The São Paulo Biennial and Latin America

François Morellet, 4 red parallels and 5 fragments, 1957


Author's introduction to the recently published book


Since 2011, I have been developing, with the help of CNPq, the project entitled The trauma of the modern: transits between art and art criticism in South America (1950-1970). Texts, works and exhibitions. This long-term project has the main objective of investigating the existing connections, on the South American continent and in Latin American countries in general, between the fields of art history and art criticism, as well as analyzing visibility regimes constructed or used here.

It also aims to reflect on the specific forms of reaction and integration to the hegemonic discourses of authority and symbolic legitimation that occurred in this context, discussing how the continent's art circulated and dialogued beyond the hegemonic cultural centers and constituted other circuits for its exhibition.

In another direction, it also examines how our artistic production was received both in Europe and in the United States, based on the analysis of narratives created during exhibitions, individual or collective, seeking, at the same time, to problematize the very critical and historiographical condition of a “Latin American” art, in all its complexity, imprecision and tension.


It is worth noting that the concept of Latin America was formulated in Spanish, in the context of imperialist disputes between the United States, France and England, and was quickly assimilated and disseminated by the mestizo elites active here. He appears for the first time, apparently, in 1856, in the poem “Las Dos Americas”, by José María Torres Caicedo, a Colombian writer who lived in Paris. The poem was written in reaction to the territorial expansionism of the United States and, in a defensive sense, advocates the formation of a confederation of Latin American republics, capable of opposing the “Saxon race, a mortal enemy that already threatens to destroy their freedom”, and emphasizes the Latin heritage common to the vast majority of countries in the region, aiming to forge a political identity not only distant from, but in opposition to, the United States.

The term was imported into the English language at the end of the 19th century, and its association with pejorative images and terms was recurrent during the 20th century in Anglo-Saxon countries, as demonstrated by the charges published by periodical magazines and newspapers with large circulation, and remains today, perhaps in a more subtle way.

In a book dedicated to analyzing the construction and use of the notion of Latin America, Walter Mignolo points out that the term has a direct relationship with the history of European Imperialism and with the political project of the mestizo elites active here in the 19th century. The invention of America as a new continent, and therefore without history, is inseparable from the invention of the idea of ​​modernity, “both are the representation of imperial projects and designs for the world created by European actors and institutions that carried them out”. In the mid-19th century, the author states, “the idea of ​​America as a whole began to divide, not according to the nation-states that emerged, but according to the different imperial histories of the Western Hemisphere, which resulted in the configuration of Saxon America, to the north, and Latin America, to the south. At that time, Latin America was the term chosen to name the restoration of the civilization of southern Europe, Catholic and Latin, in South America and, simultaneously, to reproduce the absences (of indigenous people and Africans) of the first colonial period”.

In his view, Latin America is the sad celebration, by Creole elites, of their inclusion in modern times, when, in reality, they were increasingly submerged in the logic of coloniality.

The notion of “Latin American art” also revealed itself to be a construction of an identity nature that is “incapable of encompassing, without concealment or excessive simplifications, the diverse, complex and dynamic symbolic production of artists born or resident in this region”. In this context, it is worth highlighting the observations of Cuban critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera, who, since the 1980s, has reflected, in texts and curators, on the international circulation and reception of works by artists from the region in an increasingly globalized scenario, but neither therefore truly inclusive. In his view, the “Latin American” label condemns production from here to eternally occupy the place of “other” in hegemonic narratives, reinforcing clichés and stereotypes.

For Gerardo Mosquera, if the history of Eurocentric art is incapable of seeing beyond itself, we must also avoid appropriating paradigms (such as anthropophagy, cannibalism, hybridization, miscegenation, etc.), which are elaborated as acts of affirmation and resistance, but which they end up reproducing the relationship of dependence, without significantly changing the direction in which the exchange occurs (from the center to the margins).

However, although the possibility of thinking about Latin American artistic production as a coherent set is constantly questioned, the notion of Latin American art has been frequently used, especially in the context of international curators, with varied objectives and not always of a critical nature. or reflective. For some critics and curators, this is a category that should only be used strategically, with the aim of giving visibility to a production that, in other circumstances, could become invisible. Thus, despite contesting its use for identity purposes, which proclaims unity where there is diversity, they highlight its symbolic effectiveness even today.

In 2010, the Paraguayan critic Ticio Escobar took this stance on the topic: “talking about Latin American art may be useful not to name an essence, but rather a section, arbitrarily cut out for some historical or political convenience, for methodological convenience. , by tradition or nostalgia. As long as the concept is fruitful, it is valid: it serves to affirm common positions, explain and confront plots of an undoubtedly shared memory, reinforce regional projects, accompany transnational integration programs. It serves, perhaps, as a horizon for other hard-won concepts, concepts that, in key positions of power, explain particularities and defend differences. Concepts that name the place of the peripheral and question the post-colonial radiations of the center”.

Three years later, Argentine art historian Andrea Giunta defended the importance of naming the artistic production of this region of the globe clearly, since “Latin American art was for a long time outside the market, outside of museographic interests, and in this sense it is important that it becomes visible, because if the world is global it must know different places. Latin American artists have always been considered peripheral in relation to Europeans. […] So, we have to talk about Latin American art, but not to say that it has these or those characteristics, but to understand cultural productions from other places. […] In short, writing history is a political activity and we have to think of ways to keep thinking moving, so that we never conform.”

In Andrea Giunta's opinion, expressed in another article, the so-called history of global art has only reformulated its Euro-American foundations, rather than destroying them. In his view, in order to understand the artistic production of other countries and regions other than the economically dominant ones, a “historiographical turn” is necessary that transforms canonical concepts into more complex, flexible, and even more complex categories of analysis. contradictory, and that is capable of challenging long-established relationships between notions such as cause/effect, center/periphery and original/copy, considering that other histories, achievements and conflicts may be as or more important than events occurring in hegemonic centers , like the Cuban Revolution, for example.

Cristina Freire also recently addressed the topic, in Brazil, in her text introducing the three volumes of Terra incognita: conceptualisms of Latin America in the MAC USP collection, publication that accompanied the exhibition Distant neighbors, held at the USP Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2015. In it, Cristina Freire states that “the little knowledge – or interest? – what is observed in Brazil about artists from our extended continent is irrefutable”. In his view, due to a process of colonization of thought that leads us to despise those closest to us, “we have more information about what is happening in Berlin, London and New York, than in Bogotá, Lima or Buenos Aires”.

The exhibition in question resulted from extensive research conducted by the historian/curator, over several years, on conceptual production in Latin America, as well as on its presence in the MAC-USP collection, and aimed to highlight the exchanges that took place in the region in the 1960s/1970s among artists, critics, historians and curators. For Cristina Freire, it was about distancing herself from universalizing reports and renouncing the supposed neutrality of research to present or publicize artistic practices and situations that took place on the Latin American continent.

The set of actions developed sought to give new meanings to the poetics and trajectories of the artists involved, proposing original approaches and revealing or highlighting networks of forgotten or little studied collaborations. To this end, the following questions were chosen as guiding principles: when?, why?, where?, for whom?.

In my research, I take these considerations as a basis and seek to establish new relationships between works, texts and events that marked our critical and historiographical debate, without, however, aspiring to constitute a homogeneous idea of ​​art produced in the region, nor worrying about mapping the different styles that occurred here. It is about “interpreting the persistence and changes of a joint history in permanent denial”, asking ourselves, as Néstor García Canclini, among others, did, whether Brazil is really interested in being Latin American.


The time frame I chose takes on a new dimension if we think about the changing socio-political situation in the Americas during the period and its repercussions on the artistic field. From the introduction of abstract art and the adoption of a presumably universal artistic language to the defense of an avant-garde befitting our situation of underdevelopment and the production of a conceptual character, with a critical bias, we have passed, in different countries of the region, a period of great developmental euphoria the other marked by the need to take a stand in the face of an increasingly repressive situation, in which several countries lived under dictatorial regimes and suffered from censorship and persecution, as well as the growing interference of the United States in internal political issues.

At first, I opted for a more restricted geographic demarcation: South America, trying to avoid using the term Latin America (or Latin American art) because I understood it as incapable of highlighting the diversity of production carried out here, but also because it carry rarely explicit political meanings, previously mentioned. I realized, however, that I shouldn't avoid it, but rather constantly question or problematize it. When expanding my scope of analysis, some questions became pressing: how to construct a broader view of the art of our “distant neighbors”, to use Cristina Freire's insightful expression, without falling into generalizing stereotypes and without letting ourselves be guided by exclusively Eurocentric?

On the other hand, how can we break with universalizing interpretations without incurring discussions of a purely identity nature? Furthermore, how can we discuss our contribution, as Brazilians, in this debate, reevaluating, in a frank way, the narratives with a nationalist bias that place us in a prominent or pioneering position before our neighbors? And how can we encourage critical understanding and emphasize the transformative potential of works and texts created in contexts considered “provincial and backward” by the so-called hegemonic centers, without forgetting the existence of disputes for cultural and political protagonism also between countries in the region?

Thus, when using the term Latin America in my texts, I aim to reflect on its limitations, its varied uses and, in particular, on the interests that govern its use. It is above all, and increasingly, to avoid formulating generalizing arguments about our artistic production, to reject the formation of new peripheries on the “margins”, but also to reject light affiliations, established based on old models of approximation, that emphasize folkloric, religious or geographical elements.

Some topics immediately stood out in my research: the strong and decisive presence of immigrants in the formation and consolidation of new professional and social networks in post-War South America, the importance of private patronage (or semi-private, as it often had public funds) in the reception and dissemination of modern art in Brazil and other countries in the region, the intense mobility of artists and cultural agents on the continent, especially after the creation of the São Paulo Biennial in 1951, and the centrality of the São Paulo exhibition in the agency of these relationships and in the construction of local modernizing artistic circuits.


Conceived along the lines of the Venice Biennale, and therefore the target of much criticism, the São Paulo Biennale inserted Brazil into the route of major international exhibitions and provided a showcase, for neighboring countries, of what was happening in the world of “high art”. ”, importing fashions and trends, but, simultaneously, generating controversies about what was presented and thus expanding the discussion about contemporary production. It also provided a successful model of cultural-business alliance that proved attractive to cultural managers in other countries.

Much has already been written about the event, about its structure, its various editions and various awards, about its educational and taste-forming role, highlighting the books authored by Leonor Amarante and Francisco Alambert and Polyana Canhête. Systematically, the events surrounding his birthday make it possible to launch new publications about him, for example, the dossier “Fifty years of Bienal Internacional de São Paulo”, in the USP Magazine (n. 52), and the collections organized by Agnaldo Farias in 2001 (Biennial 50 years: 1951/2001) and by Paulo Miyada in 2022 (São Paulo Biennial since 1951).

In recent years, consistent academic research has addressed its impacts on the Brazilian and international cultural environment from new perspectives, focusing, among other topics, on the geopolitical plots that supported foreign representations, on the controversies that involved specific awards, on participation and (no) visibility given to women and black artists, in their most troubled or controversial editions. The inclusive character of the exhibition is also called into question, which, due to its modern and international vocation, left aside or relegated to an anonymous and timeless past much of the so-called popular production (with the exception, perhaps, of “primitive painters”) and of original peoples.

However, few authors have addressed, in depth, its repercussions in Latin America. It is repeated, not without reason, that the internationalist character of the São Paulo Biennial led its organizers to constantly look to Europe, eager to establish bridges with the hegemonic artistic centers of the moment and to show themselves to be up to date. In fact, it cannot be said that the São Paulo Biennial has assumed, throughout its history, a Latin Americanist bias, of autonomy and resistance, but neither can it be said that it has completely neglected its ties with other countries on the continent. .

As I will try to demonstrate in this book, the Brazilian event gave visibility, albeit temporary, to other nations in Latin America, helping them to launch themselves in a more professional way in the arena of international artistic disputes in the 1950s and 1960s. It is true that national representations were organized by government bodies or by supranational entities, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), which created a filter for choices, but participation in the biennial prompted reflections on the works exhibited there in an expanded circuit, provoking comments of a critical nature, from different sources, thus bringing new questions for analysis.

The system of organization by national representations, so criticized afterwards, guaranteed, in those years, the presence of artists working in countries with little space on the international artistic circuit. However, regional inequalities in dealing with art and culture were clearly visible, as the delegations from Latin American countries at the biennials differed in number of artists and works, and, consequently, in impact potential, revealing the existence, or not, of consistent State policies in the field of soft power.

Perhaps due to the protagonism achieved with the São Paulo Biennale, but also due to its economic power, Brazil, since 1950, has always sent representations to the Venice Biennale (with the exception of one occasion, whose absence was due to political reasons) and to others seasonal artistic exhibitions with an international and contemporary profile, investing in the cultural area in a systematic way, even during the period of military dictatorship, in which censorship became common practice. Several other countries in the region, on the contrary, participated only sporadically, during the period under analysis, in the major international exhibitions held on other continents, but many of them found themselves at the São Paulo Biennial (and, subsequently, in other similar exhibitions organized in Latin America). ) an important exhibition and exchange space.

However, one of the hypotheses I defend is that the organization of large periodic art exhibitions and the circulation of important cultural agents in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America proved to be strategies incapable of ensuring the international legitimization of a production originating from countries (or a continent) that continued to occupy a peripheral place in the political and economic field. For the São Paulo Biennial, the strategy of inviting renowned international agents to participate in its first editions was not enough to elevate it to a cultural hub promoting new values ​​and, in the end, perhaps it contributed more to the confirmation and legitimization of the values ​​dictated by the mainstream than for confrontation and renewal, which ended up occurring in other spaces.


The book is divided into four chapters, which have interrelated themes. We will discuss, in the first chapter, the effort undertaken by artists, intellectuals and businesspeople, with the (relative) support of public authorities, to establish modernizing artistic circuits, with multiple facets and repercussions, in South America. As stated by Ana Longoni and Mariano Mestman, these circuits, set up throughout the 1950s and 1960s in several countries in the region, cannot be taken as cohesive spaces, as they were crossed by tensions and divergent interests. If, at first, artists considered avant-garde felt welcomed and supported by newly created institutions and competitions, this situation changed at the end of the 1960s and especially during the following decade, when several clashes occurred between those involved, exposing expectations and conflicting desires.

The second chapter focuses on analyzing the impact of the first editions of the São Paulo Biennial on an expanded cultural scenario, which encompasses our “distant neighbors”. We start from the premise that the São Paulo Biennial boosted the creation of new contemporary art exhibitions, of a recurring nature, in different neighboring countries, by demonstrating their viability and promotional effectiveness.

In official speeches, the desire to give greater prominence to the organizing city, region or nation on the stage of global exhibitions is always present, demonstrating that the intention of modernizing or updating local institutional artistic circuits drove many of these patronage actions.

In the third chapter, we will analyze some of the Latin American biennials that sought to “reimagine the south”, assuming a critical regionalism, as opposed to the excessive valorization of theories, projects and works conceived in hegemonic centers of power. Although many of these exhibitions, in their first editions, preserved the Venetian competitive logic, with the constitution of juries of experts, the awarding of prizes of different natures and, in some cases, national representations organized by the countries of origin, they provided discussion of common problems, on a continental or Pan-American scale, at the same time that they stimulated reflections on contemporary artistic practice. Many were short-lived, limited to a few editions, but this does not diminish their historiographical importance.

In the fourth and final chapter, it will be time to discuss the movements and clashes caused by these large-scale artistic events in local/regional circuits, as well as reflect on the reception of the work of Latin American artists at the Venice Biennale, taking a (still) as a legitimizing space. I am mainly interested in pointing out the conceptual divergences between those involved in these exhibitions and understanding the scope of the networks and connections established in these events, even if temporarily.

*Maria de Fátima Morethy Couto She is a professor of Art History at Unicamp. She is the author, among other books, of For a national vanguard: Brazilian criticism in search of an identity (Unicamp Publisher).


Maria de Fátima Morethy Couto. The São Paulo Biennial and Latin America: transits and tensions (1950-1970). Campinas, Editora Unicamp, 2023, 224 pages. []

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