Jaider Esbell presenting the exhibition, Moquém_Surarî: Contemporary Indigenous Art, which he curated at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (all photos by the author)

The news that 41-year-old Macuxi artist, curator, and activist Jaider Esbell was found dead in his apartment in São Paulo, on November 2, sent shock waves through the art world and Brazil’s Indigenous communities. The outpouring of grief over his suicide was overwhelming. The images of his stunning acrylic paintings from the 34th São Paulo Biennial were shared widely on social media.

The biennial heeded the request of Esbell’s family to shroud his paintings in black cloth, and suspended till December the parallel activities of the “Bienal dos Indios” that Esbell conceived as an extension of the exhibition.  Such gestures of solidarity and grief were crucial, especially as the country reels from 600,000 COVID deaths in a polarized and uncertain political climate. But more needs to be done going forward.

Many critics, included myself, praised this biennial and its preview show, Wind, for bringing hope in an excruciating historical moment and hinting at a possibility of righting historical wrongs. But Esbell put such optimism in check. His critical voice raised the stakes — and asked whether now, in the most difficult of times, Brazil dares to lay foundations for its future. In one of his last interviews, for the cultural blog, Elástica, he criticized Brazilian art institutions for not integrating Indigenous art into national and global art history. “There is no dialogue,” he said at one point. “The biennial takes your work and forgets you.”

Jaider Esbell, from the series A Guerra dos Kanaimés (War of Kainamés) (2020), acrylic and pen on canvas, commissioned by the São Paulo Biennial Foundation for the 34th Biennial

Days after Esbell’s death, his longtime friend, the Indigenous artist Denilson Baniwa who recently won Pipa, one of Brazil’s most prestigious art prizes, echoed Esbell’s sentiment. Baniwa published an open letter, in which he wrote, “Given that the reception the occidental world gave us led one of us to such a grave end, I need to think more about what type of relationship I want to have with occidental art.”

Esbell and Baniwa’s words have laid bare the solitude, anguish and hostility that Indigenous artists encounter upon entering the mainstream art world. The biennial incorporated his plan for the “Bienal dos Indios,” and brought more Indigenous artists to the show. But Esbell clearly saw that the challenges lay deeper.

Part of the underlying problem is that while Brazil is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse countries in the world, its arts institutions don’t reflect this diversity. Recent research by the nonprofit, Projeto Afro, found that most Black Brazilian and Indigenous curators — Projeto Afro identified 76 and 20 respectively — have no institutional backing. There are outliers, for example Museu Afro Brasil, in São Paulo, founded in 2004 by the artist and curator Emanoel Araujo. Yet many art organizations lag behind. Black Brazilians are now more than half of Brazil’s population. Brazil Indigenous population is less than 1%, after centuries of government-sanctioned genocide, presenting an even greater challenge to their being heard in and outside the art world. Jair Bolsonaro’s ultra-right government incentivizes massive burning of the Amazon, and failed to contain the COVID pandemic that hurt many Indigenous communities, or to sanction the massacres of Indigenous leaders and land grabs by illegal miners and cattle and farm owners. This same government has decimated public arts funding, undermined ethnic and racial quotas to address inequality, and cut social and education programs.

Installation view of Jaider Esbell’s “Carta ao Velho Mundo” (Letter to the Old World) (2021), digitized printed book, at the São Paulo Biennial

The little progress made in diversifying art institutions has often come from external pressure. After Tomie Ohtake Institute, in São Paulo, and São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MASP), were criticized for their African and Afro-Brazilian art history programs, MASP hired its first Black curator, Hélio Menezes, in 2018, to prepare Afro-Atlantic Histories. Installed at MASP and Tomie Ohtake, Histories was the museum’s second most highly attended exhibition in recent years. In 2019, MASP also named the Guarani Ñandeva anthropologist Sandra Benites as its adjunct curator, ahead of the Indigenous Histories exhibition (postponed due to the pandemic and now scheduled for 2022). Benites became the first Indigenous curator at a major Brazilian art museum. She has since done a number of seminars on Indigenous art in MASP’s ongoing series.

In 70 years of its existence, however, the biennial has had numerous European but never a Black or an Indigenous curator. This perhaps made sense when the biennial founder, the industrialist and art magnate Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, first put São Paulo on the cultural map with the intent to rival European institutions. The São Paulo Biennial is, after all, the second oldest biennial in the world, after Venice. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Brazil looked to museums like Centre Pompidou and MoMA to construct its own cultural scene. Now, faced with the crucial, but so far ignored criticism of artists such as Esbell, the biennial needs to challenge its own practices and origins, and make changes that are not just representational but also structural.

In contrast to the policies of including more non-western artists that leave the art institutions’ underlying structures virtually intact, Esbell’s program of “artivism” envisioned an art biennial as a more porous collective platform that originates in diverse communities as sources of innovation, production, and knowledge. To enact such a program, the future biennial will need to look to global art activists and ethnic collectives not as contingent collaborators but as authoring agents who’ll shape the curatorial vision around urgent ideas and the needs of their communities.

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.