Guatemala Pavilion in the 59th Venice Biennale
The universal dogma of race and faith was established in Abya Yala, what nature should be was invented, the species named human, when I was born with a vulva I was assigned woman, named Indian. A biology was born that determined that my body was inferior, that a color was inferior, labor for capital, body, sexuality and reason at the service of capital.
I like to wait for good news, the kind that comes with a sound notifying me that a new message has just entered my mailbox. I have received them, and I have received them at different times of my life and from different parts of the world. Let’s say that the sound of a notification has an effect on me in the style of Pavlov’s bell, the message rings and I automatically get excited, like that time I thought I had been invited to the Venice Biennale. A mail in a language that is not mine naming the 59th Venice Biennale and its curator, Cecilia Alemani, was enough to confuse me in the first few paragraphs. Of course, even if the invitation had been real and not from another art fair parallel to the biennial, which it insistently names to confuse its potential prey into believing that they are within the same event (charging the artists 16,000 euros for exhibiting them on a 4m2 wall). Even so, there would not be much reason to get excited because the national pavilion of Guatemala at the Venice Biennale has never been a space consistent with an art biennale that shows artists with consolidated careers, but one that presents figures that have been chosen from a more political and commercial environment in which the sponsoring brands feel safe to place their logo without fearing that the works will call them out, as the easy target they are, and point out any barbarity they have carried out. That is to say, the Venice Biennale, in various pavilions, is a space of whiteness, a network of novelties that shows works, but does not question environments.
Having said that, how is the Venice Biennial perceived from the perspective of the native peoples? Colonization is rooted and internalized, so much that Guatemala stills admires the white, the global north, thus being the product of a racist structural system rooted in the minds of several colonized and invaded countries, such as ours. It is worth mentioning that Guatemala lived through a war of more than 35 years, also known as the internal armed conflict, which left around 200,000 dead and more than 45,000 missing. A genocide. We are the country where, as you walk along, you come across billboards of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) showing images of indigenous women and men carrying a black and white photo of a missing family member while reading below: “we can identify your missing family member, call today! Next to Juan Chalí, identified by his DNA.”
Historically, indigenous bodies have been racialized, as the women of AFEDES have aptly named in their book entitled Nuestros tejidos son los libros que la colonia no pudo quemar [Our fabrics are the books that the colony could not burn]. We are tired of talking about appropriation, of white people minimizing the art and the cosmovision behind each woven canvas, naming it and treating it as a simple craft. It is at this point where it is worth talking about the Guatemalan pavilion, specifically the artist Chrispapita who represents the country at the Venice Biennale with a work entitled Inclusión, curated by himself and by the Minister of Culture Felipe Armando Aguilar, with the huge discordance that the trifold of his work is written only in English, not to mention that it is accompanied by several logos of sponsors representing the families of power and oligarchy of Guatemala who, to this day, continue to expropriate and enslave indigenous people. Brands that have given the artist this space in Venice as a consolation prize for the work he could not sell to the State of Guatemala for a million dollars. There is no inclusion in this discourse. That is why I am not interested in talking about the artist’s work from his technique, but from how this piece is a clear example of the artist’s racism and perhaps the living example, the most faithful mirror, of a society like the whitemalteca. Someone like Chrispapita does not understand that he cannot talk about something that does not belong to him, precisely because he does not understand it. The elements he uses in his painting are an appropriation of the resistance and memory of our grandfathers and grandmothers. The reading of each element in his work is reminiscent of the INGUAT (Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo) billboards or the presentations of the Ballet Folklorico de Guatemala, where the indigenous are exoticized, in which white women and men appropriate our dances, our clothing, our languages, thoughts and knowledge. Guatemala’s participation in the Venice Biennale reminds me of the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Guatemala, in which Guatemalans “disguise” their children as Indians.
What is it like to be an artist in our context? For the native peoples of Abya Yala, the word art does not exist, our thinking comes from the knowledge of our daily relationship with nature, from being aware of how the past illuminates us. We speak of the Aj’, the maker, the profession. In Tz’utujil we speak of the midwife who gives life and in Kaqchikel of knowledge or wisdom. This is what we understand by art. In the words of writer Miguel Rochas Vivas, the problem is that non-indigenous people do not know the basic symbols of indigenous writing.
Based on the above, it can be said that the Venice Biennale is, for me, a monumental mall that romanticizes the idea of art and feeds the ego, that minimizes and exoticizes others. A patriarchal institution in charge of whitening the white even more. An abyss for memory, oblivion suffocating historical responsibility, the place I am not interested in being part of.