Salvador da Bahia is one of the oldest cites in the Americas and was the first capital of colonial Brazil in the mid-16th century. The city has resisted globalization and, given its strong farming aristocracy, to a certain extent, industrialization. This was the third edition of the Bienal de Bahia; the previous two were in 1966 and 1968. The second was closed down after only two days by the military regime, which objected to the display of what they claimed to be offensive artworks. Led by the director of the local Museum of Modern Art, Marcelo Rezende, the latest biennial was organized in collaboration with four other curators: Ayrson Heráclito, Alejandra Muñoz, Fernando Oliva and Ana Pato. Scattered around multiple venues across the city and the Bahia region, and with exhibitions opening and closing during the entire period of the show, the biennial was loosely structured around a number of scenarios or ‘departments’, as they were called here.
The exhibition title asked the question: ‘É tudo Nordeste?’ (Is the Northeast Everywhere?), seeking to examine the cultural and historical Brazilian northeast from a Bahian perspective. While ‘northeast’ refers primarily to the nine states of Brazil that stretch from Bahia up to Maranhão along the Atlantic coast, and to their shared history and culture, the term was also used to evoke the concept of Orientalism. These ideas became more apparent in the exhibition ‘Departamento da Viagem Sem Fim, Seção: Naturalismo Integral’ (Department of the Endless Journey, Section: Integral Naturalism), based on art critic and philosopher Pierre Restany’s Manifeste du naturalisme intégral (Manifesto of Integral Naturalism), written during a trip to Amazonas state in 1978 and advocating the reintegration of man into nature. Restany asked: ‘If Amazonia is “the last reservoir”, the integral nature refuge, what kind of art, what language systems, may rise from such an exceptional environment?’ ‘Departamento da Viagem Sem Fim, Seção: Naturalismo Integral’ was exhibited in the Palacete das Artes, an architecturally eclectic building from the early 1920s constructed with an abundant use of hard woods that also houses a number wall paintings of highly cultivated French gardens, which were en vogue in Brazil at the time. In an attempt to engage with Restany’s questions, the exhibition opened with a series of abstract watercolours by Documenta 12 curator Roger Buergel depicting the French-Swiss border (untitled, 2008). They were hung adjacent to an undated and untitled Leonardo Alencar landscape painting, kitsch 1970s glass animal sculptures designed by the kinechromatic painter Abraham Palatnik, furniture by Lina Bo Bardi and Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), a series of nature films shot in the Spanish province of Asturias. The exhibition culminated with Restany, Sepp Baendereck and Frans Krajcberg’s Journey to the Rio Negro, filmed during their month-long Amazonas excursion in 1978; also exhibited here were Krajcberg’s recent large-scale wood sculptures, produced in isolation in the woods near the border between the states of Bahia and Minas Gerais (untitled, undated).
The ‘archive and fiction department’ was housed in another colonial building from the 1570s. When the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil, it became a hospital and was finally abandoned in the 1940s. Now it hosts the precarious public archives of the Bahian state. This context was alluded to by José Rufino’s Pulsatio (2014), a pillar constructed from metal archive boxes in the courtyard, and Paulo Bruscky’s new series of text pieces bearing statements such as, ‘Is art always going to be a burden on the consciousness of power?’ and ‘See the invisible’, which were installed in various sites around the building. At the core of the exhibition was the archive of the now-closed anthropological and ethnographic museum, Estácio de Lima. This featured contraband and Candomblé objects confiscated by the coroner as well as documentation of the controversial display of decapitated heads by members of the Lampião gang. (Lampião led the Cangaço, bandit folk heroes at large in northeastern Brazil during the 1920s and ’30s.) This material was set in analogous relationship to photographs from the collection of the Pierre Verger foundation (Verger was a photographer and self-taught ethnographer who spent much of his life documenting the African diaspora in the Americas) and an undated portrait painting of a Bahian woman in traditional costume (Baiana) by early-20th-century Brazilian painter Emiliano di Cavalcanti. Within the same space, artist Rodrigo Matheus had put a number of structures to alternative uses: pots that gather dripping water were turned into vases for water lilies (Intervalo, Interval, 2014), and a scaffold supporting the building roof became a partition decked out with mirrors (Amparo Refletido, Reflected Support, 2014).
Albeit a product of colonialization itself, the baroque architecture of the São Bento monastery has historically been emblematic as a place of resistance in Bahia – against the Dutch colonizers in the 1600s, the military dictatorship of the 1970s and, most recently, in 2013 as the site of anti-government demonstrations. The monastery hosted the exhibition ‘Reenactment’, which attempted to make links to the previous two editions of the biennial. In the choir loft, pedestals usually used for exhibitions in the monastery displayed Constructivist-style sculptural works by Bahian artist Almandrade alongside folkloric architecture models of markets and factories by Gaio. Interspersed with artefacts and furniture from the monastery, visitors could find a video by funky carioca band Tetine re-enacting Vaca Profana (Profane Cow, 1984) a song written by Caetano Veloso and performed by popular singer Gal Costa, carnival masks by the artist Pedro Marighella (‘Gèlèdè Muquirana’, 2013), recuperated film documentation from the second biennial, as well as marble plaques serving as monuments to those artworks that disappeared in 1968 into the hands of the military.
‘É tudo Nordeste?’ opened a dialogue between contemporary art production and the history of multiple local institutions, by way of a carefully orchestrated analysis of the Bienal de Bahia’s own history. At the same time, it presented an archaeology of beliefs, ideas and fantasies, utopias and rituals, sensitivities and perceptions that have defined Brazilian culture.