The wall transpires a cold humidity into my skin while I lean against it. Temperatures are compressed within this modernist pavilion, awakening the primitive unconscious of its architecture. It is a primitiveness as an aesthetic resource that comes not from a national tradition or Brazilian identity, but one that is far more deeply unveiling what has remained invisible in its culture: the indigenous imaginaries. Curated by Gabriela de Matos and Paulo Tavares, TERRA turns out to be the most crisp anticolonial contribution to the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture. Its research framework allows de Matos and Tavares to connect the dots between the abusive and complicit commercial architecture with the neglect of ancestral wisdom, resulting in an indisputable correlation between decarbonization and decolonialism. That TERRA wins the Golden Lion award is thus not only a well deserved recognition of this activist work, but a symbolic gesture for a political arena like the Giardini della Biennale.
The Laboratory of the Future is the central theme of a surprisingly fresh, introspective, and expansive Biennale led by the Ghanaian-Scottish architect and prolific writer Lesley Lokko. Her curatorial decisions and stance on exhibiting culture tell not just one story, but “multiple stories that reflect the bewildering, magnificent kaleidoscope of ideas, contexts, aspirations and meanings.” Half of the participants are from Africa or the African diaspora, and a vast majority of the exhibited works shy away from glamorizing an otherwise polluting, capital driven, and Eurocentric practice of conceiving of the built environment. Sustainability, especially in times of climate change, is presented in the Biennale to be a focused practice, not a topical matter. For that very reason, it is a crisp decision made by de Matos and Tavares to counter the brute modernism that supposedly represents the architectural ambitions of the Brazilian pavilion with earth. Earth manifests in TERRA not as material, but as what it always has been: soil, fertilizer, ground, and territory. The curators stated to look for earth “in its global and cosmic sense, as planet and common house of all life, human and non-human. Earth as memory, and also as future, looking at the past and at heritage to expand the field of architecture in the face of the most pressing contemporary urban, territorial and environmental issues.”
De Matos and Tavares have chosen to focus on how Brazil’s land has shaped understandings of heritage and identity, encompassing the idealized and racialized vision of “tropical nature” that has shaped the portrayal of the country. Presenting earth is to forget the predominant cartographical understanding of its becoming. TERRA gives alternative perspectives on belonging, cultivation, rights, and reparations by displaying artworks and contributions by indigenous communities and Afro-Brazilian artists from across the country.
Through them, we see how, over a hundred years ago, the Brazilian state called for thepacification of indigenous peoples, elaborating through art and culture the link between modernism and primitiveness. What resulted was an aggressive project of colonization toward the country’s hinterlands. This campaign sought to occupy what was called “territorial voids” in its continental territory by employing an agency that would make contact with local populations and try to teach them how to become national and modern citizens. What has followed from this strategy of erasure is a decades-long normalization of this oppressed appearance of the indigenous within a modern vocabulary. TERRA opens with an imperative of remembrance: “De-colonizing the canon” is the title of the first gallery. It questions the hegemonic narratives surrounding Brasília, the capital of Brazil, whose construction led to the removal of the Quilombola inhabitants from the region in the 1960s. The room also hosts a film by Juliana Varente that offers a complex history: heartbreaking statements from minoritized voices longing for a just, diverse, and plural territory, which architectural standards, beholden to exploitative interests, currently neglect.
Filled with light, the second gallery contrasts with its first part. It allows for the long tradition of struggle against the continuous erasure of indigenous and black people with gestures that feel like air: hanging in-between fabrics by Casa do Alaka, from Salvador de Bahia, falling on the floor, or resting on soil slabs built like vitrines that remind viewers of Lina Bo Bardi’s design visions. I don’t write this simply to reference Bo Bardi—one of Brazil’s most iconic architects and spatial thinkers as well as founder and editor of the magazine Habitat— but to hold her accountable for the plasticity that characterized modernism and primitivism in Brazil in a period of high violence against indigenous groups. Habitat propagated a European understanding of modernism, bringing to the urban elites an image of native forms of cultural expression and subjecting indigenous objects and design to this European historical narrative. If the relation to the wild is essential to the development of national modernism, then this needs to be inverted as a resource of opposition to hegemonic standards of usage of space. With pedestals sculpted from different layers of earth brought straight from Brasília, the colonial fundamentals in which the collective subjectivity of this nation is rooted appear as an evidentiary practice, beyond the use and aesthetic of the pavilion as an exhibition site condensing all this evidence in its form.
Occupied by sociospatial projects and practices of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian knowledge about land and territory, the curatorship of de Matos and Tavares brings forth five essential memorial heritages of reference in Brazil that are far too often deprived of recognition: the Casa da Tia Ciata, in the urban context of Pequena África in Rio de Janeiro; the Tava, as the Guarani call the ruins of the now-abandoned Jesuit missions in Rio Grande do Sul; the ethnogeographic complex of terreiros in Salvador; the Indigenous Agroforestry Systems of the Rio Negro in the Amazon; and the Iauaretê waterfall of the Tukano, Arawak, and Maku. How fitting, then, that Ayrson Heráclito’s The Shaking of the Casa da Torre and the Shaking of the Maison des Esclaves in Gorée (2015), which is presented in the second gallery, turns to memories and the archaeology of ancestrality, while depicting a ritual of cleansing the walls.
De Matos and Tavares excavate historical obfuscation of oppression that have minimized for too long the struggle against deforestation and erasure of vernacular cultures in Brazil’s contemporary architecture and urban planning. At the same time, they create a direct connection between the most powerful ideological avatar of national representation—the Brazilian Pavilion—with the most severe, widespread problem of the country—the deforestation of the Amazon as an outcome of modernist design. At the core of the most relevant statement of this Architecture Biennale is the conceptualized and deployed modernist type of planning strategy that has produced environmental change at the scale of the global climate. Indeed, like the deforestation of the Amazon, climate change is a product of design.
Its display alone is a revelation against forms of colonialism and extermination: an archeology of violence that has enabled the control of territory and the elimination of peoples, resulting irrevocably in genocidal policies. That is, too, part of the historical spectrum of this pavilion. Even when we analyze the statistics, it’s practically impossible to access, map, and account for the nature and the scale of the violence that has been deployed against the indigenous peoples of Brazil. The pavilion insists that we cannot rely on evidentiary practices that have been traditionally used to investigate state violence during the so-called “dirty wars of Latin America.” Instead, what is required is a different positioning in order to reconfigure the cultural trajectory of the country. Even if our surroundings remain unashamedly modern, we could still become soil, territory, ground for embracing the pain of those who worked the earth and from whom it was taken away from, to be turned into property.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Installation views of TERRA. Courtesy of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future. Copyright: Matteo de Mayda.