Open Letter

Grada Kilomba and the Venice Biennale 2022

The international arts and culture scene condemns the judging irregularities at the Venice Biennale’s Portugal Pavilion by supporting and signing the open letter in support of artist Grada Kilomba.

Grada Kilomba in cooperation with Kalaf Epalanga, O BARCO / THE BOAT, Perfomance at Boca 2021, Lisbon. Courtesy the artist.

Here is the open letter:

On December 7th 2021 the curator Bruno Leitão shared an open letter online, exposing how the decision-making process of the panel selecting Portugal’s representation in the Venice Biennale—which was acting on behalf of DGArtes, or Direção Geral das Artes— was marked by inconsistencies and serious irregularities. Such discrepancies were apparent in both their own evaluation processes and in the explicit violations of legally- defined “jury duties”.

This letter was widely publicised via international press coverage; it revealed that the project A Ferida/The Wound, by artist Grada Kilomba (one of the potential candidates to represent Portugal at the Venice Biennale 2022), failed to be selected due to what we deem to be very problematic arguments made by one of the jurors, Nuno Crespo. Crespo is an art critic at Público newspaper and Dean of the School of Arts at the Portuguese Catholic University, Porto.

In the open letter, Leitão made public that this juror—as part of the all-white jury— attributed an incomprehensible score to Kilomba, giving her classifications of ten, ten and fifteen points (on a scale of zero to twenty). This is blatantly inconsistent with the scoring of the other members of the jury who attributed scores of nineteen, twenty and twenty. Crespo awarded the lowest score of any of the four proposals presented, and so lowered the candidate’s average score. For the first time in its history two Black Portuguese women were candidates for the Pavilion (Grada Kilomba and Mónica de Miranda represented by the curator Paula Nascimento), yet the jury still selected a white representative.

This evaluation system is susceptible to misuse in that it allows one single juror, in indiscriminately lowering a candidate’s score, to decide who wins and who loses, overruling the will of the other jurors. The jarring discrepancy between the scores awarded made Grada Kilomba’s selection impossible: even if awarded maximum scores by all other jurors (i.e. weightings of nineteen and twenty) in a consistent manner, it would not override the extremely poor scores that lowered her average considerably.
As such, one single juror had the power to override the preferences of the other three jurors. Most concerningly, Nuno Crespo’s voting pattern seems to suggest the intention to invalidate this candidacy in a premeditated way. The juror’s written statement offered alarming and problematic arguments to justify his scores, such as:

“(…) the idea of racism as an open wound has already been the subject of countless other approaches; the proposal presented does not let you understand how in an exhibition you can review, criticize or prolong this idea, already discussed and even exhibited in multiple ways (…).”

The proposal made by artist Grada Kilomba and curator Bruno Leitão was complex and visionary, yet it is here reduced to only one word: “racism”. This is a flattening perspective that reduces artists from the African diaspora to a single theme, obviating the intersectionality of diaspora artistic voices. The work The Wound explores “three ongoing crises” through a performance opera displayed in an immersive video installation: the human rights crisis, the climate crisis, and the increasing militarization of human relations. The argument that the problems of racism and colonial legacies have already been debated too much, and that it is not pertinent to continue talking about these issues, is deeply problematic and reveals a racist conviction on the part of this juror.

Crespo has unscrupulously abused his power within this panel, and is in effect silencing an urgent debate in Portuguese society; the discussion of our postcolonial condition is necessary, urgent and long-due, especially when led by racialized people. Furthermore, such discourse has only recently entered the public sphere of Portugal, and is therefore still only in its early stages.

It must be remembered that the so-called “discoveries” are 500 years old, that slavery lasted hundreds of years, and that Portuguese colonialism as a political system ended little more than 40 years ago. All this has never been adequately named, addressed, and discussed in Portugal. The Lusotropicalist narrative converted into hegemonic ideology continues to prevent a serious debate about structural and institutional racism, making it impossible to effectively combat these phenomena in Portugal. To enable serious debate it is necessary to change the terms of this conversation, abandoning the limited concept of racism that the Portuguese media widely instrumentalises. Racism has to be understood as a structural issue, or a geopolitical structure that benefits non-racialized groups in all instances of life (for example, in access to housing, education, health, access to work, institutional access and symbolic valorization, protection against premature death and state-sanctioned violence, etc). This struggle, therefore, is not restricted to a discussion concerning individual prejudices or to one single jury member, as some insist.

The presence of Grada Kilomba’s work in Portuguese public space contradicts the still very present discourse that there is no racism in Portugal, that Portuguese colonialism was benign; it also calls into question the naturalisation of everyday racism. The narrative that racism and colonial legacies are talked about too much is typical of the conservative sectors of society that want to maintain the status quo – the argument of “saturation” conceals the fact that not a lot has changed for communities affected by the violence produced by such legacies. It is no argument to discount this discourse: works of art discussing other phenomena of oppression such as, for example, the Nazi Holocaust, which have been produced since 1945, are still considered to be relevant and necessary material for reflection and learning, as well they should.

The juror is careful to distinguish the technical team submitting the artist’s application, saying, “(…) even if the technical and artistic team is competent, the artistic merit of the artist Grada Kilomba (…) is not satisfactory.” Nuno Crespo’s racist and misogynist prejudices become evident in this unjustified statement. To say that Grada Kilomba’s artistic merit is unsatisfactory would be laughable in any other context, but within the scenario in question is untenable. We are talking about the internationally acclaimed, widely-praised practice of one of the most celebrated and recognized artists of the contemporary art world. It is true that the juror has the right to consider that the artist has no artistic merit, but in that case, he has to justify his statement; he must critically justify his vote in order to ensure that it is through his knowledge of art that he considers this proposal insufficient. The mere statement of opinion is not satisfactory.

Nuno Crespo further states that “Grada Kilomba is a brilliant writer and thinker, and her skills in terms of the famous ‘oral narrative’ are undeniable, however, as an exhibition proposal, the project presented does not have the artistic scope that, in my opinion, the official representation must have (…).”

The intellectual abilities of Grada Kilomba, author of the book Memories of the Plantation: Episodes of Everyday Racism published in 2008 (Unrast Verlag), are indeed undeniable. Originally published in English and then in multiple translations, her talent was evident even prior to the book’s publishing in Portugal, which only occurred in 2019 (Orfeu Negro). The decade-plus delay in the Portuguese publication of a work considered fundamental by a large part of contemporary academia is symptomatic of the contempt to which decolonial discussion has been consigned in our country. We mention this work because it must be the one to which Nuno Crespo refers when he writes “famous ‘oral narrative'”. What does the juror mean by this? Why does he put oral narrative in quotes? Why does he restrict Grada Kilomba’s thought to “the terms of the famous ‘oral narrative'”? It is apparent the juror wishes to circumscribe this intellectuality to a field of knowledge in which he does not recognize value. The juror wishes to discredit the artist, covering his contempt with the artifice of false praise.

Nuno Crespo’s ignorance doesn’t stop there, for he claims that Grada Kilomba’s work “(…) is not committed to the dynamization and internationalisation of the Portuguese artistic and cultural ‘scene’.” A brief Google search would have saved the juror the shame of revealing such ignorance on a subject in which he claims to be an expert and in a situation where he is asked for his expertise. Grada Kilomba is an international Portuguese contemporary artist, and thus indelibly a part of the internationalisation of the Portuguese art scene. If the numerous exhibitions of the artist’s work in prestigious institutions around the world were not enough, the article that the New York Times dedicated to her on October 12 of this year, “Grada Kilomba’s Rituals of Resistance”, would be clear confirmation.

It is important to emphasise, once again, that colonialism is not something that has remained in the past: it manifests itself in the form of coloniality. This is a process whereby structures created during colonialism (economic, mental, social, and so on) continue to make themselves felt in the way our societies differentially distribute benefits and burdens: for example, in the manifest racial division between those whom the law protects but does not bind and those whom the law binds but does not protect. Thus, when we speak of structural, institutional, and everyday racism, we speak of a system societally constructed over time that places white people at the top of a social pyramid, with both material and immaterial benefits. In the latter sense, the dynamic at work is symbolic valorization: people from the African Diaspora, like Grada Kilomba, are not socially perceived as great intellectuals and great artists at the nationally representative level.

Examples of such discrimination are multiple in the Portugese cultural sector. To cite but a few instances: sociologist and artist Rodrigo Saturnino’s exclusion from the online debate “Graphic Activism – The territory of publishing as a space for affirming identity(ies)”, held within the scope of the Graphic Fair, for questioning the lack of Black representation in a given artistic creation (in an episode that was recognized as illegal discrimination by Lisbon City Council); choreographer and teacher Vânia Gala’s disqualified application to a teaching post at an institution of the State of Portuguese Higher Education, due to it “being a module for Portuguese choreographers”. Similar discriminatory practices are at work in the Portuguese academy, in which the research and scientific production of certain academics—some of whom even working as professors, such as professor and essayist Inocência Mata—are deprived of recognition in their field due to a persistent colonial view of that which is Portugal, its reified identity, and its cultural production. The list of such examples of discounted work could go on, and is limited here only for brevity.

All of this is to say that racism and misogyny is impregnated in the decisions that individuals make on a daily basis, confirming institutional systems, structures, and therefore policies.

We demand that in all coming evaluation committees to select national representatives jurors be included that represent the multiracial diversity of the Portuguese population.

We want to declare our unconditional solidarity with the artist Grada Kilomba, who has been eliminated so far in the still ongoing process of representing Portugal at the Venice Biennale 2022, through a crude, ignorant, misogynistic and racist evaluation of her work and of the artist herself, enabled by a governmental agency incapable of recognizing and preventing misconduct.

We support the hierarchical appeal submitted by the curator Bruno Leitão and demand a review of the evaluation of this contest that is fair, reasoned and transparent.

Signed by / Subscritores da carta :
Afrolink
Associação Cultural e Juvenil Batoto Yetu, Portugal
Associação ForçAfricana
Coletivo Afrekete
Coletivo Zanele Muholi de Lésbicas e Bissexuais Negras – Lisboa
Djass- Associação de Afrodescendentes
Grupo EducAR – Educação Antirracista
Grupo de Teatro do Oprimido
INMUNE – Instituto da Mulher Negra em Portugal
leve-leve colectivo
NARP – Núcleo Anti-Racista do Porto
O lado negro da Força
Plataforma Geni
Semear o Futuro
SOS Racismo
Teatro GRIOT
UNA – União Negra das Artes

Alexandre Gamelas, frontend engineer
Anabela Rodrigues, grupo de Teatro do Oprimido
Ana Balona de Oliveira, historiadora de arte e curadora
Ana Cristina Pereira (Kitty Furtado), investigadora (CES, Universidade de Coimbra)
Ana Paula Costa, Plataforma Geni
Ana Tica, animadora sociocultural, realizadora
Barbara Gois
Bruno Sena Martins, investigador (CES – Universidade de Coimbra)
Carolina Elis
Cátia Severino, investigadora
Cláudia Semedo, actriz
Cleo Diára
Cristina Roldão, socióloga e professora do Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal
Danilo Cardoso, arte-educador, investigador e poeta
Di Candido, Artista e Investigador
Dori Nigro, artista e investigador
Dusty Whistles, Artist and Activist
Evalina Gomes Dias, fundadora e presidente da Djass-Associação de Afrodescendentes
Flávia Palladino, pesquisadora e sócia do SOS Racismo
Gessica Borges, escritora e ativista
Geanine Escobar, investigadora e co-fundadora do Coletivo Zanele Muholi de Lésbicas e Bissexuais Negras – Lisboa
Gisela Casimiro, escritora e artista
Inês Amaral, professora da Universidade de Coimbra
Inês Beleza Barreiros, historiadora de arte
Inocência Mata, professora e ensaísta
Irene Pinto, técnica de desenvolvimento comunitário
Irina Leite Velho
Isabél Zuaa, atriz
José Falcão, dirigente do SOS Racismo
José Semedo, Professor/Treinador
Joseph da Silva, dirigente do SOS Racismo
Kalaf Epalanga, escritor e músico
Kristin Bethge, fotógrafa
Libânia Fernandes Cá
Lucas Reis
Mamadou Ba, dirigente do SOS Racismo
Maria do Carmo Piçarra, investigadora e professora universitária (ICNOVA-FCSH/UAL)
Mário Paris Inocêncio
Marta Pinto Machado
Melissa Rodrigues, artista e arte-educadora
Myriam Taylor (MUXIMA)
Nádia Yracema
Olívio Pereira, gestor
Paola Rodrigues, artista e curadora
Paula Cardoso, fundadora da plataforma Afrolink
Paulo Gamelas, gestor
Paulo Maurício Dias, psicólogo clínico e sócio fundador da Djass
Paulo Pascoal
Paulo Taylor (PT Soft)
Pedro Pereira, professor universitário
Pedro Varela
Piny – performer, coreógrafa, professora, ativista
Priscilla Domingos – Coletivo Afrekete
Raquel Lima, poeta e investigadora
Rita Cássia Silva – antropóloga, artista multidisciplinar, ativista DH
Rodrigo Ribeiro Saturnino
Theo Eshetu, visual Artist
Vânia Doutel Vaz
Paula Machava – Doutoranda em Estudos Feministas (CES – Universidade de Coimbra).
Vânia Gala – professora, coreógrafa
Welket Bungué, artista transdisciplinar

Supporters / Apoiam a carta:
Ana Teixeira Pinto, professora do DAI (Dutch Art Institute) e AdBK Nürnberg
Anna Boghiguian, Artist
Anselm Franke, Head of Visual Arts, Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin
Antonia Alampi, curator
Beatriz Gomes Dias, Deputada e Vereadora na Câmara Municipal de Lisboa
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra, Coimbra
Candice Breitz, Artist, Johannesburg, Berlin
Catherine Wood, Senior Curator at Tate Modern, London
Charles Esche, Professeur and Directeur Van Abbemuseum
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Academic and Artist
Djamila Ribeiro, Writer and Activist, São Paulo
Ekua Yankah, Chair of the board Savvy Friends e.V., advisory board member ANO Ghana
Emily Wardill, Artist
Françoise Vergès, political theorist, antiracist feminist
Gaëtane Verna, Director – The Power Plant, Toronto
Heidi Ballet
Jochen Volz, Artistic Director at Pinacoteca de São Paulo, São Paulo
Johanne Affricot, Artistic Director at Griot Magazine, Rome
John Romão, Artistic Director at BoCa – Biennial of Contemporary Art, Lisbon
Julia Bryan-Wilson, University of California, Berkeley and Museu de Arte de São Paulo
Jumana Manna, Artist, Berlin
Kader Attia, Artist
Kristina Leno, Artist, Berlin, Zagreb
Leonor Antunes, Artist
María Berríos, independent curator
Moses Leo, Actor at Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin
Nana Oforiatta Ayim, director ANO Ghana and curator of the Ghanian pavilion in Venice
Nash Caldera, Artist
Norman Ajari, Lecturer in Francophone Black Studies, University of Edinburgh
Oier Etxeberria, head of contemporary art department, Tabakalera
Rasha Salti, Curator
Ruth Estévez, Artistic Director at the Amant Art Foundation, New York
Shermin Langhoff, Artistic Director at the Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin
Tamar Guimarães, visual artist
Tamsin Hong, Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, London
Valentine Umansky, Curator at Tate Modern, London
Vasco dos Reis Ferreira
Vila Kirchenbauer, Artist, Berlin

 

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