Tucked away on the third floor of the Oscar Neimeyer–designed biennial pavilion in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park was the installation Once, Once (2016) by the New York-based artist Lyle Ashton Harris.
Across a selection of photographs and moving-image works, the artist chronicled the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s. This deeply moving presentation imaginatively recasted historical material to reflect on personal and collective entanglements with multiculturalism, feminism, and racial and LGBTQ activism. The narratives embedded in the works were startlingly current. If we look around us today, we find a similar landscape of embittered politics and socio-economic upheaval. This reality did certainly not escape the biennial itself, which was developed alongside deep economic and political ruptures in its host country. Such internal struggles are certainly not unique to Brazil. Across the globe we find countless examples of shifting political and social orders, particularly in relation to the rise of right-wing populism. It is no wonder, then, that some commentators remarked that we are living in regressive times. But this uncanny return of battles that we believed an earlier generation had resolved reveals that they remain “an unfinished conversation,” as cultural theorist Stuart Hall famously remarked about the project of multiculturalism.