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News > Latin America

Sao Paulo Biennial Exhibits Art Committed to Decolonization

  • File photo of Condotiero 1989 at the Sao Paulo Biennal in 2014.

    File photo of Condotiero 1989 at the Sao Paulo Biennal in 2014. | Photo: X/ @duilio_pierri

Published 6 September 2023

"Culture is a first step to seize power. For it means changing the vision of the world," Borja-Villel said.

Manuel Borja-Villel, the former director of the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid, is one of the curators of the 35th Sao Paulo Biennial, a cultural event that brings together hundreds of artists from around the world who seek to make a difference and shape a decolonized world.


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“The decolonizing movement in art is unstoppable and implies changes in the way of working. In general, institutions are hierarchical. Here we have tried to reverse that and there is no chief curator,” he says in front of the remains of a railway used by the English settlers in Ghana.


After several months of "apprenticeship" in Brazil, the Spanish curator seems more willing than ever to question Western myths that seem to be universal. He cites, for example, the concept of the enigma.

"For me, perhaps it comes from the French poet Stephane Mallarme, but the enigma also comes from the Yoruba", he said, mentioning the practitioners of the original Nigerian religions that have spread throughout various Latin American countries.

Borja-Villel defends telling the stories in another way, as in the case of a hypothetical slave who is only known to have been taken prisoner by European traffickers and who died during the journey by boat to the colony.

“That is what remains in the file, with which she remains enslaved forever. It is a double punishment. The art world sometimes revels in the misery of others, but what we don't know is that this person had tastes, sensibility, affections,” he affirms, stressing that art has the possibility of “generating new worlds”. 

Europe has begun to criticize itself, but there is still a long way to go, says the curator: "At the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, they talk about the fact that many of the works were looted, they talk about deaths and wars... but the Germans keep talking."

The text reads, "The vast expanse of the Biennale pavilion has been occupied by various works since its inauguration in 1957. Look how the space has already been used in editions of the show!"


Although he refuses to fall into racial "quotas" because he considers that it impoverishes the poetic element of an art exhibition, Borja-Villel believes that the Indigenous voices that populate the Biennial are a spearhead of criticism of Eurocentrism.

The curator jumps naturally from Africa to Asia and back to the Americas, where the Maya consider nature a part of themselves, which marks their defense of the territory and their art.

“Mayan artists have no problem doing activism. In a Western museum, that is almost a red line because a museum is supposed to be dedicated to art, not to doing politics. In other cultures, however, such a view does not exist,” he points out. 

The barrier between politics and art seems to Borja-Villel to be a "Western" distinction, which is artificial and insufficient to deal with today's culture wars and fake news.


His decision not to run for the Queen Sofia Museum again was shrouded in controversy, with opinions divided between those who defended innovative work and those who accused him of having politicized the institution.

“My departure caused some right-wing outlet to give me more front pages than President Pedro Sanchez, which means we must be very dangerous,” Borja-Villel recalls with a smile.

Far from regretting it, the Spanish curator states that museums must "repoliticize in another way" and overcome the "rigid" categories of what art is and is not.

"That's the best antidote to the far right. It's no coincidence that the right is so obsessed with culture," he said, emphasizing that "culture is a first step to seize power. For it means changing the vision of the world."

After the Sao Paulo Biennal, Borja-Villel will return to Spain where the Catalan government hired him as a consultant to "rethink" the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

“The mission will be to decolonize cultural institutions. It is important that the avant-garde world is really at the forefront.”

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