Natives at the 2017 Venice Biennale

To pay homage to the world’s indigenous communities, the Biennale creates unnecessary mysticism

The 57th Venice Biennale decided to dedicate a large pavilion of its Arsenale section to the art of native communities around the world. An example of this incursion is the large embroidered hut designed by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, entitled “Um Sagrado Lugar” or A Sacred Place. Neto’s original proposal was not only to debate shamanism by reconstructing a type of dwelling found in the Amazon forest, as he also invited a few members of a tribe to the show’s opening, straight from north Brazil. At the occasion, a few members of the community spoke with the artist, as they performed rituals in circles, sang typical songs.

One month later, whoever visited the Arsenale would see a slight diversion from the “sacred place”. In fact, what old shamans took millennia to protect and cultivate, one Biennale is enough to turn it mainstream and consumerist. The layout of Neto’s installation is still the same, but the mystery and the genuine performance of the indigenous culture now appears as a mere object for thousands of visitors’ appreciation, who have gone through the gigantic exhibition. Would these visitors care if they are seeing Appalachian art, or Masi art, or Dengese art? They would be all branded as native and that is fine.

That means that the indigenous hut was nothing more than shelter for children and their parents, as millenary songs were now entertaining the crying babies. In brief, Neto’s curation of indigenous art, brought here for being authentic, was the delight of foreigners in their sightseeing vacation programme. While fitting well into the Biennale’s proposal, the problem is whether his pieces could still bear any relation to the indigenous people, whose cultures curators vow to defend and revive.

It is not the case of vilifying Neto for his sincere interest in importing the unknown from Brazil to international stage, which would inevitably produce a commodity. This is not the point. The problem behind opening what ethnic minorities do in their native lands in this way, alongside selling their rituals as ready-made (useful enough for the “world” gaze and re-enactment) is at the limits of this ambition, and at the generic frame adopted by artists and curators alike.

There is a breaking point between the revival of what once was genuine, as found at its birth place on one side, and the legitimisation of the fake, on the other. One thing is the religious and reverent side of shamanism, another thing is the irony and mockery as result of its exhibition and foreign reconstruction. The question is whether Neto’s attempt to talk indigenous to this audience adds anything in their consideration (or knowledge) for the ancestral non-Western cultures, therefore, then generalising the crushed indigenous history in the West. That question would apply to the entire pavilion and the event’s bona fide will in general.

On the other hand, it is also important to recognise that other artists in this Biennale have also developed a sincere relationship with all things indigenous. For them, what was really at stake was the critique, while still a comfort zone, gave visitors more things to consider. Juan Downey’s work, for instance, is more sensitive to the mediatisation of the indigenous as of Latin American culture and politics. Downey places old TV sets in circle broadcasting what seems to be indigenous ceremonies continuous programme, which includes images of Chile’s colonial and authoritarian past, as if they belonged to the same context of colonisation and power. Although not putting it in that way, Downey’s repertoire is doubtlessly aware of the limitations to portray the indigenous, which is for a great deal of the population media images only.

Indeed, the very problem of ‘going native’ at the Biennale lies in the extent to which artists do recognise mediatisation as their take when moving forward on this subject. Amid droves of tourists circulating in the legendary city, the question is less who-did-what-and-where, and even lesser about playing the political correctness card, and more about the de-politicisation of others’ culture. Shall artists, such as Neto, still try to broker the objective presence of such distant, imaginary environment on this stage, or should they deliver artistic, intellectual, or creative analysis or critique of how indigenous materiality has been appropriated, sold, destroyed, and imitated by the “white man”?

Less ambitious works have invested in the second hypothesis. Artists have created beautiful pieces in which indigenous or colonial memories do not try to play the spectacle for the audience and do the “such extraordinary thing”. Abdoulye Konaté’s produced a large textile piece named Brésil (Guarani). Konaté has travelled across Southeast Brazil to re-connect what he found as similarities between the art produced by Brazil’s tribes with that of his native Mali. The result is a multicolour fabric piece starting from tones of indigo, but converging into a full variety of other tones. It is about recognising the variations of a same culture when forcedly or spontaneously seeded in multiple sites.

Another example exists in Nicolás Garcia Uruburu, from Argentina. In a work originally shown in the 1970s, Uruburu painted everything in green, colouring the many canals and old buildings in Venice. As far as the core of his interventions is purely at designing a new environment and an echo from ecologist movements, it has also encapsulated a fundamental debate on colonisation and de-colonisation as change, mix, or otherwise, conservation, without raising an eyebrow by manipulating ancient cultures on their iconic value. He has crafted his own icons to talk about changing others’ environments.

Thus, no shock effect is necessary to bring the powerful and powerless, victims and agents closer. While vocal on art that aims to revenge against colonialism, the shamanic in the Venice Biennale sets another return to the visually exotic, but comfortable enough for the likes of European audiences, cuddling each artists’ ego as both victim and protagonist. Part of this agency is creating a new modern, international traveller indigenous, but which, otherwise, drives visitors away from the state of preservation into a state of trivialisation.

To wrap it up, it is not a matter of artistic cynicism only, but of ignorance. By not granting visitors a chance for self-criticism, particularly regarding the century-old European voyeurism to the disadvantaged natives (as everyone is native at some point), curators seemed to privilege interpretative, mockery art on top of the real thing. It is if the real thing could not exist without mediation, let’s say it. The same problem seen decades ago in Magiciens de la Terre, the controversial French exhibition. That had given us so much to think about in the last decades. In brief, it told us that there is no need to invite shamans if curators are the first ones to create mysticism and alienation.

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