Review | 2019 Bienalsur

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    What happens when a bold new take on the Biennale comes face-to-face with a new national cultural movement?  For those of us tired of art world hype and cynical glitz the 2019 Bienalsur provided reassurance that humanity may not be doomed after all.

    Bienalsur is the Southern Hemisphere’s Biennale.  The 2019 Bienalsur, its second, opened in Buenos Aires this week.  Bienalsur’s Director Aníbal Jozami describes its mission, “we want to redefine the cultural mainstream of the world by focusing on cultural dialogueI want art to integrate different countries and the people of different countries, a way to know in each country about the other one.”

    It’s about breaking down walls. “Bienalsur is a project to integrate new publics into art.” said Jozami at the opening of ‘Recovering Stories, Recovering Hope’ at the Fine Arts Pavilion of UCA, Argentina’s Catholic University.  “It’s not a project for the elites that usually go along to galleries or museums.”  Jozami’s past endeavours have included shows in the city’s slums, earning him the approval of Pope Francis, formerly Bishop of Buenos Aires. 

    The 2019 Bienalsur features works by three Saudis, a closed country for many years. Ayman Zedani, Faisal Samra, and Fatima Al-Banawi, selected by the curators of Biennalsur from a field of 5,100 entries from 82 countries.  Four hundred artists will exhibit in more than 100 locations in 43 cities around the world during the Bienalsur this year.    

    The Saudi works are intelligent, human and thoughtful.  Diana Wechsler, Bienalsur’s Artistic Director describes how she was drawn to “the sensibility of the works” and the valuable human connections they make. “We have very little information about the Arab world.”

    Fatima Al-Banawi’s “A Blink of an Eye” is a video of anonymised personal confessions.  Through film she gives voice to private stories from ordinary women from her home city of Jeddah.  “I’m encouraging people to listen to their own voices.  To speak.” She explains.  She describes why she’s anonymised each story and woven them together into one single monologue acted by herself, “anonymity encourages unity and connection” she says,“the anonymous story makes us empathetic with everyone because we don’t know who the storyteller is.”

    Ayman Zedani has taken up idea of empowerment by seeking to “animate inanimate objects.”  He explores the intersection between geology, biology and art and has physically dragged small semi-precious stones across clay tablets, scarring them, and in doing so giving them a kind of life.  The so-called sailing stones of Death Valley in the USA are his inspiration.

    Faisal Samra’s interactive work “A Grip of Hope” challenges the viewer to sign a pledge committing to personal environmental responsibility, and to squidge clay into shapes that go onto to form a dramatic wall of clay.  Samra describes the changes that are charging through his country right now, “art and cultural expression in Saudi has been like a coiled spring – compressed and hidden, but with energy and power.  There is talent and energy there.” he explains.  He also worries that people do not understand Saudi culture, “they need to come and live and exchange ideas with the real people, then they will understand.”

    The Directors of Bienalsur make a strong case for breaking down barriers and building understanding.  It is right and fitting therefore that precisely because of the problems that beset our geopolitics, society and environment that countries such as Saudi should be encouraged to join in.

    Earlier this year Jozami travelled to the Vatican for an audience with his former boss, Pope Francis, to discuss Bienalsur.

    “I explained that we will do the exhibition in Buenos Aires at the Catholic University with artists from Saudi Arabia.  We were talking about the importance of dialogue between Islam and Christianity.” explained Jozami.

    Amen to that.


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