Hélio Menezes’s Radical Collective Practice

The esteemed curator discusses the future of Brazil’s cultural sector and what to expect from the 2023 São Paulo Biennial

BY Terence Trouillot AND Hélio Menezes in Interviews | 16 DEC 22

In March 2022 the Fundação Bienal announced the curatorial team for the 2023 São Paulo Biennial. For the first time in the history of the Biennial there will be no chief curator, but instead a ‘decentralised’ curatorial collective. With a team comprising Hélio Menezes, Grada Kalomba, Manuel Borja-Villel and Diane Lima, the 2023 Biennial will be the first to be led by women of colour, as well as Black and Brown curators. Menezes, a Black man, is an anthropologist and formerly a curator at Centro Cultural São Paulo. He is one of the leading curators in Brazil working to amplify the voices of Black artists in his native country.  Frieze senior editor Terence Trouillot recently spoke with Menezes on what to expect from next year’s 35th Biennial and his hopes for his country’s future in a post-Bolsonaro era.

Terence Trouillot You have been acclaimed for the renowned survey you curated of the writer Carolina Maria de Jesus at Instituto Moreira Salles (2021–22), as well as for ‘Afro-Atlantic Histories’, an exhibition of over 450 works tracing Black-Brazilian culture which you co-curated and presented across Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in 2018. That show also travelled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and recently to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Tell me, how has this experience been for you, all this success, particularly as this happened right at the height of Jair Bolsonaro’s regime.

Dalton Paula, Zeferina, 2018, oil on canvas, 59 × 44 cm, from the 'Afro-Atlantic Histories' exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Museu de Arte de São Paulo

Hélio Menezes It’s interesting. I remember that the last day of ‘Afro-Atlantic Histories’ was the same Sunday as the 2018 election here in Brazil. Most of the people in attendance were Black people and/or poor people from the peripheries of São Paulo, and a few school students, as well – a public that doesn’t usually visit these museums. And just in front of the museum, there was a huge pro-Bolsonaro manifestation. The contradiction between the people inside the museum and the people outside was so pronounced.

Curiously, this contradiction was also present inside the curatorial team. We were five curators organizing this show: three white curators from MASP and two Afro-Brazilian curators invited to be part of the group. Of course, this composition was a tense one, but I think that the most interesting thing about the exhibition, in terms of its internal process, was that we were able to somehow put together a show with different, conflicting points of view, while still producing something that could be perceived and felt as one.

And for me, to respond directly to your question, it was a life-changing experience, but also a very complicated one. I had to confront these institutional procedures which are, in general, very violent and very racist, while at the same time developing an exhibition project. We were talking about museums that, before that time, never had a black curator.

Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Umbanda, 1968, oil on canvas, 50.3 × 61.6 cm, from the 'Afro-Atlantic Histories' exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Museu de Arte de São Paulo

TT That’s crazy!

HW Isn’t it? And this is in a country where people of African descent represent a clear majority of the population. Yet all our efforts for decolonization, for diversity, and for having Black people in positions of power got worse in the last four years. And all those projects that you named were held during these conservative years in Brazil, years of very explicit hostility to culture.

TT You are part of the curatorial team of next year’s Sao Paulo Biennale. It is touted as being the ‘decentralized biennale’ in forgoing a chief curator for the first time in the foundation’s history. But this is not the first international exhibition being curated by a collective body. I’m thinking of Jacopo’s Visconti Crivelli’s Sao Paulo Biennale, which was arguably was built on a collective practice, as well as Gabi Ngcobo’s 2018 Berlin Biennale ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’. How will this exhibition differ from previous iterations around the world?

HM I do not believe in that image of the curator as a demiurge that comes up with everything and then lets people work for them, although it has been alive at every institution that I’ve worked at.  This is a violent and extractivist methodology. For me, it’s absolutely important that all members of the team are named and properly credited. I think this horizontal approach is a possible way to dismantle the violent practuces that all these institutions are founded on.

Flávio Cerqueira, Amnésia, 2015, latex on bronze, 129 × 42 × 41 cm, from the 'Afro-Atlantic Histories' exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Museu de Arte de São Paulo

There were some past editions, as you pointed out, where the chief curator was more open and working in a collective process. But being more open is not the same as having a horizontal methodology for making decisions – I do think that Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, Manuel Borja and I are doing something innovative. We are not a collective in the sense of one, singular group, with a sense of a common identity that has been working together for a long time or has a unifying goal. Our practice is radically horizontal and still contrastive. And being radically horizontal means choreographing between us, between our differences, between our different backgrounds, between our different perspectives. It is a collective of differences, an experimentation. Therefore, I think that in terms of methodology, this curatorial group is something radically new.

TT What should we expect from this collaboration, this São Paulo Biennale?

HM One can expect a few things. One, is a radically contemporary art show that is looking for what is happening now to the different strategies, ideas and concepts emerging from artists across the world. And when we say, ‘what is happening now’, it also includes its roots. It means not to ignore history but to consider histories that were not well documented or otherwise unknown. Two, is that the public will be key participants in next year’s biennale. Educational propositions and a strong public programme will be of great importance in our exhibition.

TT Now that Jair Bolsanaro has been ousted, how do you see the future of Brazil with regards to art and the culture sector? What are you optimistic about?

Manuel Borja-Villel (Photograph: Joaquín Cortés/Roman Lores), Grada Kilomba (Photograph: Ute Langkafel), Diane Lima (Photograph: Uiler Costa-Santos), Helio Menezes (Photograph: Georgia Niara). Courtesy: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

HM I think that the feeling is of hope, that anything is better than Bolsonaro. But I think that the big and diverse front that was led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva aka Lula is also a very contradictory front. In the same group, you can see lefties, but also conservatives; because Bolsonaro was the extreme right, and he took part but not all of the right wing with him. So the centre became a big front of contestation. Lula is the leader, but it doesn’t mean that this group is a solid one – we are still struggling. Defeating Bolsonaro was just the first part of this. And now we have to struggle within us, between us.

But at the same time, I really feel hope. I have this feeling that things are getting better and will get better. Not only because Bolsonaro was defeated, but especially because the social movements, the Black movements have never been so organized. I think that in the last, let's say, 10 years, the debate was about how we needed to have more Black and Indigenous artists in the collections of museums. Now it’s about seeing more Black and Indigenous curators, directors, CFOs, and CEOs in these institutions.

Main image: Curators of the 35th Bienal, from left to right: Manuel Borja-Villel, Grada Kilomba, Diane Lima and Hélio Menezes, 2022. Courtesy: © Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Hélio Menezes is an anthropologist, and works as a researcher, critic, and curator.