The 35th São Paulo Biennial – in three visits

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By NATÁLIA QUINDERÉ*

Considerations about a surprisingly women’s biennial

I visited the Biennale pavilion three times, in short periods – Thursday night, Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon. On the third day of my visit, I came across a painting by the Spanish painter Juan van der Hamen y León (1596–1631), Portrait of Dona Catalina de Erauso. The ensign nun (1625–28). It's not common to come across a XNUMXth century portrait at a contemporary art exhibition like the Biennale.

Furthermore, the person portrayed did not appear to be the same person in the title: Dona Catalina. It is a painting in earthy tones, with a dark background. Marked wrinkles are seen around the closed mouth and chin. The “ensign nun” was born in 1592 or 1595. Like every wealthy “woman” of that time, she had no right to inheritance and was placed in the convent alongside her sisters. Her adventures began when she fled the religious institution, dressed as a man, and managed to work as an ensign in the Spanish navy. The character was portrayed, by van der Hamen y León, in his uniform.

Next to the baroque painting, a historical document is on display — a 1591 denunciation against Xica Manicongo. On the Biennale website, its mini-bio reads: “Manicongo is considered the first transvestite in Brazil. She was enslaved and worked as a shoemaker in the capital of Bahia. She refused to wear clothes considered masculine and to behave as expected of a man and for this reason she was accused of sodomy and being part of a gang of sodomite sorcerers. Tried by the Court of the Holy Office and sentenced to the penalty of being burned alive in a public square and having her descendants dishonored until the third generation, Manicongo gave up her feminine identity.”1

Xica Manicongo's recognition is the result of a lot of struggle and political pressure from the LGBTQIAPN+ community to make her story remembered.2

The encounter with the painting and the document gave new meaning to my two previous visits to the pavilion, because, through it, I managed to tie together and develop ideas about what I had seen and was still seeing. I walk a few steps and go to the video installation by the duo Cabello and Carceller, called A voice for Erauso. Epilogue to a trans time (2021). The work rescues the portrait of Dona Catalina by Erauso and throws it into our time, between three trans and non-binary characters – Tino de Carlos, Lewin Lerbours and Bambi – who converse with Spanish baroque painting, amid Mursego's trail.

One of the characters in the video asks Erauso: How did you manage to be portrayed? And with those clothes? In the history of European art, the portrait was a tool for inscribing illustrious characters into history. When European artists began to paint portraits of anonymous people, a pictorial revolution took place, called “realism” – around 200 years after the painting of the “ensign nun”.

In Spain, Dona Catalina de Erauso – the “ensign nun” – is well known, naming streets and other spaces, including in Latin American countries where she has been. In the Basque Country, her biography is characterized by heroism. There was a certain fear on Cabello and Carceller's part about working with this famous character, because, in addition to being born into a wealthy white family, with status social, was openly racist and imperialist. The “ensign nun” supported the colonial enterprise, participating in the Mapuche genocide and murdering a series of people – achievements described, as feats, in her autobiography and other documents of the time. In fact, it was the encounter with that image that made the duo realize that the work would evolve around them – especially since there are no records of portraits of gender dissidents from that period.

Paul Preciado, curator of an exhibition of the duo in 2022, at a museum in Bilbao, says that van der Hamen y León's painting may be the first portrait of a trans person. Erauso mentions, for example, the use of techniques to transform her body to make her breasts disappear –binding –, and identifies himself with a series of male names: Francisco de Loyola, Juan Arriola, Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán, Antonio… Antonio de Erauso is described, in Mexico, as a very, very, very handsome man.

Before returning to New America, he obtains a papal bull that allows him the right to change his name and wear men's clothing. It is in the meantime that his portrait is created. The recovery of the portrait, in A voice for Erauso, echoes, in the present, the ensign's gender dissent, without appeasing the acts of colonial violence committed by the character. Furthermore, it historicizes his desire to live a life in a masculine and masculinity register, as a white European, in the 17th century – the inscription D. Catalina de Erauso in the painting is probably apocryphal.

That Sunday afternoon, trans women, non-binary people, gays, crossed the pavilion together to, at the end of the second floor, participate in the ball, right in front of Daniel Lie's work, Others – an installation composed of fungi, bacteria, earth, cloth, dry leaves that transforms over the course of the exhibition. The stage occupied the space where Denise Ferreira da Silva worked and was packed with people around her. With a quick step, a young monitor approached a group that tried to cross the first floor and said: “you can't carry those bags around the pavilion” – “friend, she's going to perform at the ball”!

The movement engendered by the response, as quick as the blink of an eye, is a political redistribution of the Biennale's territory. This territory is transformed between white weekend athletes from Ibirapuera Park who visit the pavilion, in their gym clothes. Audience and participants kept arriving at the ball, and the sound of the event reverberated in the projection rooms on the second floor and outside the building.

It's party!

Lesbians

In two rooms on the second floor, there is a set of photographs by Rosa Gauditano (1955). In November/December 1978, the magazine Veja had commissioned a series of photographs from Rosa Guaditano of the lives of lesbian women in the capital of São Paulo: what are they like? How do they live? – wrote the photographer. This series would be part of a large report with text and images from the magazine. Rosa Guaditano worked for two months, between 23pm and 6am, capturing the nightlife of this group and noticed that some of these women “play two roles”: during the day, family and work; at night, they affirm “their true reality”. The article was never published.

In the first room, groups of women hug each other, smiles emerge from the black-and-white photos: a woman covers her face with one hand and holds a cigarette with the other; the woman next to her looks at the camera and gestures with her head – whoops – smiling. It is possible to feel the lives being lived at the bar tables, at the pool game, among women, just. In the second room, with a wall of mirrors that infinitely multiplies Rosa Gauditano's photographs, images of erotic shows by women for women. There, photographs are displayed with well-defined plays of light and shadow – you can see half-naked women in backlight. All very seductive. Astute and elegant use of formal procedures to build, in photography, the erotic atmosphere of the lesbian scene, at night in the capital of São Paulo.

Very close to Rosa Guaditano's work, there is a dark room, now a cinema, where you can listen to off: “If you’re straight, you don’t need to be up front. Full stop. If you're not going to give us money, and if you're straight, you don't need to be up front. But don’t disrespect us…” Another voice in off, which we later discover is from Ronnie – the black lesbian who runs the club and presents Shakedow –, continues: “Please do not disrespect my dancers. They dance for girls. If you don't like it, just sit down, bubu. Here, it's a gay club. Don’t be offended by it.”

It's the beginning of Leilah Weinraub's video, Shakedown (2018). The film is the result of editing and editing a series of footage, taken by Leilah Weinraub, between 2002–2005 and 2010, in a black lesbian club in Los Angeles, called Horizon. The filmmaker who saved the footage for nearly a decade says it took her a while to feel like the people portrayed in the film were safe from being judged.

Shakedown It is 60 minutes long. It's a slap in the face for the grimaces. A lot of money flies in the air between half-naked women who perform with an audience around them, without a stage. Right at the beginning of the film you realize that there is a community around exotic dancers – “I'm an exotic dancer” – and from the public, especially, within the walls of Horizon, but also outside it. They form families and have children. Although here we are talking, unlike Erauso's painting and the case of Xica Manicongo, of a well-determined gender binary regime – male/female –, throughout Leilah Weinraub's film we realize that there is a transit and a multiplication of images, fraying the idea that there was a unique way of being a man and a woman. We have the Queen, Slim – cuts to both sides –, we have the bay, the little woman, Egypt and many other identities.

Egypt, the soft-spoken dancer, is a central character in the film. She was accompanied by Leilah Weinraub until around 2013 and was fundamental in putting together the video. There are countless good scenes with her, in Shakedown. One of the most striking is when her black girlfriend, sitting next to her, on a sofa, narrates how she was a fan of the dancer. She saved money when she was at school to watch her dance. She had a poster in her room that was discovered by her mother... Now, dating her teenage dream, she hates it when Alicia starts getting ready for shows. Egypt appears, an alter ego, an energy, a body, with different gestures. She says, “it’s difficult.” Alicia smiles: “Egypt is an illusion.” “It’s a fantasy.” The girlfriend responds: “sometimes, it doesn’t seem like it”. Egypt is a reality for your girlfriend and for family mothers, too.

In many moments of Shakedown, the women seem to reproduce movements that I already know from MTV. Those choreographies remind me of the dancers in American music videos from the early 2000s. Nobody is naked, but there are glimpses of that counterculture, which is quite popular in the music videos. Let us remember that, at the same time of recording Shakedown, Janet Jackson was criticized for showing part of her nipple during the Super Bowl (2004) – one of the most watched televised events in the country.

The social pressure was so great that the singer had to go public in a very docile (feminine?) way, stating that the appearance of her nipple, on national television, was an unfortunate, unchoreographed incident. Leilah Weinraub's film ends on a melancholy and abrupt note, with a series of police raids on the club. Everything we build is fragile – says the director in an interview.

The duplicate advertisement at the end of Shakedown and the club, via white male police intervention, made me remember a short essay by Paul Preçado, called Basura and gender. Mear/Shit. Male/Female (2006). Paul Preciado analyzes the unspoken laws regarding the use of women's and men's public bathrooms. Analysis of it takes place at an airport in Paris, where our waste meets the flow of globalized capital – a Freudian knot of repression. For Paul Preciado, the women's public bathroom would be a parody of the domestic space, where nudity and the (unwanted) production of waste and stench are hidden.

The right to use the bathroom is protected by patrolling carried out by the women themselves who share the space, sharing mirrors and taps, mapping the qualities of what would be feminine in each of us. If someone is outside these norms and refuses to leave it, it will always be possible to alert police authorities: probably men who urinate standing up; always erect – the imbrochables. Paul Preciado knows that the architecture of the public bathroom, as we know it, is a space of gender surveillance.3

The curatorial choice to protect Rosa Gauditano's photographs, to some extent, does not radically distort this difference built around the female gender. Sexuality, eroticism, the desires of straight women and, even more so, lesbian women are veiled. There is plenty of space in the pavilion for Rosa Guaditano's spectacular photos to be displayed in passing places, more visible to normative eyes. Someone could argue that photographs require a more intimate and reserved place. Do they really ask? Or the exposure operation, even if unconsciously, reproduces the female/male bathroom pair; private/public; domestic/political.

After all, the ball takes place on a Sunday afternoon... The Lesbian Sauna project – by Malu Avelar with Ana Paula Mathias, Anna Turra, Bárbara Esmenia and Marta Supernova – is so hidden, in an underground space of the Biennale, with a separate entrance from the pavilion, that I myself, considering it one of the highlights of this edition, I forgot to visit.4

I can't imagine the agencies that had to exist between curators and foundation members for the Sauna to exist. However, I wonder: why not choose a place outside the pavilion and the park? Or, if this choice was intended to politically reaffirm the project inside the pavilion, why not locate the Sauna in a more visible space? Is it a project safeguard or institutional safeguard? In addition to being a place to exhibit work, the Sauna, due to its extensive programming, is a space for exchanging generational, social and racialized experiences. The project comes about when Malu Avelar asks himself: Why isn't there a lesbian sauna? The sauna is a meeting space for gay men, just like the men's bathroom can be.

“The domestic is political”

It's a surprisingly women's biennale. There is a series of works on display in the pavilion that show the political strength of alliances forged by feminine/femininity traits. Dayanita Singh’s photographs; the two videos by anthropologist Trinh T. Minh-ha; the anti-capitalist flamenco collective from Seville, Flo6x8 (2008–2020), who danced inside and outside bank branches, in an act against capitalist tightening and the strengthening of the financial system5; in addition to Bouchra Ouizgen's videos, which deserved to be shown on two separate channels. Ouizgen performed, with her company, made up only of women, at the Dance Panorama, in 2015.

Em Ha!, presented at CCBB-Rio, the movement and voice research was based on rituals from Moroccan healers who treat women with some illness in the soul, as well as being related to the tradition of aita – since the women of the company performed at festivals and traditional celebrations. The dancers at these festivities are in a kind of limbo. Although admired, their performances are considered a misdemeanor: in theory, women cannot dance in public. The counterpoint of the videos, exhibited at the Biennale, is interesting.

Em crows, the dancers are together performing in the Moroccan mountains. In Fatna – the name of one of the company’s members –, a camera, often outside a house, follows their solitary domestic work. There is a divide between public and private, once again; between invisible domestic work; and collective public dance. This cut is even informed by the camera: in crows, it moves; in Fatna, she is stopped.

The political knot, of life, death, between women and their ancestors (and other beings), persists, as in the video installation and performance by Aline Motta (1974), Water is a time machine; in the installation of Tadáskía (1993), Mystical black bird; and in the set of paintings by Rosana Paulino (1967). Sonia Gomes (1948) deserved a better assembly of the group on display, far from the work of Judith Scott (1943–2005). The formal proximity is problematic, as the works seem to start from different premises. We deserved to see Simone Leigh's sculptural work (1967), in addition to the video of her process.

The Biennale exemplifies the role of black women in the anti-racist struggle, in the room in honor of Sarah Maldoror (1929–2020), and in the engravings of Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), from Gráfica Popular. Patricia Gómes and María Jesús Gonzáles (1978) exhibit an installation with videos, documents and photographs of an abandoned immigrant center, a type of prison – For all the illegals (2019). The duo's work occupies a huge space and asks us to remain silent to go through all the material. Ceija Stojka (1933–2013) paints the horror of those who lived through the Holocaust. Anna Boghiguian (1946) explores the history of cotton, in an explosion of color, wisdom in the use of materials and walls. This work reminds me of the work of Ceará artist Simone Barreto who researches the cotton road in Ceará, from the perspective of women's work (2017).

In the work of Citra Sasmita (1990) – an Instagrammable hit at the Biennale –, suspended cloths, in a formal game between interior and exterior, show drawings of groups of women intertwined by parts of their bodies: fingers, forehead, hair, etc. It is a women's biennial, with an age cut that favors women born until the end of the 1970s.

I could go on…

After all, is it possible to imagine Cozinha Ocupação 9 de Julho – MSTC without a female workforce? In the cafeteria, a red banner marks this territory: “Domestic is political”.

expanded field

The 35th São Paulo Biennial, Choreographies of the Impossible, curated by Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Hélio Menezes, Manoel Borja-Villel. When I read the title of the Biennale, I was curious to know if the collective would choose to work on the meanings of choreography in relation to dance – a word that is much debated in this field: What is choreography? And if dance and its intertwining with the visual arts would be unfolded inside the pavilion. Dance and performance they demand another type of presence from artists and visitors, unlike visual arts works. Would there be a continuous dance and performance program, including on weekdays, outside the frisson of opening and closing?

Biennials are large-format, temporary exhibitions, linked to the market, in the sense that it is possible to map the circulation of works and artists from one exhibition to another – from the global north to the global south; from the area bridge to the rest of the country; and between bridge area, again. A dance and performance perhaps it would create a twist in the value production operations in relation to what is seen and what can and can be purchased, in a visual art biennale.

In the work by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, located on the first floor, just after the ramp, the entrance to the room reads: “Choreographies can become our tools for catching our breath, or even for resistance”. In Moving backwards, the duo is inspired by the story of women from the Kurdish movement who walked in the snowy mountains, with shoes worn backwards, to fool their tormentors – “it looks like you are walking backwards, but in reality you are walking forwards or vice versa ”.

After three visits to the pavilion, my initial questions about the title seemed silly. On the other hand, I think that (perhaps) so many “dancing” objects would not be needed to prove that there is a curatorial argument. Choreography as a tactical movement of survival, fight and dance in different territories, especially racialized and dissident bodies — don't forget to watch Luiz Abreu's videos, especially Crazy Creole Samba (2004)

Notice how the black dancer's body moves in a fragmented way, although entirely naked; revisit Keyna Eleison’s public speeches. Choreography as an experience of the body in space — don't miss the ghostly bamboo grove by Ayrson Heráclito and Tiganá Santana (I wish it were bigger!), nor the installation by Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne. Ellen Gallagher's other works are also worth seeing. Bispo could be better exposed, as could Eustáquio Neves.

Closing the gap doesn't excite me. In fact, what does this gesture say in relation to the set of works and the argument of the Biennale? The second floor, with two large corridors facing the pavilion's windows, provides a refreshing feel for an exhibition with more than 100 artists, but some installations are lost. I confess that I like to see the back of the siding that closes the pavilion, on the second floor, leaked – a kind of break in the tape that makes up this white cube full of curves. Why close the gap and leave it all white? From the criticism that may exist to modernity, infiltrated in the building's architecture, it is worth focusing on Sidney Amaral's painting, also displayed on the second floor, and also on the work of Edgar Calel. The third floor – with an atmosphere that is too museum-like and bureaucratic, in relation to the other floors – continues to be a problem for many editions, not just this one.

During the visits I kept thinking about how we can get away from this giant ghostly sister, called the Venice Biennale, which must have much more money than ours – Simone Leigh's sculptures were, for example, in Venice, as well as works by artists who exhibited in this edition, in São Paulo. On the other hand, I remembered (happily) Choreographies of the Impossible, that an art exhibition is a form of production of knowledge – of knowing what is not known; or to materialize what one knows without knowing –, from encounters, often fortuitous, with works of art that, in turn, conjure around many disciplines, themes and stories. It is through our journey through the exhibition space that this thread of knowledge is woven, over a period of time, beyond the time of visiting the exhibition itself. In the pavilion, there are many complex ties built between coloniality, race and gender dissent: “there is no sex without racialization".6

A version of this text was written for a speech at ebep-Rio, mediated by Bruno Siniscalchi, alongside Antonio Gonzaga Amador and Jandir Jr., a duo of artists participating in this edition of the Biennale, with the project Amador e Jr. Segurança Patrimonial Ltda . The essay could not have been written without the mediation of Siniscalchi, the speeches of Amador and Jandir, as well as notes from the group, such as, for example, Carolina Dutra. I am grateful for the readings by Marcelo Quinderé, Marília Palmeira and Clevio Rabelo. Finally, it is necessary to make an addendum. The night before our conversation, a letter from Biennial workers was released, on October 18, 2023, questioning the precarious working conditions of this edition and exposing the contradictions that sustain the circuit. In one excerpt, they write that they have to spend hours standing, without the right, for example, to go to the bathroom, if necessary. On the other hand, they also make it clear that they know that what is on display is about them. The letter takes me back to the interior of the pavilion and updates, for example, the work of Amador and Jandir Jr. and so many others, through the knot of race, dissident bodies, precarious work and financial capital.

*Natália Quinderé is a PhD candidate in History and Art Criticism at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Originally published on Pink Magazine [https://revistarosa.com/8/shake-shake-shake-down-down-down]

Notes


[1] See https://35.bienal.org.br/participante/xica-manicongo/.

[2] See https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2022/06/considerada-primeira-travesti-do-brasil-xica-manicongo-deve-virar-nome-de-rua-em-sao-paulo.shtml.

[3] Preciado, Paul. Basura and gender. Mear/Shit. Male/Female, P. 32. In Preciado, Paul. The museum is turned off: Pornography, Architecture, Neoliberalism and Museums. Buenos Aires: Malba, 2017.

[4] Clevio Rabelo draws my attention to the possible intersections of Preciado’s analysis with the essays of Monique Wittig, in “O het hetero thought” (1980). Furthermore, in “You are not born a woman” (1981), Wittig briefly points out how the heterosexual regime and its discourses of oppression can be distorted by communities of lesbian women. See Wittig, Monique. Straight thinking and other essays. Trans. Maíra Mendes Galvão. Belo Horizonte: Authentic.

[5] See, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtSW3BkVDOY e https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXalrVsdupI.

[6] See https://www.bibliotecafragmentada.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/No-existe-sexo-sin-racialización.pdf.


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