Postcolonial Art and Critical Discourses at the São Paulo Biennial

    • Lucca November 2017
    • Presentation speakers
      • Amélia Siegel Corrêa, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark


    For many critics, mega-events like Biennials are little more than a neoliberal platform that serves the interests of rich sponsors, that is, a space corrupted by big capital. This is indeed an important and relevant issue to adress in analysing these institutions. Nonetheless, my point here is quite another: I am interested in looking at how the most important contemporary art event of the Global South allows us to think of new power configurations, as for instance, bringing feminist discussions and post-colonial debates to a wider audience. Furthermore, I also argue that Biennials in general contribute to the redefinition of the canon, adding diversity to the contemporary art world. In fact, one of the most prominent aspects of media treatment of the 2016 São Paulo Bienal was that for the first time in its history, the number of women artists selected was higher than that of men, and included at least five from Africa, which was another novelty. I have carried out an extensive survey of the profile of the participants of all 20th century editions of the Biennal, which enables me to analyse questions of artistic representation within the event. Since diversity is claimed to be valued, I take a close empirical look at artists’ nationality and place of work, as well as their gender and race. This data also allows me to approach many issues related to a notion of a post-colonial or ‘without borders’ world of art, as well as the debate that took place in the 1980s regarding whether the Bienal should be International or Latin American. Since then, there have always been more artists from Latin American than anywhere else, with Europeans coming in second. The interviews I have done with the curating team lead me to believe that a certain para-esthetic intentionality, or a moral geography, has partially guided their selection. The space – symbolic and within the geography of the exhibition – given to artists and debates from the South can be read as a position assumed by the institution, as a place from which redefinitions of the center and periphery take hold within the art world. Finally, I analyze some of the works that engage in a direct dialogue with the issues discussed above, focusing on Grada Kilomba and Maria Tereza Alves. Through their work, we are able to see that contemporary art is not a mere repertoire of possible answers, but a place where questions and doubts are translated and re-translated. Therefore, although the Biennial is an institution in which colonial basis inheres, it can also serve as a means to question those structures, creating new connections.