Nov 03 2017

Southern Panoramas: 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil

by HG Masters
The passage to the Theater Hall at Sesc Pompeia, São Paulo, with a video screen playing La Decanatura’s video Centro Especial Satelital de Colombia (2015). 
All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific unless stated otherwise.
The passage to the Theater Hall at Sesc Pompeia, São Paulo, with a video screen playing La Decanatura’s video Centro Especial Satelital de Colombia (2015).
All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific unless stated otherwise.

It is important to be reminded that other ways are possible. The 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil was one such occasion for me, where contemporary art—without sacrificing any of its varied forms or interests—appeared capable of having a more sympathetic relationship to the world than we’ve lately become accustomed to, when art is presented in its ultra-mercantilist forms inside convention centers, or when it is packaged in layers of abstruse arguments in chilled, clinical spaces sealed off from the world.

Most of the people who will see the 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil festival, I suspect, will be those São Paulo residents who have come to the dental clinic, sports facilities, swimming pool, library, cafeteria, café, or printmaking and weaving workshops located within the former factory complex extravagantly refurbished by Lina Bo Bardi in the early 1980s, and known as Sesc Pompeia. Just to walk through the library area and see elderly people reading the newspaper at tables, families sitting at the cafés, kids running around in the children’s area—knowing that there were also contemporary artworks in all directions, without any barriers in between, took nearly all my time in São Paulo to adjust to.

I needed orientation to understand what the Sesc Pompeia complex was—as a location and an organization. A uniquely Brazilian concept, Sesc stands for “Serviço Social do Comércio,” and is a private nonprofit organization that runs health, culture and sports complexes around the country, and is funded by a 1.5-percent payroll tax on Brazilian companies. It is nongovernmental, but entirely open to the public. (“Every country should have this,” is what I thought, and every other foreign guest seemed to draw the same conclusion as well). While Sesc serves as the host of this festival at its Pompeia complex, the second organization involved is Videobrasil, which is the primary body behind the exhibition. (Videobrasil and Sesc have collaborated on the festival since 1983; Solange O. Farkas, who founded Videobrasil, reformulated the group as its own entity in 1991.) Previously, the festival was an annual event, though since the 10th edition it has been a biennial. It is slightly misleading that people call this event “Videobrasil,” which has its own exhibition space, named Galpão VB, elsewhere in the city, with a library of over 1,300 video works and more than 3,200 books, where it was hosting an exhibition of black-Brazilian artists, “Agora Somos Todxs Negrxs,” curated by Daniel Lima—as part of Videobrasil’s year-round programming.

MARIANA PORTELA ECHEVERRI, Orgy Mathematics, 2015–16, multimedia

The other notable misconception I had about the festival before arriving was that all the works would be videos or moving images of some kind. This was far from the case (and has been since the 17th edition in 2011). The first artworks I encountered were Mariana Portela Echeverri’s blue-painted, room-sized installation of cut-out sculptures shaped like tongues and miniature copies of hands, all with tactile qualities, and then Alia Farid’s tapestries (produced with Jesus “Bubu” Negrón), which were woven in Iran and depict mosques in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. These works were strongly pictorial, narrative, and employed unlikely displacements, which is perhaps why they didn’t feel out of place beside a highly stylized video work by Natatsha Mendonca, Trance (2016), about the lynching of a transsexual woman in Jamaica, or Emo de Medeiros’s video installation about the masks and dances of the Benin festival of Kaleta—founded by slaves returning from Brazil to Africa. 

ALIA FARID’s textile works from the series “Mezquitas de Puerto Rico” (2014).

From left to right: Curators João Laia, Beatriz Lemos, Diego Matos; Videobrasil director Solange O. Farkas; and Sesc Visual Arts and Technology manager Juliana Braga de Mattos.

Let me rewind slightly to say that while Solange O. Farkas is the chief curator, she was joined this year by curators Ana Pato, Beatriz Lemos, Diego Matos and João Laia, who collectively sifted through submissions by more than 2,000 artists received during an open call. From those, they had selected 50 artists, guided by six “conceptual axes”: cosmovisions, ecologies, reinvention of culture, invisible histories, politics of resistance, other modernisms. In the festival guide, between 13 and 20 of the artists are associated with each axis—with most associated with two of them. Farkas explained that the impetus of the festival 20 years ago had been to support artists from the geopolitical south—every edition is called “Panoramas do Sul” (“Southern Panoramas”)—to help them find their place in the world, providing opportunities where they lived so that they wouldn’t have to move to the United States or Europe to survive. Lemos and Laia, in their respective remarks, both commented that the curators’ schema for the selection of works had to do with creating an optimistic perspective, with artists who are looking for solutions to the conflicts of the south.

There’s openness within 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil. Its exhibition made me think about how standardized biennials have become—as curatorially driven shows, where there’s generally a prescribed narrative or logic running through the exhibition spaces, and artworks too frequently feel like illustrations of an argument or repetitive variations on a theme. At Sesc, the works were related in the shared concerns of the broad “conceptual axes,” but they don’t relate in the strictly “curated” sense of a thematic, white-box show. The environment also contributed to the atmosphere of a festival. People were constantly moving through the spaces, on their way to the library, or sitting with friends after doing some sports—breaking the chilly formality of so many spaces intended only for looking at artworks. Colorful backdrops for projects also likely helped, as was the case for Monira al-Qadiri’s series of alien-looking iridescent sculptures based on the shapes of drill-bits, with the shiny surface properties of pearls—the Arabian Gulf region’s chief industry before oil.

MONIRA AL-QADIRI, Spectrum 1, 2016, six 3D-printed sculptures, 20 × 20 × 20 cm each.

There was a riot of subject matter to grapple with, and many specific local histories that required attention—some more accessible to me than others. Within the exhibition space, for instance, Köken Ergun’s three-channel video installation Aşura (2012) depicts Caferi Shiite residents of Istanbul’s Zeynebiye neighborhood performing an annual ritual in which they restage the Battle of Karbala (680), when Hussein Ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and his supporters were martyred.

It’s a very sympathetic work, in that Ergun had obviously earned the trust of this community, which allowed him to capture scenes of men not only rehearsing for the battle reenactment, but also when they are involved in a mass-crying ritual as their leader announces the names of those who have died in the fighting. More than 1,300 years later, the tears and sorrow still appear real. Working in a similar area of interests, but with a very difficult filmic result, Felipe Esparza Pérez, in his three short videos, follows religious rituals of Peruvian-Amazonian communities where Christianity and indigenous religions mix. But Pérez’s films were visually formal and interspersed with dramatic depictions of the landscape, averting any tinge of the ethnographic.

KEN ERGUN, Aşura, 2012, carpets and three-channel video: 22 min.

ROY DIB, Here and There – São Paulo Edition, 2017, performance and fabric installation.

There were performances and events too, especially during the opening week when many of the artists were there. Roy Dib staged a performance, Here and There – São Paulo Edition (2017), which featured a woman sitting on the ground along the main axis of Sesc Pompeia, surrounded by fabrics that she was stitching together—mirroring the practice adopted by Aleppo residents to hide their homes from snipers. If you approached her, she would read you a line and then sow it into a pocket cut from the fabric for you. (Dib was also showing his 2016 film The Beach House in the auditorium.) One evening, artist Filipa César spoke with filmmaker Sana N’Hada, who had been trained in Cuba in the late 1960s and early ’70s to capture the liberation movement in the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau. He then produced a film, The Return of Amilcar Cabral (1976), showing the footage from the liberation leader’s life and his funeral after the country achieved independence. César has been involved in digitizing the films of the era (in collaboration with Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin). I had heard her speak in Ramallah in August at the Sharjah Biennial 13 program there, about what liberation leader Amilcar Cabral learned about guerilla warfare, paradoxically, from his training as a soil scientist. In São Paulo, César’s video Transmission from the Liberated Zones (2015) features a young man whose personal journey out of a Portuguese orphanage seems to mirror stories told by four Swedes, who in the 1970s had spent time in the “liberated zones” of the country as the guerrillas pushed back the Portuguese colonists during their 13-year insurgency.

FILIPASAR, Transmission from the Liberated Zones, 2015, video: 30 min.

KAVICH NEANG, Kong Bei, 2015, video: 20 min. Courtesy the artist.

Beyond the exhibition spaces, there is an auditorium where five video programs were screening, each running between 60 and 75 minutes, comprising either one or several works. The first featured videos around the ideas of different futures as they were imagined in the past, as in the case of Seydou Cissé’s partially animated film from 2012 about a boy who whips stones, which then move on their own and reach the Markala Bridge in Mali, and Quy Minh Truong’s video portrait, Vuon Bau Xanh Tuoi (2016), of the farmer Tran Xuan Ve, who recounts his unforgettable memories of Khmer Rouge victims piled in a ditch during his time as a soldier in the Cambodian-Vietnamese war that lasted from 1977 to 1991. The second program featured Kavich Neang’s video Kong Bei (2015), which is about a motorcycle taxi driver and seamstress who were forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge. They renew their vows before the husband embarks on a quest to find a dancer he had fallen in love with before that time. Looking at another history of genocide, Haig Aivazian’s Not Every Day is Spring (2016) obliquely traces the legacy of the Armenian musician Udi Hrant Kenkulian (1901–1978) through performances of musicians like oud soloist Sedat Oytun, a doctor who does musical therapy, a band formed by Syrian refugees, and a hymn performed in a church. Between these performances are long shots of cracked marble and stone surfaces, many around Istanbul’s former Pangaltı Armenian cemetery, which was built over in the 1930s for the national radio station’s (TRT) headquarters, Gezi Park and Taksim Square, with headstones being repurposed in the construction.

HAIG AIVAZIAN, Not Every Day is Spring, 2016, video: 46 min. Courtesy the artist.

The third video program featured two works about the history of the Americas, with Ana Vaz’s video of the area in the Dominican Republic where Christopher Columbus had first landed, and Andrés Padilla Domene’s Ciudad Maya (2016), a fictionalized story of people excavating an archeological site in Mérida that turns out to be a replica of ancient Mayan structures. The final video in that program was Jiwon Choi’s Parallel (2017), which looks at inter-Korean relations through the lens of K-Pop (“‘Idol’ogy is the new ideology,” goes the video’s repeated slogan) with the artist—very convincingly—playing all of the performers in a girl band. Like many of the works of the 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil “Southern Panoramas,” there was music, dancing, visual intensity, and serious politics at work—an attempt to come to terms with reality as we know it but often don’t see it.

HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.

Sesc_Videobrasil is on view at Sesc Pompeia, São Paulo, until January 14, 2018.

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