Beyond the Biennial

Maya Juracán writes about the curatorial methodology that will define the 21st edition of the Paiz Biennial in Guatemala.

When we talk about Guatemala, generally we do so based on how others have constructed the country, that is to say, based on an external imaginary developed by a small group of individuals. If you think about it, this is true for almost all countries in the Americas. It was through colonization, conquest, and an internal armed conflict that lasted from 1960 until 1996 that Guatemala was turned into a country.
Working within a decolonial framework, the idea of learning to tie our thoughts to the history of our country is born. The call to look at and think of ourselves from this perspective has been an important characteristic of Latin American art for some time now. As Enrique Dussel says, “it is time to reconstruct world history and start being Latin American, it is time to think from our horizon.”[1]
To this end, the twenty-first edition of the Bienal de Arte Paiz in Guatemala will adapt a decentralized vision to confront the biennial’s curatorial line. We have evolved, or aim to do so. Looking back at the first biennial in 1978, it is clear that it was founded as a scanner of sorts in the form of an art competition; it was urgent to know what was happening in the country in terms of artistic production. This search made the biennial one of the pioneering events in the dialogue of contemporary art, a vision that must be traced out starting with the opening up of the centralist margins to the peripheries, an important step towards popping the ideological, social, and economic bubbles created by the art world, its elites, and the classist distribution of resources that defines our world.

Esperanza de León en un proyecto comunitario. Imagen cortesía de Fundación Paiz

To define curatorship in Guatemala, first we must recognize our cultural context—our multiculturalism, ethnography, and history.

We have failed to recognize ourselves as a colonized country in which the indigenous population was and continues to be oppressed.

Thirty years of internal armed conflict and the scars it has left on the Guatemalan people, as well as the trial for genocide that remains branded in the Guatemalan imaginary are foundational elements of the context that determines our cultural scene and its possibilities.
We are discussing a country with hegemonic roots—defined by US imperialism that established a military government in 1954 that remained in power 36 years. This characteristic is the one that defines contemporary Guatemala and that will allow us, for purposes of this biennial, to see ourselves from the perspective of the “unofficial” internal history and its contexts. Based on this, Gerardo Mosquera, the head curator of the biennial, has the task of shaping this edition of the Bienal de Arte Paiz with a vision that addresses these issues, with the help of his co-curators: Laura Wellen, an American expert on Latin American art who is passionate about the dialogue between contemporary art and contemporary culture, discourse, and society, and who offers a foreign yet investigative perspective to the team; Esperanza de León, a pedagogue and artist who founded Creatorio CAP in Guatemala City, an art school dedicated to teaching art pedagogy, who has been a pioneer in the field in Guatemala, where many institutions still consider art to be a technique rather than a thought process; and myself, Maya Juracán, an art historian passionate about the 1944 revolutionary struggles in Guatemala and a solid creator of socially committed art.
Since his first encounter with Guatemala, Mosquera has had a unique perspective. He concerned himself with delving into uncommon places (lugares no comunes), places that are not usually visited by curators, spaces that are not even observed by the very people who live there due to trends of globalization that valorize Western European and American culture over local arts.

It is necessary for us to dig deeper into the details of his travels. Going beyond artist studio visits, which are part of any type of curatorial research, Gerardo and his team (myself included) headed to Colom Argueta, a neighborhood near the center of Guatemala City that was built after the earthquake next to the landfill that manages the waste for the entire capital. The visit was not just a form of spectatorship: we went accompanied by students of the Acción Joven program—a project that brings together young people from the area to study art pedagogy—who showed Gerardo and I around the landfill. We were able to spend time with their families and learn about the social dynamics of the area, where the pillar of the economy is recycling, a characteristic that lets us understand the relationship between the center and the periphery of urban centers. We also travelled to western Guatemala to discover art projects developed far from the capital, far from the center and its well-known spaces. For example, we wish to work with artists who discuss the idea of non-urban art spaces in the town of Comalapa, or with projects like Ciudad de la Imaginación in the state of Quetzaltenango, which are coordinated by people interested in art projects that explore their cotext in terms of a socio-historical relationship.
Why should a curator visit uncommon places? Each curator builds his own kingdom and, in the art world, one turns on one’s own axis. Early on, some curators, myself included, suffer from what I would call “conqueror’s syndrome,” that is, the reproduction of ideas imposed by patriarchal, eurocentrist art education, a paradigm that is only worsened by the elission of the social and historical context of a work’s production. To break erroneous art paradigms, we as curators must be able to provide analyses of national contexts from a broad perspective that reveal the ideas that connect the multiple, interconnected circumstances that have nurtured critical local thinking—the historical nucleus of art.
In what context does the artist live? To which geopolitical bubble does their country belong? What is the essence of the work, both materially and conceptually, in relation to the artist, the geographic context they work in, and their intended audience? These are the questions we are posing as we work towards a more comprehensive curatorial practice.

In his speech at the inauguration of the first Bienal de Arte Paiz in 1978, Rodolfo Paiz said: “We believe that our contributions to the artistic field represent the seeds of a deeper, more mature development of the conscience of Guatemalan unity and that their germination contributes to the possibility of living together in peace and achieving the high aspirations we have for Guatemala.” Today we endorse this message.
It is important to note that these words were spoken when our country was at war, when the possibility of peace was slim, and art was seen as a force that could play a revitalizing force. Today we are not at war, but violence has not diminished. We believe that this biennial must deepen collective thinking from the periphery, for those who can show us a world we rarely see. The vision of this curatorial team seeks to facilitate recognition of the uncommon and stimulate a new consciousness with openness to the processes of artistic conception and its relationship to life itself.
Forty years after it began, the twenty-first edition of the Bienal de Arte Paiz seeks to be and see beyond what could be imagined when it began. The goal is to disarticulate individualistic ideas of art for art’s sake in order to think beyond hegemonic limits and borders. Where we think from and why we think the way we do are the questions that lead us, from a place of curatorial camaraderie, to consider how we can articulate the diverse positions that exist in Guatemala. It is a collective exercise that allows us to engage in a dialogue based on the recognition of a panorama of places and realities that let us understand the myriad ways in which others read us.

As in previous years, the city center will play an important role in the biennial. A central, middle-class urban location will be connected to rural projects, themselves a central axis for a dialogue that takes place in the city and expands into other countries. Beyond borders. As a result of the position assigned to Guatemala by the neoliberal order, we are used to speaking from an urban perspective, obviating valuable thinking on the peripheries that has been ignored due to their distance from our context and a lack of internal recognition from their communities. Projects are generated in these non-urban spaces and the curatorial perspective of this biennial has been developed from their social and community-based knowledge.
Even more important is the perspective that will go beyond the white cube, understanding that work shown in these spaces is never alone and that it does not own the space it occupies. Thus, we are proposing a biennial in the streets, in the words of Gerardo Mosquera. We are seeking to move away from the centralization of the white cube as an exhibition space by bringing art into a space where it can be contemplated in a social context: a biennial that extends outwards, instead of an installation bound by four walls.
The biennial will even go beyond the “physical” world with a proposed virtual exhibition, since it is inevitably thought that art does not move between these two planes as a response to the need for immediacy in our era.
Another pedagogical goal is to move away from the teacher/student dichotomy and to implement instead a community education model. In this way we hope to eliminate the theme and the idealizations around it as central axes of an exhibition and substituting it with a methodology that seeks artistic proposals that dialogue with rhizomic communicative forms based on solidarity and social and community-based knowledge.

Esperanza de León en proyecto comunitario. Imagen cortesía de Fundación Paiz

In 2018, it would be detrimental for art not to recognize what is happening in the world politically, commercially, and socially. In a tweet posted a few days ago, the Guatemalan writer Javier Payeras wrote, “Having clarity means knowing that the next step is to change directions or remain on the same path…” This is precisely the message our curatorial model seeks to adopt; to break with the global logic of the art world, eliminate stereotypical ideas, discover and speak from a specific position, and recognize the dichotomies between centers and peripheries as well as, artists from Guatemala as non-global artists who conjugate, construct, and create an artistic metalanguage from their own essence.
Through decoding this language, we seek to work with individual and common experiences, values, identities, contexts, and situations to generate active pluralism. This edition of the biennial, which will open August 16, 2018, is emerging as an ambitious project developed in a dystopian world where art again takes on a vindicating role in society. Rather than an inbred idea, it has become a narrow link of recognition for those of us who have both never been separate and have also been prevented from recognizing each other by an invisible wall that divides us through representation.
What are the aims of this biennial? In the words of Gerardo Mosquera: new possibilities and radicalism. These are ambitious goals, which, while broad and abstract, are what I love most about the project—the idea of having a “new possibility,” proposing an ensemble of thoughts, feelings, and renewed choices that shift us away from the individual contemplation of a work of art and instead opens us up to community dialogue, questioning, and critique, facilitating its presence in all spaces, in all bodies, and in all the voices involved. Although these new possibilities cannot be fully described or known yet, the new ideas that emerge from community dialogues will lead us to these possibilities.

A very appropriate idea for this reflection is Luis Camnitzer’s text Arte y pedagogía, in which he argues that attacking small processes within the elite art world is useless, and that we must rather recognize art as a process within pedagogy that was moved to the background to make way for discursive juggling. Pedagogy, paraphrasing Deleuze and Guattari, as a semiotic chain not only linguistic but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive that decentralizes language to other dimensions.
As I live in Guatemala City and cross the historic center every day to get to work, and as I live and work alongside artists, some of whom are my friends and some not, as I am a part and product of the educational system as a student, teacher, and critic of the same system, the biennial offers me the possibility of building community instead of seeing others as enemies. We are participants of a process that allows us to generate camaraderie between realities and bubbles, and between ourselves and others, using the artistic metalanguage as a starting point for a more critical, discursive, and inclusive art world.
Maybe it will work and maybe it will fail, but what is truly important is that we speak out from this country in which surrealism is a constant. I am writing this in the historic center of Guatemala City, where an ice rink has been built in the central plaza for Christmas, surrounded by palm trees decorated as Christmas sweets, framing both our masks and our identity, which in the end is a contrived way of acknowledging ourselves.


  1. Enrique Dussel, Filosofía de la liberación (Bogota: Editorial Nueva América, 1996).


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