Taking on the impossible at Sao Paulo Biennial (and succeeding)

More than 120 artists will make the unimaginable a reality for audiences at the celebrated Brazil showcase

From left, the biennial's curators Helio Menezes, Grada Kilomba, Diane Lima and Manuel Borja-Villel. Photo: Sao Paulo Biennial
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The 35th Sao Paulo Biennial has unveiled the list of artists tasked with making the impossible possible – and creators from the Middle East and North Africa are at the forefront.

Titled Choreographies of the Impossible, it aims to explore ideas of unfeasible challenges through various experiences. Its curators say the diversity of voices, mediums and geographies inherent to an international biennial create the ideal platform to do so.

It is organised by curator Diane Lima, artist Grada Kilomba, anthropologist Helio Menezes and Reina Sofia Museum director Manuel Borja-Villel, who view their curation as a collective endeavour, rather than singling out their choices and approaches.

“We inhabit a world seemingly rife with what appears to be 'impossibilities': justice, environmental sustainability, overthrowing western hegemony, decolonisation, gender equality and the reshaping of political systems,” Lima tells The National. “Despite this, we find ourselves at a juncture where addressing these issues has become imperative, leading us to view 'the impossible' as an invitation to engage with artistic practices.”

Among the 121 artists and collectives taking part in the event, which runs from September 6 to December 10 at Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, are Moroccans Bouchra Ouizguen, Yto Barrada, Nadir Bouhmouch, Soumeya Ait Ahmed and M'barek Bouhchichi; Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh; Kamal Aljafari from Palestine; and Anna Boghiguian from Egypt. Casablanca-born Omar Berrada also joins the biennial’s curatorial council.

Kilomba says they seek to address a “collective interest" in the rhythms, tools, strategies and technologies, as well as in all "symbolic, economic and juridical procedures that extra-disciplinary knowledge are able to promote".

On the other hand, Menezes underlines the issues with the ways in which today’s socio-political climate puts people into boxes, adding: “We aim to extend our lens beyond individual nationalities, acknowledging that the idea of nationality itself can be a result of colonial and outdated categorisations.”

The selection of the artists from the Arab world reflects this philosophy. Borja-Villel explains: “All participants have an artistic production that revolves around impossibility or is created within impossible contexts, which is our main guiding thread.

“However, we must mention that our in-depth exploration and refined perspective on the artistic moment that Arab nations are going through were conducted through discussions and with the crucial exchange with Berrada.”

Aljafari’s video installation edits together footage from the Palestinian Research Centre in Beirut, which was looted by the Israeli army in 1982, with added visual effects.

Boghiguian, meanwhile, assumes the power of storytelling through drawing, cutouts, collages and text. She takes cues from western symbolist paintings to trace the story of enslaved West African people who were sent to America to work on cotton plantations.

In Ouizguen’s performative work, a diverse group of women will present a new choreography inspired by Arabic poetry, Marrakesh markets and the powerful impact of movement.

From Brazilian fixtures like Sonia Gomes, Luiz de Abreu, Raquel Lima and Luana Vitra to international names such as Simone Leigh, Stanley Brouwn, Senga Nengudi and Wifredo Lam, the list reflects the curators’ “decentralising” view to organising a grand level international tour de force.

The approach has started with a few initial collective steps. The curators have avoided using a designated chief curator and offered the participants what Lima calls “complete liberty to interact with the theme and address the pressing issues the biennial confronts in their unique and fluid manner".

Tackling the notion of impossibility gave the organisers an opportunity “to radically envision what appears as impossible", adds Kilomba. The show’s geographically diverse roster, she believes, is a way to address the "immeasurable, indescribable and unimaginable outcomes" of the fight against oppression.

Menezes adds: “We believe that we have reached a convergence of these impossibilities: injustice, the climate crisis, human rights violations and the dominance of categories and definitions that no longer suffice to describe the world around us. Hence, 'impossibility' surfaced as the crucial concept we needed to reflect on and dance with.”

This flirting with the impossible, for Borja-Villel, comes out “less as a desire for control but rather a chance to collectively challenge and upend our current way of living and build a better future".

The curatorial theme’s collective nature also spills into the exhibition experience. The Sao Paulo-based design company Vao will reinterpret Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion with an exhibition design that “radically reimagines the methods of exhibiting and organising", says Kilomba.

The Oscar Niemeyer-designed Modernist building has been home to the biennial since 1957. It was the biennial's fourth edition and the first to be held in the three-story 30,000 square metre venue in Parque Ibirapuera.

The company, which is spearheaded by Anna Juni, Enk te Winkel and Gustavo Delonero, will transform the ramp-accentuated pavilion not only to host physical artworks but also to encompass film, music and dance.

Choreographies of the Impossible runs from September 6 to December 10, Parque Ibirapuera, Sao Paulo

Updated: August 30, 2023, 11:49 AM