Mónica de Miranda, Sónia Vaz Borges and Vânia Gala on representing Portugal at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April to 24 November.

Artist-curators Mónica de Miranda, Sónia Vaz Borges and Vânia Gala are representing Portugal; the pavilion is in Palazzo Franchetti, San Marco.

Mónica de Miranda. Courtesy of Jahmek Contemporary Art; Sónia Vaz Borges. Photo: Argenis Apolinario; Vânia Gala. Photo: Rui Sergio Afonso

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

Mónica de Miranda, Sónia Vaz Borges & Vânia Gala Venice is more than just a city – it’s a cultural and historical place that thrives amid an elemental force of nature, a city floating atop an endless sea. Venice is suspended in water, a fluid and powerful element that surrounds and floods the city according to the tides and the natural cycles of the sea. This stands as a fitting metaphor for the ecosystem of the artworld as there are many cultural and social currents that permeate art. This city connects arts to science, architecture to history, and creates a world of endless possibilities. Venice inspires us to see beyond the physical and appreciate the deeper aspects of culture and creativity.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

MM, SVB & VG A ‘Creole’ garden, conceptualised by diverse thought, is at the heart of Greenhouse at Palazzo Franchetti. We are proposing a collective action by collaborating across multiple backgrounds (visual arts, choreography and research). We aim to deconstruct the hierarchies between diverse disciplines and also between artists and curators to execute an innovative and forward-thinking national pavilion experience. Our goal is to create a space of immersion for participants via a multimedia installation combining performance spaces, assembly areas, audio elements and interactive sculptures. Through this exhibition, grounded in theory, practice and pedagogy, we aim to inspire experimentation, reflection, and create new spaces for various community encounters. We integrate a historical perspective into this collective creation praxis, honouring in the exhibition space two crucial moments – the 50th anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and the centenary of freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral. The Creole garden reflects on the important role land/soil played in these historical processes, representing a transversal element carrying and sometimes hiding the memories of past stories of diversity, resistance and liberation from those who experienced imperial violence.

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgment?

MM, SVB & VG The Venice Biennale is the contemporary art event addressing our time’s political and social issues. In keeping with this century-old cultural tradition, 2024 marks the first year three Afro-descendant women are leading the Portugal Pavilion. We acknowledge the significance of such a step forward in rethinking the bodies, cultures, intellectual and artistic practices representing ‘national’ pavilions at the Biennale. As the Biennale is an occasion for artists, curators, researchers and publics from all over the world to intersect and exchange, it is great to see a wide range of proposals that challenge hegemonic discourses and practices of representation, in line with this edition’s theme of Foreigners Everywhere. As we see it, no other event can create such a convergence of worlds in one place, and at the same moment, making it a historical benchmark.

AR When you make artworks do you have a specific audience in mind?

MM, SVB & VG The work that we propose is collective, discursive and calls out for a radical pedagogical space of participation and collaboration. Therefore, it creates a space of dialogue between the artists and the audience. Through performances, readings, workshops, talks, agricultural actions and practices, we call the audience to be involved within the work, to engage, converse and interact with the artwork. We are interested in bringing about a relational aesthetic of communication, such that the work in itself is not closed, but rather opens up space for different reflections. It also considers the responsibility towards the audience within the narrative of the work itself, what it tells about the world and how, or particular histories, social conditions and realities. As Rancière said, we still need to liberate the spectator from their passive position to one of possible action and possible knowing. In this collective work, we think of the audience not only when making the garden and the sound installation, but also when making the schools and performance programmes, which involve another level of interaction from the audience. Because the work is interactive and collective, it’s important to understand these dynamics in themselves, bringing the curator, the artist and the academic at the same level and point of connection.

Mónica de Miranda, Routes to the roots, 2024, inkjet print on cotton paper, 100 x 66 cm © Mónica de Miranda. Courtesy the artist

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

MM, SVB & VG The fact that historically the Biennale has been organised through national pavilions does not necessarily mean that we are displaying national art – just as the idea of a fixed national identity is contested as an inheritance of colonialism, so too are national pavilions at Venice Biennale. The theme of this year’s Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere, implies a dissolution of nationalism. Art, and its history, is local and contextual as well as universal, just like our social and political challenges. This theme invites us to transcend nationalism. Art is the embodiment of freedom, breaking down the barriers of nationality and dismantling the monocultural constructs historically associated with the concept of nationhood. Borders are nothing but an illusion, a byproduct of the colonial era that has long since passed. It is a radical act to believe in the freedom of art beyond national confinement, an act of resistance that guarantees the survival of art in all its forms. In our collective efforts to address global issues such as the migration ‘crisis’, the Anthropocene and structural racism, we also aim to highlight histories that dominant Portuguese historical perspectives have overlooked. Our focus includes Afro-diasporic experiences, lives, liberation struggles, ecologies of care, collective transformations and pedagogies of affection. These themes take centre stage at Greenhouse.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

MM, SVB & VG There is not a specific nation we would claim as being a place that represents us. We all come from diverse cultural backgrounds, which is also reflected in the collective proposal we envisioned for the pavilion. It’s a situation that mirrors itself across the globe, whereby people are no longer identifying with a fixed national identity, but rather with multiple, intersecting cultural references. The Creole garden, which should not be mistaken with any ideas of lusotropicalism, represents that place of possibilities, diversity and multiplicities. It is a place of resistance, freedom and survival.

AR Which other artists have influenced or inspired you?

MM, SVB & VG Throughout our careers, we have had the chance to connect with many artists on a contemporary level. However, our biggest inspiration for creating artwork comes from life itself. Art is born in the studio and through our experiences and awareness of the social and political contexts that shape our identities. We draw inspiration from artists who deal with themes of diaspora, migration, geography and history in their visual art, performance and research. These artists reflect their time, and their work captures the essence of the world around us and the many conflicts within.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

MM, SVB & VG This is one of the first Biennale where there is a growing number of African pavilions and many Afro-descendant artists representing European countries. We are interested in seeing the work of Martinican artist Julien Creuzet representing the French Pavilion, the Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra Heshiki in the Spanish Pavilion, the Chile Pavilion represented by diaspora artist Valeria Montti Colque, and the inaugural Timor-Leste representation by Maria Madeira, as well as the British representation by John Akomfrah. Also, we are interested in seeing the collective and innovative proposals by the first-ever Benin Pavilion curated by Azu Nwagbogu with the artists Romuald Hazoumé, Chloe Quenum, Ishola Akpo and Moufoli Bello; the group exhibition Nigeria Imaginary curated by Aindrea Emelife; the Dutch Pavilion curated by Moroccan curator Hicham Khalidi and featuring Renzo Martens and the Congolese collective Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC); and the transformation of Brazil’s pavilion into the Hãhãwpuá Pavilion, represented and curated by Indigenous artists Glicéria Tupinambá, Arissana Pataxó, Denilson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco Wapichana. 

In the Portugal Pavilion, we are going to create assemblies that call many curators and artists from other pavilions. We are building connections in an attempt to break down the idea of a nation as a separate entity. Especially with this Biennale’s theme, we think it’s an occasion not only to rethink what is meant by a national pavilion, but also an opportunity to deconstruct and at the same time enlarge the ‘foreign’ term. After all, we are all foreigners everywhere, whether in the physical, emotional or intellectual form, independent of the space, geographical or not, that we live in.

How we see, read and intersect, connect and disconnect the paths we created for that end requires interaction, communication and collective action. We eagerly anticipate witnessing this level of engagement between pavilions and people.

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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