“Damn!” Reminiscent of a TV show you want to tell all your friends about, ‘Swinguerra’ (2019) by Brazil-based artists Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, showcased at the Brazilian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale, felt honest and communicative in a human-to-human way. This artwork possesses all the qualities you would want to find in a friend: empathy, humility, off-beat, daring and an absolute joy.
Described by the curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro as a “dance-documentary” about a community of dancers preparing for battle, the film includes the group’s warm-ups, preparations, daydreams and quiet moments - basically an “all-access” pass into their lives. Without any political knowledge of Brazil, this work conveys the strife in gender, identity and race that is embedded in the political landscape, given nuance by the dancers’ body language. The exhibition is comprised of a two-channel film installation and a selection of portraits of the dancers in a freeze-frame.
The title of this work is a portmanteau of the dance form ‘Swingueira’ (a music and dance form originating in Bahia in the Northeast of Brazil) and ‘guerra’, meaning war. This offers some edutainment (if you will) relating to the violence faced by these dancers, many of whom identify as black and non-binary. On the São Paulo Biennial website, the commissioned artwork is described as “occupying” the pavilion. It’s a political work - calling for action.
The narrative is communicated through dance, articulated by the dancers’ fluid movements, which come together through production, costumes, music and camera work in a colourful, exuberant style. With the type of almost golden lighting you might find in a music video, each colour “pops” in a warm palette reminiscent of a deliciously golden sun heating up your skin.
This aesthetic quality made me consider the idea of perception.; If you were to Google “Bahia”, a lush picture of a stunning beach appears on the search page, whereas if you were to search “Birmingham”, an unusual public library comes up with a clear but questionable architectural goal. What does this say? Nothing really. But if I were to look at this picture of Bahia, I would think how beautiful Brazil is, forgetting the turbulent nature of the political landscape thrashing about within the ideological frameworks of visibility, self-representation and legal rights in a country populated by 209 million people.
Returning home, I learnt that Brazilian people will not speak their president’s name and violence to women is in contrast, widely discussed. Take for example the murder of politician, and feminist and human rights activist Marielle Franco, who was murdered in Brazil in March 2018 - described as “the most disposable body in the city” for being black, gay and a woman from a favela by her widow Monica Benicio. This is why ‘Swinguerra’ is so effective. As an artwork that is the “official representation” of Brazil, it has truly excellent communication skills, conveying some of the troubling socio-political conditions faced by these dancers and more broadly, the population of Brazil.
In the context of watching this work at the Venice Biennale there is another framework to consider socially, politically and economically, leading me to question the inception of this work and who is it for? The wall text accompanying this work at the Brazilian Pavilion reads “Wagner and De Burca work collaboratively with their performers deciding all aspects of the final work collectively”. This was palpable in the way the dancers appeared to be acting as themselves, whilst blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The dancers are not just part of the artwork but part of the reality of Brazil - speaking to the audience.
There was everything you’d expect in a dance battle: rivalry, jealousy, competition and judgment. I’m only curious to understand how the narrative was developed? For example, who decided to add in the elderly lady who appears at the end of the film singing about a tabourette stool she is selling (“for only 10 bucks!”)? This surprising moment drew me back to reality and was followed by a shot of the lead dancer walking away, marking the end of the film. In short, the work comes together like a perfect bouquet that a bee comes out of and almost stings you in the eye.
Laura O’Leary is a writer and curator, based between Derby and Birmingham, UK. Laura’s research trip to the Venice Biennale was made possible with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund.