A picture taken on Sept 2, 2021 shows a work of Brazilian artist Jaider Esbell during the press day ahead of the opening of the 34th Biennale of Sao Paulo at Ibirapuera park in Sao Paulo. — AFP photos

A meteorite salvaged from a 2018 fire at Rio de Janeiro's National Museum symbolizes resistance to the destruction of culture in times of darkness - a spirit at the heart of this year's Sao Paulo Biennial of Contemporary Art. Marking its 70th anniversary the exhibition, one of the most important of its kind in the world, reflects a reaction to the extreme right embodied in Brazil by President Jair Bolsonaro, as well as to the environmental crisis and the pandemic.

"Faz escuro mas eu canto" ("It's dark but I sing"): the curators salvaged this verse by Thiago de Mello, a message of hope written during Brazil's military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, to summarize this Biennial of more than a thousand works by 91 Brazilian and foreign artists, including indigenous creators. The darkness has become more tangible with "new fires, hate speech (...), acts of explicit racism, signs of institutional fragility and finally the pandemic," said Paulo Miyada, one of the curators, at the launch. "The voices of artists become more important in states of emergency like the one we are living in," he added.

After coming to power in 2019, Bolsonaro eliminated the Ministry of Culture and reduced it to a secretariat within the tourism portfolio, with a slashed budget and complaints about alleged censorship. Since then, the art world has resisted. "The way to respond ... to dark political times of far-right movements was with a political approach," Italian guest curator Francesco Stocchi told AFP.

Work of Brazilian artist Daiara Tukano.

Past and present

So the Biennial proposed a concept of a circular history that goes back to the country's colonization and addresses the present from a historical perspective, establishing certain parallels. There is "a clear awareness of the seriousness of some current situations," said curator general Jacopo Crivelli Visconti. By way of example, he cited the work of Brazilian Regina Silveira, who depicts disproportionate shadows as symbols of the dictatorship, such as an army tank similar to those recently used in Brasilia in an unprecedented military parade in which Bolsonaro, a former army captain, participated.

Her compatriot Carmela Gross exhibits a large silhouette covered with a canvas, a sculpture she already exhibited at the 1969 Biennial during the military junta, a context that the organizers say "permeates her with a sense of threat and danger." That perception was bolstered by marches last Tuesday in which many "Bolsonaristas" called for a military intervention to stop the judiciary from investigating Bolsonaro for, among other things, spreading fake news. A phrase by the philosopher Antonio Gramsci, embodied in another of the exhibited works, invites the visitor to reflect: "The old world dies. The new takes time to appear. And in that chiaroscuro the monsters arise".

Works of US photographer Mathew B. Brady.

Ecological emergency

Outside, two inflatable snake-shaped sculptures on a lake in Ibirapuera Park grab the attention of visitors. But Jaider Esbell, an indigenous Makuxi and author of the work called "Entities", says that his participation in the Biennial goes beyond that and other of his exhibited works. "My best work is politics, not those colorful drawings, or the cobra in the lake; those are elements to grab attention and spark discussion on issues such as global warming and ecological urgency," Esbell told AFP.

"It is a key moment because everyone is fighting, but nobody is fighting for the ecological emergency," said the artist from the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve in the northern state of Roraima, a land marked by territorial conflicts and threatened by illegal mining. Under the Bolsonaro administration, deforestation and forest fires have set records in the Amazon, a vital component for stabilizing the global climate, and home to many indigenous peoples. The exhibition, which opened on Sept 4, will continue until Dec 5 and aims to attract, as in previous years, around one million visitors. - AFP