A conversation with curator Alexia Tala about Guatemala’s 22nd Paiz Art Biennial, one of the oldest of its kind in Latin America. This year’s edition is titled “Lost. In Between. Together.”
Manuel Chavajay, OQ XIMTALI, 2016. Video performance, 3 min. Photo: Manuel Chavajay. Courtesy of the artist.
Together with curator Gabriel Rodriguez Pellecer, Chilean curator Alexia Tala has been in charge of organizing the 22nd Paiz Art Biennial in Guatemala during a year with a pandemic crisis and persistent social and political instabilities, not just within the country but in Central America in general.
The biennial is one of the first of its kind in Latin America, and started 45 years ago as an influential local competition supported by the Paiz Foundation. Over time, the event has become one of the most striking platforms for the dialogue on contemporary art in that region of the Americas with the participation of jurors, critics and international artists like Brazil’s Aracy Amaral and Regina Silveira, Cuba’s Carlos Garaicoa and Mexico’s Belgian Francis Alys. The 22nd Paiz Art Biennial in Guatemala will be held from 6 May to 6 June 2021.
Curator Alexia Tala spoke with us about the event.
C&AL: How has the pandemic affected you?
Alexia Tala: It has forced us to think repeatedly about how to take advantage of the situation. Ultimately though, it has been worth it, and one very positive effect has been the democratization. This year, the Venice Biennial and the Guatemala mini-biennial are in the same boat, up in the air, in the cloud, and the opportunities are more equal. And so now is the time to take risks and aim for a wider scope, for educational projects and international dialogue.
C&AL: In a socially and democratically fragile country like Guatemala, where does an art biennial draw the line between the political and the aesthetic?
AT: There are two Guatemalas: the poor and the rich, one of power and one of dispossession, one where a genocide took place, and one where it didn’t. In the Hugo Quinto collection there is a canvas painting divided in two; one half is a flowery tablecloth with the words “A genocide happened here” and the other half is an elegant white tablecloth which reads “No genocide happened here”. That piece made me understand that these two places both exist in the present. And there, at the intersection between those two places, the biennial is located.
In order to see the present and glimpse into the future, we need to look at the past, where history and ancestral knowledge is contained.
Francisca Aninat, Material Transit, 2009. Mixed media. Photo: Oswaldo Ruiz. Courtesy of Bendana Pine Gallery.
C&AL: Tell us a little more about this historical and ancestral approach, and about the participation of indigenous artists.
AT: In Guatemala, only official descriptions of the past are valid. At the biennial however, we believe that history cannot be that of the winners only and that we have to focus on the diverse histories of Guatemala and their relation to the Global South. Thus, the biennial offers a space for multiple voices and knowledge, and also to demarcate a territory on the globe.
The participation by indigenous artists brings us closer to that past, but the contribution by non-indigenous Guatemalan artists and international artists is also important. In bringing all these voices together, we want to envision possible futures.
C&AL: Does your curatorship of the biennial allow you to address something like “indigenous art”?
AT: No. What we are going to see is a lot of indigenous artists producing contemporary art.
Now, these artists do in fact distinguish themselves from others, and that is wonderful. Indigenous artists are highly conceptual in their approach, but from their own standing point and from their worldview. In no way do you see them trying to ‘fit in’ or to convince anyone of anything.
Fernando Poyón, Immigration space, 2018. Wood, cloth and sponge. Photo: Andrés Asturias. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: Are there certain topics that these indigenous artists have in common?
AT: Of course. The works speak of their history of inequality and dispossession, of their worldview and their interconnection with nature. To them, the corn is family, the stone speaks to them, the river welcomes them and the earth sustains their navel. To us, these things seem poetic, but for them they are very real. In the biennial, this dialogue expands to other artists and from there everything is intensified. In this interaction, the work of indigenous artists no longer appears as an ‘other’, an opposition or as a separate category, but as a voice we must also listen to. Including these works is a way of expanding the discourse of the arts and art history, which has also been exclusive.
C&AL: In your opinion, which are the most representative indigenous artists?
AT: Several Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil artists stand out, for example Édgar Calel, Marlov Barrios, Antonio Pichillá, Benvenuto Chavajay, Manuel Chavajay, Angélica Serech, and, Sandra Monterroso. Through their work, they all create tools and methods to respond to the history of cultural capitalism, which have impacted our countries since the 16th century.
As for the methods of creation, textiles are recurrent, but you also see performance and drawing, and art happenings like those of any other contemporary artist. The most important difference lies not in the how, but in the point from where they create their work, which is the indigenous world and belongs only to them.
Óscar Eduardo Perén, The prison, 2019. Oil on canvas, 60x81 cm. Photo: Byron Mármol.
C&AL: By including artists from other parts of Central America in the curatorship, what common traits have you noticed?
AT: It is important to speak in terms of contemporary art in the region in general, which includes many indigenous artists, but also popular artists. This region has experienced dictatorships and dictators, exclusion and inequality, and much violence. What determines the artistic production of the Central American region is the issue of identity based on ethnic and social diversity. Almost all the artists share a history of racial and political violence.
C&AL: Can you give an example of how this is reflected in the curatorship?
AT: The biennial is divided into three axes: “Universes of Matter”, “Pasts. Eternals. Futures” and “Perverse Geography/Cursed Geographies”. The latter addresses the North-South relationship as a point where everything falls out of balance and is perverted as a result of colonization, exoticization and ambition for power and amidst discrimination, racism and segregation. Many works from this axis respond to the context of the country and the region, as if they were mirrors to look at the inequalities that have historically afflicted the Global South.
Ayrson Heráclito, Barrueco colar, 2005. Photograph printed with mineral pigments on Canson Rag Photographique106x160cm. Photo: Ayrson Heráclito. Courtesy of the Portas Vilaseca Gallery Collection.
C&AL: Which three artists or projects would you highlight?
AT: Tough question. Perhaps Brazilian artist Ayrson Heráclito and Wingston González, a young Garífuna poet from Guatemala, who have collaborated on a project on candomblé, an ancestral African religion that was brought to Brazil by the slave trade. Then there is the joint project by Óscar Santillán from Ecuador and Guatemalan director and screenwriter Elimo Eliseo. One of their works portrays the deity of Quetzalcoatl and the Quetzal space satellite – Guatemala’s first. Finally, there is the Kaqchikel artist Marilyn Boror and her work on the changing of surnames in an attempt to reject the indigenous identity.
The title for the 22nd Paiz Art Biennial of Guatemala is “Lost. In Between. Together.” and will be held from 6 May to 6 June 2021.
Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is a Colombian journalist, editor and project manager. He has been the director and editor on different media and cultural projects like the magazine “Arcadia” among others.