Arrivederci Venice: The Third World Biennials

The Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, is the oldest and, along with Germany’s Documenta series, the most influential of Europe’s major recurring international exhibitions. Both those shows occur in formerly imperial nations and reflect a Eurocentric history, for they concentrate not just on Western art but on the art shown in the West’s prominent commercial galleries. Now, however, as the colonial era fades, the biennial tradition has spread beyond the Western world. With the post-Modern shift of emphasis from the previous centers to the previous margins, the idea that one’s own city, wherever it may be, can act as an international hub has become widely available.

Recently a number of recurring, usually biennial, international survey exhibitions have appeared in non-Western, often previously colonized capitals. The spectrum of difference exhibited at these shows suggests varying relationships with the West: some artists identify with or at least acknowledge the Western tradition, some contemn it. At one extreme are non-Western biennials that are directly involved in the Western moment. The Sydney Biennales (many of these shows use the Italian or other European forms of the word “biennial” in their names), for example, closely resemble the survey shows of Europe and the U.S.; though they do examine Australian artists, including aboriginal artists, they are primarily Euro-ethnic. (But then, Australia is basically a First World nation.) The São Paulo Biennial similarly explores the Western “cutting edge” while shifting emphasis somewhat toward Latin America. The work in these shows is often based in post-Modernism, but the curators’ residual sense of center emanates a continuing Modernist aura.

Other shows are not merely non-Western geographically but take place within more distinctly non-Western cultures. Several have begun quite recently—1984 was a pivotal year. These exhibitions’ inaccessibility to the vast majority of Western critics, and the truly daunting difficulty of getting information about them in the West (some of the biennials I discuss here I was unable to see, and I write on them from their catalogues, themselves hard to find), are part of their story, and part of their paradox. The institution of the international juried show may be a Western phenomenon, but the Third World biennials are sprouting with or without Western attention; clearly they have audiences and cultural functions of their own, quite independently of their resemblance to Western art practice. On the other hand, these exhibitions are often committed to the project of becoming “modern,” or Modernist in a classical sense. The New Delhi Triennials, the Cairo Biennials, and the Bantu Biennales (usually held in Libreville, Gabon), for example, largely eschew historical regional styles; there is little that looks “Egyptian” or “Islamic” in the Cairo shows, little “Indian” in New Delhi. There is an implication, rather, of a community of taste adjusted to Western tendencies of a couple of generations ago, when the West’s idea of internationalism was still founded on an assumption of Modernist universals. But if works in the indigenous traditions are not apt to be seen, neither are the Western Modernist works that lie in the background: many of the works seem to be Third World embodiments of classical Modernism, with admixtures of regional points of view. They resemble, for example, the so-called “Shona” African sculpture that traveled the U.S. last year, a smooth amalgam of Modernist motifs from the heyday of Brancusi with nods to the African styles that influenced him.

Again like classical Modernism, much of the work—especially the sculpture—emphasizes craft in a way that post-Modernist Westerners tend to regard, somewhat arrogantly, as archaic. The Western viewer may have trouble with this art, for much of it looks like what we might see as kitsch Modernism: “mushy abstract paintings with pyramids in them,” as one American summarized the Cairo Biennial. Yet a great deal of this sort of work is now being produced around the world, and the ambitions of at least some of it could intrigue a post-Modernist: a picture exhibited by Zairean artist Kamba Luesa at the second Bantu Biennale, in 1987—a loosely allover field of mazelike abstraction coalescing here and there into hints of faces—is titled Cultural Identity. Perhaps the Western art world needs to find a way to understand this art’s meanings and gradations. It’s not as if European influence on non-Western traditions was ever a one-way transaction, and given post-Modern practices of quotation and appropriation, the esthetic processes at work in these exchanges, which are going on more all the time, should already be part of our vocabulary.

The oldest of the non-Western biennial-type shows are the New Delhi Triennials, begun in 1968. Their historical priority, among other traits, reflects the fact that many Indian artists and intellectuals have come to accept the legitimacy of a multicultural heritage, acknowledging their selfhood as simultaneously Hindu and Moslem, Asian and European, and interested in forging a cooperation between East and West in which each incorporates elements of the other without losing its selfhood. There have been problems: instead of empaneling its jury locally, for example, the second Triennial, in 1971, reached out to an international jury including the European curator Pontus Hulten and the Mexican writer Octavio Paz—but the catalogue revealed in a small-print footnote that neither of these luminaries could attend the jury meeting “due to indisposition.” Still, the Triennials have remained far more global in reach than their Western equivalents. The 1982 Triennial set delegations from Czechoslavakia, Iraq, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nigeria, Egypt, and Sri Lanka alongside those from France, Germany, and Britain. The United States sent just one artist, Vernon-Fisher, whose post-Modern takeoffs on the “Nancy” comic looked strangely out of place among Third World Modernisms.

A show that has striven to go beyond the influence of classical Modernism is the Istanbul Biennial, begun in 1987, and curated in 1992 by Vasif Khortun under the influence of the “Magiciens de la terre” exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1989. Most of the art in Khortun’s show was post-Modern in type, and what Modernist-style art there was looked decidedly out of place. The emphasis was on varieties of neo-Conceptual installation, a mode that seems to be becoming a global style for the time being. It may be that the genre’s focus on iconographic coding gives it a linguistic function at the same time that it transcends linguistic boundaries.

Outstanding pieces in Istanbul by artists who would be (and in some cases have been) at home in Venice or Kassel included Belgian artist Jan Fabre’s installation of bathtubs and owl sculptures (The Scheldt, 1989), British artist Damien Hirst’s claustrophobic office, and Polish artist Mariusz Kruk’s furniture crucified by hardware. The Turkish artists represented were no less proficient: Karamustafa’s installation of wastebaskets stuffed with quilts, and Hale Tenger’s ranks of priapic midgets, I Know People Like This, both 1992, were among the most striking and likable works.

In the catalogue, Khortun describes Istanbul not as a center but as a place “in the middle,” “situated between North and South and [severing] Asia from Europe as a `non-space.’” Yet the Biennial was generally oriented northward, with only Israel lying to the south. The special resource the show offered because of its location was the surprisingly strong presence of Central European nations. This might have been the first major international exhibition of which one could straight-facedly say, “The Bulgarians stole the show.” And indeed Nedko Solakov’s two-room installation—which showed the Earth age of the universe winding down in a hilarious yet profound toilet-bowl intrusion from another world and time—seemed to be widely appreciated, as did the wooden machines of Lyuben Kostov, which constituted a comic drama of a man both applauded and eradicated. The primarily Westernizing nature of the Istanbul show may have reflected Turkey’s desire to enter the European Community. The setting’ in a former fez factory renovated by the well-known Italian architect Gae Aulenti, was telling: Turkey outlawed the fez in 1925, as part of the Westernizing program of Kemal Atatürk. Here its place of manufacture was turned to a Westernizing use.

The United States Information Agency, which generally handles U.S. participation in biennial-type shows, asked Patricio Chavez, of San Diego’s Centro Cultural de la Raza, to curate the American contribution. The result denounced the intervention in the Western hemisphere begun by Christopher Columbus—a popular theme in the quincentennial year of ’92—and featured installations by Amalia Mesa Bains, David Avalos, and others. These works might have seemed intelligent and visually dynamic in America’ but I spoke to a number of non-Americans who saw them as parochial and self-absorbed—as failing to represent the cultural diversity of the U.S., let alone of the contemporary world. Yet here more than anywhere else in the exhibition, or in most others like it, was a straight-out rejection of Western values. Indeed a minor contretemps ensued when the USIA got cold feet and canceled the show, which was sent anyway through independently obtained funding.

The exhibition that has rejected Western values most thoroughly is the Havana Biennal. Once known explicitly as the “Third World Biennial,” this show has rarely shown First World artists; in its nine years of life, which cover a crucial period in post-Modern art, it has shifted from an emphasis on Latin America (along with some representation of Spain and Portugal) in 1984 toward a broader sense of Third World solidarity in 1991, when the third Havana Biennal included artists from Korea’ the Philippines, India, Thailand, Egypt, and Sudan.

These exhibitions are based on, among other things, the premise that the world art system is “a system of apartheid.”1 Curator Gerardo Mosquero sees the centering of the Third World in its own culture as a part of a new global era: “If most of the world’” he writes, “aspires to new international orders in the economic and information realms, seemingly it would also be necessary to defend a new international order of art and culture.”2 This new international order will not entirely reject Western culture, yet will transform it beyond recognition. “We, the Africans, the Asians, the Latin Americans,” Mosquero writes, “ . . . have to shape Western culture, as the ‘barbarians’ shaped Christianity. I am certain that the result will not resemble today’s Western culture.”3 The Havana Biennals have tended to emphasize Latin America’s relationship with Africa more than that with Europe or the U.S.; Mosquero’ for example, has written on the elements of Bantu visual tradition in contemporary Cuban art. Still, despite the Biennals’ premise of providing an alternative to Western Modernism, much of the work echoes Modernist abstraction and near abstraction. An emphasis on photography may reflect the Marxist ambience, with its technological and documentary emphasis.

The Bantu Biennale, or, more properly, the Biennale de l’Art Bantu Contemporain. is regional in tone, focusing on artists from southwestern Africa. Much of the work invokes Modernist universals, but the Brancusi-like pieces of Angolan sculptor Afonso Massongui and others don’t simply imitate Modernism; on the contrary, they reflect an awareness that Brancusi drew his work in part from African models. Thus they promote an Afrocentric shift in emphasis: the true universals are to be found in African art, from which Modernism stole. Works like those of Central African Republic painter Jean Tubind Makouna are more explicitly political but no less hybrid, combining the theme of opposition to apartheid with the heritage of French Impressionism.

The Cairo Biennales are more Europe-oriented, and use the English language in their catalogues. In 1984, their first year, all the prizes went to artists from the Arab world (from Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan, and Iraq), but by the third event, in 1988, the awards included Europeans as well. The fourth Biennale, in November 1992, showed art from 41 countries including various European nations, the U.S., and a few Far Eastern and Latin American nations, along with a heavy representation from the Arab world and Africa. By and large, however, countries like France and Germany did not send the same artists they generally send to Western shows such as Venice; nor, for that matter, did India.

The Third World offerings were mostly Modernist-style painting and sculpture: a Western viewer would quickly link Mohamed Hagras’ white-marble Labourers, 1992, say, to the tradition of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. It’s not in condescension but in recognition that the Western viewer connects such work with European models, yet it is altogether possible that the Modernist influence has by now become local tradition, with Arab-world artists of a generation ago serving as the models for these contemporaries. Part of the point of this Modernist-type work would seem to be a desire to present a facadelike impression of the visual mode of a “developed” culture. As in the Delhi Triennials, one often has the sense here that the rest of the world is still trying to embrace the esthetic values of Western Modernism. The idea that Modernist art grew partly from African sources doesn’t seem to have found favor in Cairo.

As in Istanbul, the U.S. exhibit in Cairo, curated by Kathleen Goncharov, was the most confrontational in this Biennale: an installation by Fred Wilson called “Re: Claiming Egypt,” combining this artist’s familiar museum interventionism with an Afrocentrism based on Chcik Anta Diop’s and Martin Bernal’s idea of ancient Egypt as a generator of Western culture, and with a more generalized critique of colonialist attitudes and their aftermath. Using some objects bought in the Cairo markets and others signifying contemporary African-American culture, Wilson constructed the scenario of a room in a colonial administrator’s home. Western, Egyptian-influenced furniture stood amid vitrines filled with purchases from the bazaar, some of them souvenir copies of objects in Cairo’s archaeological museum. On the floor large pots lay as if spilled, with tape recorders in them from which spoke a variety of French and English voices saying things like, “I want what you have, I want to figure it out, I want to get inside of it, I want to overpower it; it’s not really yours, it belongs to the world.” Meanwhile, from an Egyptian-style pot, a voice replied in Arabic, “It’s mine, it’s always been mine, I may not talk about it, I may not even think about it, but it’s mine.” Nearby, another voice said in African-American cadences, “They think we have no history, but though we have never met, we are you and you are us,” asserting the unity of diaspora Africans and present-day Egyptians. A text in Arabic, on a traditional Egyptian gown lying on the floor, asked, “Is the West more interested in the past than in the present? Is it more threatened by the contemporary culture than by the ancient?” Other elements included T-shirts printed with Afrocentric slogans and the music videos of Queen Latifah and of Michael Jackson (as King Tut), and so on. Perhaps understandably, Wilson’s work had Egyptian critics inquiring what school or movement he belonged to.

The Dakar Biennales, emerging in the city of both Diop and the great postcolonial filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, are more solidly black African. And if the main essay in the catalogue for the ’92 show is titled “Dak’ Art 92: Les Proinesses dun rendezvous international” (The promises of an international rendezvous), the organization that mounted the exhibition is called “The Dakar Festival for the Revival of the African Arts.” Still, the exhibition included work from Canada, Japan, Portugal, Sweden, Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere besides Africa and the African diaspora. The work was generally somewhat more current in terms of Western styles than that in the Bantu Biennales. Some of the Modernist-style art, such as the beautiful paintings by Fode Camara and I ba N’Diaye, has been shown in New York. Bangladeshi Ahmed Shahabuddin’s expertly executed canvases seemed derived in part from Francis Bacon. Other works were primitivizing sculptures, like the Belgian artist Jephan de Viliers’ mixed-media fetish, or the Cameroonian Pascal Kenfack’s Ancestral Presence, a wood sculpture alluding to traditional African styles. A bridge between Africa and the West was provided here and there, as in the mediating works of Ouattara, Diagne Chanel, and others whose works refer both ways.

As in Istanbul, the USIA chose a minority curator for the American show—Corinne Jennings, of New York’s Kenkeleba Gallery. But the result addressed colonial issues very differently than the Istanbul or Cairo delegations. Jennings focused on the African-American tradition of abstract easel painting from the Harlem Renaissance on, a tradition for the most part excluded from the art-historical record of white society. Yet the Harlem Renaissance was inspirational not only for other diaspora communities but for African culture too. Jennings’ show of five artists ranged from Joe Overstreet, a Color Field and post–Color Field painter inspired as much by French Impressionism as by the Harlem Renaissance, to Leonardo Drew, a younger artist who has lately come into the awareness of the white American art audience. In addition, the handsome and eloquent works of abstract painters Frank Bowling’ Mildred Thompson, and Mary O’Neal took the ambiguous trip back to the island slave fortress of Gorée, off the Senegal coast at Dakar.

This has had to be a selective survey. Other shows, both actual and planned, could be mentioned, such as the first Asia-Pacific Triennial, currently open in South Brisbane. Writing from New York, without having personally visited all the exhibitions under discussion, I’m sure my information in this article is in some cases out of date and my catalogue-based reporting in need of fleshing out. Geographically and chronologically widespread, the Third World biennials are simply impossible for most critics to watch closely enough fully to understand their differences and commonalties of purpose.

Still, as multiplying sites of intercultural communication, and as instances of changing global relations, are these biennials signs of the developing postcolonial world family? The idea of such a family has been found in both East and West since ancient times. The Cynics taught that all human societies formed a vast culture, the world community or cosmopolis4. Zeno the Stoic, in his Republic, called for a world government based on brotherly love. “The world is the mother of us all,” wrote Seneca in the first century A.D. In South India a Tamil poet of the first or second century A.D. echoed the sentiment: “Every country is my country and every person is my kinsman.”5 (The downside of this idea, of course, is the fact that the family can be an inwardly torn and hostile community.

Like the family drama, the postcolonial situation is a play of deep and obscure shiftings of identity. The process of postcolonial readjustment is going on; no doubt it includes covert power strategies and identity appropriations, but previously colonized peoples and cultures are constructing their own places to stand and their own networks of relationships. And art, which both embodies tradition and allows direct intervention in it, is a fit medium for the search. As different cultures present their images to one another in these more or less open exchanges, the forces that shape the world are laid out in diagrammatic clarity only to shift as they both incorporate and resist one another. Out of the tumult of images, perhaps a new vision will be born.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and professor of art history at Rice University, Houston. His most recent book is Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, published by McPherson & Co. of Kingston, N.Y.



1. Gerardo Mosquero, “Speakeasy,” New Art Examiner vol. 17 no. 1, November 1989, p. 13.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. See, for example, Diogenes Laertius VI.22.

5. Quoted in X. S. Thani-Nayagam, “Indian Thought and Roman Stoicism,” Tamil Culture 10 no. 3, 1963, p. 17.