was a dance around necropolitics, at once acknowledging a logic of death, while at the same time refusing its determinism. Daniel Lie’s massive installation literally embodies the notion of the productive potential of decay. It includes jute sacks stuffed with soil that are teeming with mold and mushrooms that burst from their swooping contours. Large swaths of fabric, dyed with yellow turmeric and adorned by cut chrysanthemums frame the space. Interspersed are terracotta vessels that are covered in stained white cloth and hung by twisted rope. Walking through this space feels like being immersed in cycles of dying and regeneration, the air pungent with organic matter. In the catalog, the curator Hélio Menezes notes that the violence of the world makes “the idea of a full and just life an impossible occurrence,” yet another impossibility that the title of the exhibition references. Menezes suggests that a repetition of representations of violence can be followed by a repetition of care for the wounds. A repetition of hope for another outcome can constitute a choreography characterized by these repetitions. He notes Daniel Lie’s work as a possible image and embodiment of the re/de/composition of life and death. Indeed, my experience of walking through this space was to feel the cycles of de/re-generation.

The exhibition was designed by the São Paulo based Vāo architects, who took an approach that challenged the openness of the Niemeyer building, a design that famously guides visitors through three floors via a curving ramp, allowing multiple sightlines throughout the space. In architecture, an open plan that minimizes the number of walls has been interpreted as a metaphor for reducing other kinds of boundaries. It implies a kind of liberalism, a freedom of physical and visual movement through space. Or, to speak more to the current moment, an architectural form of neoliberalism which, in terms of political economies, reduces trade barriers, making borders more porous. But just as with his building designs in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital inaugurated in 1960 which followed the national motto “order and progress” – the openness of the Niemeyer buildings, which are the stages for the national congress, the judiciary, and other elements of government, also allows for clear sight lines for snipers in the event of a popular revolt.

Keeping this in mind, Vāo filled the voids of the Niemeyer open plan, with the intention to create spaces for intimacy, quiet contemplation, and care. They shifted the choreography of movement, opening up a rarely used outdoor ramp and guided visitors from 1st to the 3rd and finally to the 2nd floor. One artwork that exemplifies the notion of care is by Guadalupe Maravilla, an artist who fled the Salvadoran civil war for the US as a child in the 1980s and then, later in his adult life, contracted and then survived cancer. He has developed a practice that is centered on healing of multiple forms of trauma, drawing on his own experiences. His large totemic sculptures, adorned with gourds and shells have a gong at their center, which is used throughout the exhibition to provide sound baths, a ritual that uses tonal frequencies to wash over and cleanse the body, a process that the artist believes helped his own healing.

“The curators chose to elide a spectacle of death”

In a mezzanine overlooking the Mahama installation is a cafeteria run by the July 9 Occupation, a communal squat sited in a complex of buildings in the city of São Paulo that provides housing, food, and social services to the homeless and other marginalized populations. This movement was started by the activist Carmen Silva, who realized that there were dozens of abandoned spaces in the city that could be repurposed, including the former Instituto Nacional do Seguro Social (INSS: the National Institute for Social Security). The July 9 commune, named after the street adjoining the INSS, also signals the date of the constitutionalist revolution of 1932. Aside from the utilitarian approach of this collective, it is symbolic in a post-Bolsonaro era that a state institution dedicated to providing services to the people has been left empty and decaying and, rather than a reinvestment by the government, it has been taken over by ordinary people to serve their community. While not an artwork per se, the inclusion of this group to run a cafeteria is a very powerful gesture within the biennial, which also follows the logic of regeneration that Lie’s work embodies.

In another essay in the catalog, the UK based Israeli writer Hagar Kotef talks about movement and its relationship to the ordering of freedom,15 drawing on her 2015 book related to freedom of movement in Israel-Palestine, a space defined by walls and checkpoints, whose passage is regulated by one’s identity papers.16 I thought of this essay in relation to the work of Ahlam Shibli and Amos Gitai included in the exhibition. Shibli’s Death series (2011-12), which fills multiple rooms of the biennial, includes photographs that illustrate the visual culture of martyrdom in Palestine, taken mostly during the second intifada, including posters, graves, and graffiti. Gitai’s early documentary film House (1980) includes footage of a Palestinian doctor who fled his Jerusalem house in 1948. He tells the story of the Israeli government, who rented it to an Algerian Jewish immigrant couple and then later an Israeli professor buys it and renovates it using Palestinian labor and stones from Hebron. This film was banned by Israeli TV in 1980 and today it gives context to the war raging in that region whose political future might also be described as a choreography of the impossible, where tragically necropolitics are also at play. But the notion of freedom of movement echoes the notion of choreography and the architectural interventions of Vāo within the Niemeyer building. When paired with the histories of displacement and dispossession within the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the intensity of these violent choreographies in Gaza today, highly politicized movement seems less like an exception and more like a rule.

One project that speaks to an effort to negotiate a politically fraught past with the potential for a sustainable future is the presentation of an archive of Quilombo Cafundó. Quilombos began in Brazil as communities of escaped enslaved peoples. Because they existed as communities in hiding, until the end of slavery in 1888, they were disconnected from Brazilian civil society and spoke a creole form of language called “cupópia” – related to Angola’s Bantu. These evolved over time into villages and towns and were exceptional spaces where Black and Indigenous freedom and self determination were possible. Quilombo cafundó was founded as a freedman’s town in this tradition in 1887. While many quilombos have shrunk or fallen victim to land speculation, Quilombo cafundó developed an archive to preserve the legacy of this culture. Vāo architects designed interactive vitrines for the public to engage with this archive of photos, letters, and film and at the end of this exhibition, this display will return to its cultural center.

I was impressed by this project because of the ways in which it addressed a complex Afro-Brazilian history in terms of its legacy. Biennials, like many exhibitions come and go, display a series of politics and then melt away. The construction of this archive, its display in the cultural heart of the nation, and then its return to its community shows multiple forms of sustainability and care. If this show did involve choreography, as its title suggests, I imagine that it might end with dancers dismantling this archive, packing it up, walking out of the museum, out of the city and into the countryside, until they arrive home to unpack a resistance against cultural erasure.

The inclusion of this archive, and its strategy of presentation and post-exhibition contribution to the community from which it came, presents an interesting example of how international cultural events like the São Paulo Biennial have the opportunity to contribute an impact beyond the site and temporality of an exhibition. This was a particular emphasis in documenta Fifteen, which privileged community, collaboration, and care. While much of the work presented seemed dematerialized and ephemeral, there was an intention to provide a lasting resource beyond the one hundred days of its presentation in Kassel in 2022. There was tremendous debate about this strategy at documenta 15, the question remains if it will persist in the future. 

So if we return to the questions at the beginning, what did the greater diversity amongst the curators and artists represented at the biennial produce? The exhibition went beyond the representation of identity positions and instead produced an intersectional and transnational conversation around interrelated politics located within the works presented. While I have only described a small portion of the works by the 121 artists included, I believe that they are emblematic of the vast majority of works in the exhibition that address the necropolitics that lie in the wake of colonialism and enslavement. But this address largely moves beyond a recapitulation of past traumas and seeks to regenerate both through metaphor and concrete actions. If we return to Mario Gooden’s comments about the work of the alchemist as “black work,” perhaps we can think about the cycles of decay and regeneration in a way that is not only magical but also a particular kind of politics.

  1. Some examples include: E-Flux, The Art Newspaper  Art Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books ↩︎
  2. While these protests were centered in the US, there was a ripple effect globally. See Brenda Gayle Plummer, “Civil Rights Has Always Been a Global Movement: How Allies Abroad Help the Fight Against Racism at Home”. June 19, 2020, Foreign Affairs. Vol. 99, no. 5. ↩︎
  3.  See Robert Conduru, “The Belated Pioneering Criticism of Afro-Brazilian Art,” Art in Translation, Volume 14 Issue 1, pp1-7, 2022 ↩︎
  4. Isobel Whitelegg, The Bienal Internacional de São Paulo: a concise history, 1951-2014,” Perspective, 2, 2013 ↩︎
  5. Mari Rodriguez Binnie, “On Vertices and Ruptures: Canon Making in Cold War Brazil.” Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture, Vol. 6, Number 1, p. 68 ↩︎
  6. Isobel Whitelegg, “Brazil, Latin America: The World: The Bienal de São Paulo as a Latin American Question.” Third Text, Vol. 26, Issue 1, January, 2012, 131-40. ↩︎
  7. Mostapha Heddaya, “São Paulo Biennial Organizers Demand Organizers Return Israel Funding,” Hyperallergic, August 28, 2014. ↩︎
  8. See Brazil’s 2022 census data here. Approximately 43% are White. ↩︎
  9. Edward Eric Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 2006) p2. ↩︎
  10. Ibid, p5. ↩︎
  11. Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes, Manual Borja-Villel Eds. 35th Bienal de São Paulo: choreographies of the Impossible (São Paulo: Bienal de São Paulo, 2023) p14 ↩︎
  12. Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes, Manual Borja-Villel Eds. 35th Bienal de São Paulo: choreographies of the Impossible (São Paulo: Bienal de São Paulo, 2023) p154 ↩︎
  13. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Cambridge: Zone Books, 2002). ↩︎
  14. Kanitra Fletcher, “Occupy Self-Portraiture” in Afro-Atlantic Histories (DelMonico Books/Museu de Arte de São Paulo, 2021) p40. ↩︎
  15. Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes, Manual Borja-Villel Eds. 35th Bienal de São Paulo: choreographies of the Impossible (São Paulo: Bienal de São Paulo, 2023) p42 ↩︎
  16. Hagar Kotef, Movement and the Ordering of Freedom (Durham: Duke, 2015) ↩︎