The 2021 São Paulo Bienal Showcases Artmaking as an Act of Resilience
Jaider Esbell, installation view of Entidades, n.d., at the 34th São Paulo Bienal, São Paulo, 2021. Photo by Levi Fanan. Courtesy of the artist and Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
The São Paulo Bienal is the second-oldest bienal in the world. Founded nearly 60 years after the Venice Biennale, the Brazilian exhibition has been held consistently every other year since 1951, and has consolidated itself as the main visual arts event in Latin America. This fall, after being postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the 34th edition of the bienal has finally opened—this time with a new, expanded structure.
Events, exhibitions, and online public programs started a year before the bienal’s September 4th opening date. And, in addition to the main group show at the Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion, other solo presentations have been hung in 25 partner institutions in the city, allowing for a more dispersed and socially distanced experience. Organized by a team of five curators—Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Paulo Miyada, Carla Zaccagnini, Francesco Stocchi, and Ruth Estévez—the bienal includes 91 artists from 39 countries and four continents.
Abel Rodríguez, installation view of works in the 34th São Paulo Bienal at the Bienal Pavilion, São Paulo, 2021. Photo by Levi Fanan. Courtesy of the artist and Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Taken from a line written by the Amazonian poet Thiago de Mello, the title of this year’s exhibition is “Faz escuro mas eu canto” (“Though it’s dark, still I sing”). Given the continually evolving pandemic, an increasingly undeniable climate emergency, and Brazil’s current state of sociopolitical precarity, “Faz escuro mas eu canto” posits itself as a beacon of hope, shining a light on all the ways in which art functions as an act of resilience and perseverance, even in the darkest of times.
To that end, one of the first sets of works one encounters at the bienal reflects on the devastating fire that consumed nearly the entire collection of Brazil’s Museu Nacional in 2018. Positioned next to the entrance, three artifacts that survived the fire offer an introduction to works by 15 contemporary artists from around the world whose works deal directly with the tragedy. For example, Proposal for Luzia (2021), a touching print by the Colombian artist Gala Porras-Kim, was created as part of the artist’s ongoing research on Luzia, the oldest human fossil in America, which was found among the rubble at the Museu Nacional.
Carmela Gross, installation view of Boca do inferno (“Hellmouth”), 2021, in the 34th São Paulo Bienal at the Bienal Pavilion, São Paulo, 2021. Photo by Levi Fanan. Courtesy of the artist and Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Also included in this exhibition section is Carmela Gross’s never-before-seen installation Boca do Inferno (Hellmouth) (2021), a set of 150 monotypes that are all inspired by images of volcanoes. The work is stationed in front of the Santa Luzia meteorite, the second-largest meteorite found in Brazil, which was one of the few fully intact artifacts recovered from the fire. Three additional works by Gross are on view elsewhere in the exhibition: A Carga [Cargo] (1968), Barril [Barrel] (1969), and Presunto [Ham] (1968), sculptures made for the 1969 São Paulo Bienal, known as the “Boycott Biennial.” Each of these historic sculptures refers to the state violence and torture practiced during Brazil’s military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.
This year’s bienal also prominently features work from a number of Indigenous artists from around the world, including Abel Rodriguez from Colombia’s Cahiunarí region; Jaune Quick-to-See Smith from Montana’s Flathead Reserve; Sebastián Calfuqueo Aliste from Chile; the Ittoqqortoormiit artist Pia Arke; and Brazilian artists Daiara Tukano, Gustavo Caboco, Jaider Esbell, Sueli Maxakali, and Uýra. In total, Indigenous artists make up nearly 10 percent of the artists participating in this year’s bienal.
The focus on Indigenous perspectives is part of a growing effort to raise marginalized voices within Brazil, propelled by thinkers like the philosopher Ailton Krenak, as well as an increased presence of Indigenous filmmakers and artistic movements like the Arte Indígena Contemporânea. The artist Jaider Esbell, of Macuxi ethnicity, has assumed a central role in that effort, acting as an activist and mediator.
Daiara Tukano, installation view of Dabucuri no céu (“Dabacuri in the Sky”), n.d. in the 34th São Paulo Bienal at the Bienal Pavilion, São Paulo, 2021. Photo by Levi Fanan. Courtesy of the artist and Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.
Esbell’s presentation at this year’s bienal features his allegorical painting series “Guerra dos Kanaimés” (2020). In these works, Esbell combines figurative techniques and colorful contrasting graphics to depict scenes of ancestral figures engaged in the contemporary conflicts experienced by the Macuxi within their constantly invaded lands. His presentation also features the work Carta ao Velho Mundo (Letter to the Old World) (2021), in which Esbell wrote over a book of European art history, denouncing the colonization of Indigenous land. Another Indigenous artist whose work is prominently showcased is the Wapishana artist Gustavo Cabocco. His installation Kanau’yba (2021) documents the displacement of his Wapishana family in Brazil through visual records and objects.
Women artists also take center stage at this year’s bienal. One of the many standout presentations is Frida Orupabo’s series of digital collages, which is presented both in the pavilion and at a solo show at Museu Afro Brasil. As a Black woman artist and sociologist born and currently living in Norway, Orupabo’s practice is rooted in how Black women’s bodies have been seen as objects, from colonial times to the present day. She culls through archives to find images of women which she then recombines with a variety of visual elements, constructing marionette-like figures. Printed in human scale, Orupabo’s women are always staring back at and challenging their viewers.
Another powerful presentation is by the Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz. Her film installation Oriana (2021) is currently on view at the pavilion and Pivô art space. Based on the 1969 book Les Guérillères by the feminist writer Monique Wittig, the work recounts an uprising of a female tribe against a patriarchal language and society. In Santiago Muñoz’s version, the characters are relocated to the tropical forest of Puerto Rico, bringing it closer to her own life experience. The film is a beautiful piece merging documentary and fiction and brings Wittig’s revolutionary reinvention of language to the present.
As a whole, “Faz escuro mas eu canto” establishes a kind of collectivity that advocates for multiple perspectives as opposed to monolithic, totalitarian worldviews. Paulo Miyada, one of the bienal curators, wrote in a 2020 letter that the title of the exhibition was chosen “because we are in dark times.…Because we want to look at this darkness, to look in this darkness. Allow our pupils to dilate to capture the light which is still there, and begin to delineate outlines in the shadows. Because the darkness is not solid and unfathomable.…Because in the darkness there are also songs. Because the voices that sing are heard without light.” Through the potent artworks on view at this long-awaited edition of the São Paulo Bienal, we are given the opportunity to hear voices reverberating through time and space, illuminating possibilities and hope for the future.
A previous version of this article misspelled Jacopo Crivelli Visconti’s name.