Sao Paulo Biennial reflects on Thiago de Mello’s poetry on political resistance

Curator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti speaks with STIR about the overarching theme of the 34th Bienal de São Paulo and making of the exhibition during the ongoing pandemic.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Oct 26, 2021

Art in all forms is uniquely positioned to reflect upon and respond to the contemporary times. The past decade has seen universal themes of political oppression, the ever-increasing consumerism leading to increased corporate power, and the constant need for humanity to be reminded of the ideas of empowerment. In seemingly the adverse times, the theme of Sao Paulo Biennale – Though its dark, Still I sing is befitting. The idea is borrowed from Thiago de Mello’s poetry on political resistance and freedom. Curator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti feels that the multitudes of meaning of the title is significant to the very ideology. “…there is a real sense of having to be ready to share and communicate with people you don’t understand or you don’t necessarily agree with…,” he says.

I speak with Visconti on the making of the latest edition of the Sao Paulo Biennale (September 4–December 5, 2021).

Rahul Kumar (RK): How did you arrive at the title of the biennial, Though It’s Dark, Still I Sing and how is it inspired from the poem by the Brazilian writer Thiago de Mello?

Jacopo Visconti (JV): Paulo Miyada brought up this specific verse from Thiago de Mello’s poetry relatively early in our conversations as a curatorial team. The poem was written prior to Brazil’s 1964 military coup, when there was still hope for real change, with the final two lines speaking to that optimism: Though it’s dark, still I sing / Because the morning is coming. After the coup, the phrase became synonymous with the idea of resistance and political freedom.

One of the most important aspects of the exhibition is that this verse allows for a multitude of meanings. In using it as the title for this year’s biennial, we sought to acknowledge the difficulty of the current times and addressed the current political situation, whilst stressing the importance – especially during such adverse times – of creating a space in which people can make art and write songs, poetry and literature.

Untitled by Olivia Plender | Bienal de São Paulo | Olivia Plender| STIRworld
Untitled by Olivia Plender Image: Levi Fanan, Courtesy of Bienal de São Paulo

RK: Further, how does the curatorial framework base the theme of the exhibition through ideologies of philosopher Edouard Glissant? How did the format of delegated structure with a team of artist-curators for individual exhibitions within the larger program work out?

JV: One of Glissant’s fundamental concepts in Poetics of Relation is very important for us: you don’t have to understand the other fully to be able to have a relationship and to create meaning together. This biennial aims to reflect exactly that and, with an extra year gained due to the pandemic, we had the opportunity to generate even more thinking and writing, and to present even more artists.

If you think about the times that we are living through, the sectarianism that exists not only in Brazil but around the globe, there is a real sense of having to be ready to share and communicate with people you don’t understand or you don’t necessarily agree with. I think that’s essential if we want to find a way out of the bubble that we are living in now.

Dry Cut | Bienal de São Paulo | Marielle Franco | STIRworld
Dry Cut by Marielle Franco Image: Levi Fanan, Courtesy of Bienal de São Paulo

RK: How does the indigenous art juxtapose with the cutting-edge contemporary works to investigate the ideas of poetics of relation, and that identity is formed through relation and not isolation?

JV: One of the key aspects of the strong participation of indigenous artists in the Biennale is to acknowledge and insist on the fact that their art is just as contemporary as any other. Cultural manifestations from first nations representatives are often seen as belonging to an idealised past, but what most of the artists included in the exhibition show is that indigenous cultures around the world are extremely contemporary and also much needed if we want to build a more just and sustainable world. In that sense, those works enter very naturally in dialogue with others produced in different contexts and periods. 

Plug | Bienal de São Paulo | Nina Beier | STIRworld
Plug by Nina Beier Image: Levi Fanan, Courtesy of Bienal de São Paulo

RK: Why is it important to sing in resisting-trauma and threats? How have the artists responded to the central issues of freedom that can emerge from conditions of seclusion and invisibility?

JV: If you consider singing as both a practice and, as we do in the context of the exhibition, a metaphor for all cultural activities (art, poetry, music, philosophy…), I would say that these activities are essential in threatening times such as those we currently live. Times when one often feels that there can be no space for beauty, pleasure and poetry, and that defending that space might sound alienated from the context we live in. I believe that it is essential to preserve and foster that space not despite of, but because of the huge challenge that doing so demands.

View of the installation by Mauro Restiffe | Bienal de São Paulo | Mauro Restiffe | STIRworld
View of the installation by Mauro Restiffe Image: Levi Fanan, Courtesy of Bienal de São Paulo

RK: How difficult was it to integrate institutions throughout the city, stretching beyond the pavilion venue of the biennale, especially given the continued pandemic condition?

JV: The starting point of the curatorial project for the 34th Bienal de São Paulo – Though it's dark, still I sing, originally planned for 2020, was the desire to unfold the show in time and space, extending its duration over several months and expanding the presence of participating artists through an unprecedented partnership with more than 20 cultural institutions in the city. Due to the dramatic events of the last year various aspects of the initially imagined choreography were modified and the collective exhibition was postponed.

Untitled | Bienal de São Paulo | Yuko Mohri | STIRworld
Untitled by Yuko Mohri Image: Levi Fanan, Courtesy of Bienal de São Paulo

The network of partner institutions was maintained with some adjustments; however, our main goal kept the same: to involve as many curators and thinkers as possible and address the different audiences that come to the biennial with as much awareness as possible. Faz Escuro Mas Eu Canto may not be totally unique in this sense, but it is very special among biennials globally for this reason.

Installation by Eleonora Fabião | Bienal de São Paulo | Eleonora Fabião | STIRworld
Installation by Eleonora Fabião Image: Levi Fanan, Courtesy of Bienal de São Paulo

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