A biennial that finished but never ended
Cristiana Tejo

The Brazilian curator and sociologist Cristiana Tejo describes and analyses the First Biennial of Latin-American Art in São Paulo, which was held in 1978. This one-off event was of great artistic, cultural, social and political importance, for one thing due to the controversy that it sparked. Some of its issues, questions and appeals are still current and productive today.

I start this essay on 17th December, exactly 40 years to the day since the first (and only) São Paulo Latin American Art Biennial came to an end. It did so on a wave of criticism, but the intention was to repeat the exercise in 1980. It was the final idea of Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, founder of the São Paulo Art Biennial and the São Paulo Modern Art Museum (MASP), in an attempt to revive his most ambitious venture, before his death in 1977. After an international boycott and neglect of important Brazilian artists lasting nearly a decade and spanning the most intense period of Brazil’s civilian-military dictatorship, the event sought new ways to regain relevance and reinvent itself. After 1976, national biennials were held on even years and the international biennial on odd ones, but from the start of the 1970s the Brazilian art world nurtured a desire to establish closer ties with the rest of South America. In 1951, the Biennial was born with its eyes fixed firmly on the major hegemonic centres and aimed at bringing local tastes up to date with modern and international art styles. But in 1978 the country’s political, social and economic context, and its cultural scene, were very different.

The dictatorships financed throughout Latin America by the USA, the third-world mentality and the African wars of independence brought a new awareness of the successive colonial webs that interlinked the continent’s nations. Despite countless points of convergence in various areas, the region is highly heterogeneous and communications are deeply marked by the colonial languages and histories, which have always contributed to Brazil’s isolation. No policy ever existed to invest in exchange between Latin American countries and the political situation of the period never helped to foster the idea of integration. However, artists and critics sought ways to create closer ties and exchange as a means to combat American imperialism and decolonise the history of local art. The shift in focus of three art critics in the early 1970s, whose essays were known in Portugal via the magazine Colóquio Artes, exemplify this: Aracy Amaral, Frederico Morais and Mário Pedrosa.

"In one interview given as the new director of MASP in 1960, Mário Pedrosa remarked that the biennial model was an anachronism and that it ought to be a venue for exchange between Latin American peoples."





drawings in the Ñoamu series, Poraco
Cláudia Andujar collection, 1976
Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho


Aracy Amaral (1930) trained in the lively atmosphere of 1950s São Paulo, home to the Biennial, MASP, theatre companies and a film studio. She worked as a monitor at the 1st São Paulo Biennial and covered the following ones for the press. In the 1960s, she was assistant curator of the University of São Paulo (USP) Contemporary Art Museum and conducted research on Tarsila do Amaral and the São Paulo Modern Art Week for her master’s degree and PhD. In the 1970s, she began research on the Hispanic influence on São Paulo’s architecture, for which she visited Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, as well as Portugal, between 1973 and 1977. In fact, she discussed Latin America in various capacities, as a consultant and a thinker and as Brazil’s representative at the UNESCO-ICOM meeting in 1975 to prepare the exhibition ‘América Latina Através de Suas Artes’ [Latin America through its Arts] in Mexico. In addition, she worked at the Symposium on Art and Literature in Latin America at the University of Texas, USA, and set up the course ‘Introduction to Art in Latin America’ at the USP’s Faculty of Architecture and Urban Development (in 1976). She also endeavoured to integrate the region’s critics and curators through, for example, her involvement in creating the Union of Latin American and Caribbean Museums (UMLAC) in 1978 and her support for the continuation of the São Paulo Latin American Biennial in 1980. Frederico Morais (1936) made a name for himself as the critic of guerrilla art, i.e. the critic of the generation that emerged during the military dictatorship and introduced new political formulations and attitudes into their work (e.g. Cildo Meireles and Artur Barrio) – both in Belo Horizonte (his hometown) and Rio de Janeiro, where he has lived since the mid-1960s. His curatorial projects, from 1968 on, involved artistic experimentation outside the museum and the active participation of society, exemplified by ‘Arte no Aterro’ [Art at the Dump] (Rio de Janeiro, 1968), ‘Do Corpo à Terra’ [From the Body to the Soil] (Belo Horizonte, 1970) and ‘Domingos da Criação’ [Creative Sundays] (Rio de Janeiro, 1971). In his early years as an art critic (starting in 1966), he focused on conceptualising the new Brazilian avant-garde and fostering it via texts and heated advocacy on juries at art salons. The question of art in Latin America began to take a more condensed form in his thinking from 1975 when he travelled around the continent to take part in commissions, symposia, courses on Brazilian art and publications, which gave him the chance to meet and establish regular contact with experts, artists and institutions in Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. In 1979, he published Artes Plásticas na América Latina: Do transe ao transitório [The Visual Arts in Latin America: From Trance to the Transitory], a book that organises his writings on the production of art and theoretical questions about the region, published in specialist Latin American magazines, in addition to texts written as travel reports about his journeys over almost four years. This new interest matched the debates being held in the country at the time when the generation of artists defended by Morais had already established itself.

Mário Pedrosa (1900–1981), deemed one of Brazil’s major art critics and a big inspiration to the then-young critics Amaral and Morais, maintained his zeal for international-style art for decades. He even recognised the importance of the art from every historical period in Latin America, as the 6th São Paulo Biennial of 1961 shows. Under his hand, the event provided a non-hegemonic and non-Eurocentric history of art that included the work of the Paraguayan Indians of the Jesuit missions and the pre-Columbian art of Peru, alongside 8th-century Sino-Japanese calligraphy and Australian aboriginal art. In one interview given as the new director of MASP in 1960, Pedrosa remarked that the biennial model was an anachronism and that the event’s new vocation ought to be that of a venue for exchange between Latin American peoples.


*Translated by Chris Foster


ARACY AMARAL, Arte e Meio Artístico: Entre a Feijoada e o X-burguer (1961–1981), São Paulo: Nobel, 1983. Catalogue of the 1st São Paulo Latin American Biennial., consulted on 14th December 2018.

CRISTIANA TEJO, 'A Gênese do Campo da Curadoria de Arte no Brasil: Aracy Amaral, Frederico Morais e Walter Zanini'. Tese defendida em agosto de 2017, no Programa de Pós-graduação de Sociologia da UFPE.

FRANCISCO ALAMBERT E POLYANA CANHÊTE, Bienais de São Paulo: da era do Museu à era dos curadores, São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004.

FREDERICO MORAIS, Artes Plásticas na América Latina: do transe ao transitório, Rio de Janeiro: Editora Civilização Brasileira, 1979. otília arantes (org.), Política das Artes/Mário Pedrosa, São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 1995.