Installation view of Joan Jonas's work in Vento (© Levi Fanan; all images courtesy Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It is eerie to see Oscar Niemeyer’s whitewashed monolith in Ibirapuera Park stand so empty. The building traditionally hosts the São Paulo Biennial, now postponed to September 2021, due to the pandemic. In the meantime, a number of smaller shows take place, starting with the exhibition, Vento (Wind). As curators Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Paulo Miyada note, while they didn’t originally envision this deathly aura — the space is usually teeming with works and people — it’s proved fortuitous. It reminds visitors that Brazilian modernism’s claim to transparency, embodied in Brutalist architecture’s clean lines, obscured that movement’s entanglement with nationalist politics of its time, and the latter’s oppression of Black and Indigenous Brazilians. The exhibition’s underlying impulse is to evoke these obscured histories and reclaim what’s been repressed.

Vento takes its name from Joan Jonas’s video, Wind (1968), installed on the ground floor. In it, performers sway, buffeted by ghastly winds in a mesmeric dance of physical resistance. It’s striking to see such bodily pliancy within these solid concrete walls. And yet, there’s resonance: Niemeyer’s sinuous ramps testify that the modernists too conceived of organic forms. Picking up from Jonas, a spirit of resiliency blows through the show. It echoes the theme of obscurity, that which can’t be easily absorbed into the hegemonic culture.

Installation view of Jaider Esbell’s work in Vento (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

The Indigenous artist Jaider Esbell’s The War of Kanaimés (2020) — a series of eleven acrylic and pen paintings, composed mostly for the Biennial — is a luminous example of such thematic confluence. In various Amerindian cultures, kanaimés are complex dark forces. As Esbell pointed out in a Biennial talk, they are protective, albeit violent, spirits. Ebsell’s works blend dark and luminous qualities perfectly. Their vibrant colors stand out against the uniformly black backgrounds. Humans, spirits, and nature appear in dense configurations, whose minute patterns give them the luxurious feel of handwoven tapestries. While the animals are easily identifiable (e.g. snakes, a frog, birds), the representations are neither entirely figurative nor abstract. In one painting, a group of tribesmen, perhaps mounted by kanaimés, with their red glowing eyes, crowd the work’s lower edge. The raised yellow spears echo in the forest’s green and purple vertical lines. The composition pulses with mesmerizing energy — a body’s thrall in nature’s war/dance tug, evocative of the Jonas video, menacing yet sublime.

The ground floor also includes a sound installation by the Colombian artist Gala Porras-Kim, “Whistling and Language Transfiguration (WaLT)” (2012). The whistles are tonal translations of the Indigenous Zapotec language, historically used to evade the Spanish in what is now Southern Mexico. Such secret tonality also figures into Carla Zaccagnini’s “From Bell To Fate” (2017), a sound installation on the upper floor, with a bell from the Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Homens Brancos (Our Lady of the Rosary of White Men) Chapel, in the colonial town of Ouro Preto. In the Biennial’s educational publication, Primeiros ensaios (First rehearsals), Zaccagnini discusses her belief that the tolling connects to the repressed tonal signals of enslaved Africans, though such a metaphoric leap somewhat occludes the historical resistance of the Catholic Church to racial inclusion in its ranks.

Installation view of Eleonore Koch’s work in Vento (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

More direct is another installation: a sound loop of the Maxakali shamanic chants, which point back to the insistence of Indigenous tribes — emphasized by both Esbell and Ailton Krenak, an Indigenous activist, writer, and founder of the Forest Peoples Alliance, in his interview for Primeiros ensaios — on memory being preserved not in things but beings, reinforcing the importance of sacral, tribal, familial continuity.

The oneiric quality of Jonas’s and Esbell’s works resonate in the paintings of the still little-known Brazilian modernist Eleonore Koch. Her exquisite renditions of Rio de Janeiro — emptied squares and parks with rudimentary architectural forms à la de Chirico — posses an instinctual lyricism. Same goes for the light installations of Clara Iani, “Education by Night” (2020), in which geometric blocks are lit up to project transfigured shapes on the walls. There’s something about the way these spectral evocations — which distort matter yet capture its essence — that perfectly encapsulates the mythical power of Esbell’s entrancing fabulations.

Installation view of Clara Ianni’s work in Vento (© Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo)

Vento’s insistence on centering the poetics of the repressed is a welcome gesture after the last biennial all but sidestepped urgency and historical perspective, in favor of often tepid formalism. And while it’s still too early to glean this edition’s full ambition, one would hope that after Vento it will prove more of a gale than a passing zephyr, potent enough to raise some dust in Niemeyer’s drafty halls.

Vento (Wind) continues through December 13 as part of the 34th São Paulo Biennial, Though it’s dark, still I sing (Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo, Brazil). The exhibition is curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Paulo Miyada.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.