Arts & Entertainment

Manuel Borja-Villel: “The decolonizing movement in art is unstoppable”

Jon Martín Cullell

São Paulo, Brazil, Sept 6 (EFE).- The Spaniard Manuel Borja-Villel is the only one wearing a jacket among the curators of the 35th São Paulo Biennial. He is also the only white man, and the only one to have directed a European museum named after a queen.

With his jacket and his baggage, the former director of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid admits in an interview with EFE that he has had to “unlearn to learn” from the other three curators of the biennial, two Brazilians and a Portuguese woman of African descent.

“The decolonizing movement in art is unstoppable and implies changes in the way we work. In general, institutions are hierarchical; here we have tried to reverse that and there is no chief curator,” he says in the pavilion, in front of the remains of a railroad used by English settlers in Ghana.

The Biennale, the largest exhibition of contemporary art in the southern hemisphere, opens on Wednesday, setting a record with more than 80% of artists of color.


After several months of “apprenticeship” in Brazil, the Spanish curator seems more willing than ever to question Western myths that were thought to be universal.

He cites the concept of the “enigma”: “For me, perhaps it comes from the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, but the enigma also comes from the Yoruba,” the practitioners of the original West African religions that have spread to various Latin American countries.

He now defends different narratives, for example, telling the story of a hypothetical slave who is only known to have been captured by European traffickers and to have died during the boat trip to the colony.

“That is what remains in the file, with which she remains enslaved forever. It is a double punishment. The art world sometimes revels in the misery of others, but what we don’t know is that this person had tastes, sensibilities, affections…” he affirms.

According to him, art has the ability to “create new worlds”.

Europe has begun to criticize itself, but there is still a long way to go, says the curator: “At the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, they talk about the fact that many works were looted, they talk about deaths, about wars… but the Germans keep on talking.”


Although he refuses to fall into racial “quotas” because he believes that they impoverish the “poetic” element of an art exhibition, Borja-Villel believes that the indigenous voices that populate the Biennial are a spearhead of the critique of Eurocentrism.

The curator naturally jumps from Africa to Asia and back to the Americas, where the Maya see nature as part of themselves, and this marks their defense of the territory and their art, he explains.

“Mayan artists have no problem with activism. What is almost a red line in a Western museum, because it is supposed to be dedicated to art not to politics, does not exist in other cultures,” he says.

The barrier between politics and art seems to Borja-Villel to be a “Western” distinction, artificial and insufficient to deal with the “culture wars” and “fake news” of today.


In fact, his decision not to run again for the Museo Reina Sofía was shrouded in controversy, with opinions divided between those who defended innovative work and those who accused him of politicizing the institution.

“My departure caused some right-wing media to give me more coverage than Pedro Sánchez (president of the Spanish government), we must be very dangerous,” he recalls with a smile.

Related Articles

Back to top button