With the Venice Biennale set to open in just a few months, the Portuguese Pavilion has become embroiled in controversy as one curator alleged that the way the winning proposal was selected was unfair.
Curator Bruno Leitão, founder of the Hangar – Artistic Research Center in Lisbon, decried the decision-making process in an open letter on Tuesday, claiming that the means by which the jury selected Pedro Neves Marques were riddled with “inconsistencies and irregularities.” He had proposed a pavilion by Grada Kilomba, an internationally acclaimed artist who has shown at Documenta, the Berlin Biennale, and, earlier this year, the newly inaugurated Amant art space in Brooklyn, and he is seeking to appeal the decision.
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Unlike the U.S. Pavilion, for which institutions are asked to submit proposals for projects by artists, curators are the ones who apply to do the Portuguese Pavilion. As part of the application, they put forward ideas for artists, along with information about a proposed project.
Kilomba’s pavilion was to draw on the writings about decolonization and feature a trilogy of videos about the notion of racism as an open wound. Were Leitão’s proposal to have been chosen, Kilomba would have become the first Black artist to represent Portugal at the Venice Biennale. One member of the four-person jury, critic Nuno Crespo, appears to have taken issue with that proposal, writing that “the idea of racism as an open wound has already been the subject of numerous other approaches.”
In an interview, Leitão called that response to Kilomba’s art “problematic” and said that, within Portugal, her art stands out because it deals head-on with colonialism—a rarity, Leitão said, for the country’s scene. “There’s not a lot of artists dealing with this,” he continued. “And then [Crespo] says this, which is completely unacceptable for us, as an argument, for such a bad grade.” (Leitão said that because he was the person who proposed the pavilion, he was the application’s representative, and therefore Kilomba was legally unable to speak about it.)
Leitão also raised issues with the system by which the jury members chose the winning proposal was flawed. Jurors were asked to grade the pavilion on three factors, including concept and viability. For each category, the jurors give a score between 1 and 20, which are weighted differently and then calculated into a percentage.
Documents obtained by ARTnews show that all except Crespo rated Leitão’s pavilion highly. The other three jurors scored her proposal at either 19 or 20 in each three categories, and gave no other proposal as high scores. Meanwhile, Crespo appears to have effectively tossed out Kilomba’s pavilion by giving two scores of 10 and one of 15, which put her score 3 percentage points below the Neves Marques proposal. Upon an appeal, there was a second vote with a similar outcome. “The explanations were really inadequate for the grades that we had,” Leitão said, adding that his goal in making public his allegations against the jury was to initiate permanent changes to the jury’s process.
The Portuguese Ministry of Culture, which commissions the pavilion, did not respond to a request for comment.
The winning proposal by Neves Marques was announced in November—relatively late for a pavilion at the Venice Biennale—and is set to be titled “Vampires in Space.” Neves Marques may be less widely known than Kilomba, though their star is on the rise. They just won a special award from the Future Generation Art Prize this week, and their work was included in this year’s editions of the Liverpool Biennial and the Gwangju Biennale.
The controversy over the pavilion has played out in the Portuguese press. Last week, critic Ana Teixeira Pinto took to Lisbon-based newspaper Público to call the rejection of Leitão’s proposal “racist and misogynistic,” writing that, while Kilomba’s work in Venice was unlikely to solve anti-Blackness in Portugal, “it would open a door, a perspective, the possibility to imagine a future a little different, even if only marginally better. It was this possibility that the jury denied us. In its place is the wound, open, to which Portugal refuses to pay attention.”