The São Paulo Biennials

“More Desire to Measure up to the North Than to Redefine It”

Curator and researcher Luciara Ribeiro, who authored a dissertation on African participation in the first six editions of the São Paulo Biennial, talks about the importance of looking at archives and their gaps, in order to think about artistic counter-narratives and historical revisions that question the colonization of thought.

C&AL: The creation of biennials that proposed an alternative to the hegemonic cultural discourse of the Northern Hemisphere had been well underway in Latin and South America since the 1960s, but this arrived later in Brazil. Why did the São Paulo Biennial not seek to present itself within an ideological perspective, as a biennial of the Global South?

LR: This was a question that surrounded my research. What happened with the São Paulo Biennial, that made it continue to look more to the North than to the South? I think it relates to the Brazilian social, racial, and artistic process. Even though the São Paulo Biennial was in a territory of the South, its organization was conducted based on the choices of an artistic elite from São Paulo, who considered themselves closer to Europe than to a geopolitical South. This exposes Brazilian inequalities. If we look at the history of the São Paulo Biennial, we will see that it has never had a Black or indigenous chief curator, either Brazilian or foreign. Non-white artists have always been a minority in the event. These data reveal that the Biennial, as an exhibition, only democratized itself when admission was made free to the public and it did not carry out structural changes aimed at redefining the organizational criteria at its core. I believe that when there is this change in attitude, the ideological perspective that is still guided by a certain Eurocentrism and whiteness will be altered and disrupt the way the Biennial looks at the South.

C&AL: You raise an interesting point about the invitation extended to South Africa (then the Union of South Africa) and Egypt at the first Biennial, pointing out that this is possibly linked to the fact that both countries were already independent, and because they were the first countries on the continent to have a School of Fine Arts which followed European teaching models. What does this reveal about Brazil’s interest in these countries during that period?

LR: In 1950, the year Ciccillo Matarazzo began to organize the first Biennial, only four African countries were independent: South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Liberia. Of these, only South Africa and Egypt had a diplomatic presence in Brazil—and as the Biennial was brokered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, only those two countries were invited. In my view, Brazil’s interest in both countries was mainly to create economic ties. In that process, some ideological and political issues appear to be in conflict. In the case of South Africa, which was already under its official apartheid regime, Brazil continued to be one of its main partners, even while officially defending racial democracy here. The relationship with the two countries, on the part of the São Paulo Biennial, was also marked by relations with white ethno-racial populations of European origin, a characteristic that also defines Brazilian artistic elites. It is worth mentioning, however, that these countries were not accepted right away. When Egypt’s participation as the first African country was announced during the second São Paulo Biennial, Matarazzo displayed some concern or fear as to whether or not the works from that country were, in his words, “truly modern”. Only after Mario Pedrosa travelled to the country did Matarazzo seem to feel confident in accepting them. This reveals that, even though both countries were invited, the fact that they were outside the European and American territory was reason to distrust the artistic value of their works.

C&AL: In your chapter on the 6th Biennial (1961), you highlight how Mario Pedrosa’s work as director was important for the participation of Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, while also pointing out an essentialist view of his criticism of these countries, when he defines their art as being “from less polished cultures”. What does this perspective reveal about the way these cultures are viewed, even among thinkers as mindful to the democratization of art as Mario Pedrosa?

LR: Pedrosa was a great critic, researcher, and manager of the arts who demonstrated his concern and commitment for making the arts a more participatory field. This particular criticism of him, however, is an exercise that helps us to reconsider history, so that we don’t reproduce ideologies and values that no longer coincide with our moment in time. For example, Pedrosa’s speech at the 6th Biennial reveals a hierarchical, evolutionary, and primitivist way of thinking directed at the African work. This model of thinking can no longer be tolerated or reproduced today. Critically reconsidering agents like Pedrosa contributes to the formation of a more rigorous, engaged, and attentive field of research.

C&AL: How do you think your research currently reverberates, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and other institutional movements for decolonization?

LR: I believe that my research offers relevant contributions for us to look at and engage with arts archives. We need to ask questions, see the gaps, think of new strategies on how to tell narratives for the arts. Research is one contribution, but real change will only come about when everyone is committed. Institutions (museums, galleries, universities) as well as agents (curators, cultural managers, critics, art historians) need to revisit their policies, their choices, classes, racialities, genders, territorialities, etc. If there is no such commitment, we will never break the vicious cycle of exclusion and colonization.

Read more about Luciara Ribeiro.

Nathalia Lavigne is a journalist, researcher and curator with a Master’s in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies from Birkbeck, University of London. She is a PhD student at the College of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAUUSP).

Translation: Zoe Perry