Isabel Carrasco Castro: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands

Our dear friend, Isabel (Dr. María Isabel Carrasco Castro, art historian and program director for Marist College Madrid at Universidad Carlos III) is leading a group of our students at Venice’s Biennale 2022. She has generously agreed to serve as our impromptu correspondent in Italy.

Born and based in Spain, Isabel Carrasco Castro holds a PhD in Aesthetics from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. In addition to acting as the Program Director for Marist College Madrid, Isabel delivers lectures and publishes about her research outcomes and interests that focus on the relationship between image and writing in contemporary art and their interactions in public space. She is a member of the scientific committee for specialized conferences and publications such as “Art and the City: Urban Space, Art and Social Change,” Aarhus and “Street Art and Urban Creativity,” Lisbon. Isabel is the current president of INDAGUE (Spanish Association of Researchers and Diffusors of Graffiti and Street Art), and she is a practicing calligrapher. Some of her recent publications are Frogmen. Primi belati di street art a Firenze, co-authored with Aroldo Marinai (Smith Editore, 2021) or “El juego entre la escritura y la imagen en el graffiti americano de 1960 y 1970” (CSIC, soon to be launched).

Here is a brief interview conducted via cross-Atlantic communication:

Ivette Romero/Repeating Islands (IR/RI): Thank you so much for sending me your video of the Arsenale for this 2022 Venice Biennale. It was thrilling to see Simone Leigh’s magnificent, 16-foot-tall bronze bust Brick House surrounded by all those breathtaking works by that Cuban “great”—the late Belkis Ayón. My first reaction was “I wish I were there!” This is deeply personal, but can you tell me a bit about your first reaction?

Isabel Carrasco Castro (ICC): I arrived at the Biennale with no previous expectations or without having read much about it. My first impressions were very positive; I immediately grasped the optimism that curator Cecilia Alemani intended to transmit, as I was able to read later. I first thought that a positive change was occurring, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. With the exhibition, I became aware that in the last three years, we not only went through a horrific pandemic, but we also had the opportunity to stop and reflect upon our own destiny and position as sentient beings in the World. Somehow the pandemic triggered our most primary instincts of fear and protection and forced us to focus on the basics. We felt together in our insignificance and weakness, demolishing the psychological boundaries that separate us when we are too busy to question them. I am aware that art operates at a symbolic level and that, as we discussed with our students, unfortunately, art today seems to follow social change instead of leading it. But art, especially an event of the Venice Biennale magnitude, has the power to reconfirm social change by materializing temporary utopias. The exhibition displays trauma and healing, inequality and justice, obliteration and memory, sensibility/intimacy and the power of making it public; and I think that, in this sense, it distillates optimism—an optimism that I immediately felt and had to pass on, for example, by sharing with you.

I was moved to see the opening with Belkis Ayón’s work for several reasons. The first is that I had seen her work recently, thanks to the exhibition “Belkis Ayón: Collographs” at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, which I believe was the first retrospective exhibition of her work in Europe. So, when I saw the pieces at the Arsenale, my fascination with her work was very fresh. The copies of her collographic work embrace and stand in conversation with the central, monumental sculpture by Simone Leigh. I mention “copies” because a few of Ayón’s original pieces were in St. Petersburg and were not exhibited in Venice due to the war. This absence, so patent in the opening hall, besides being powerfully felt was also an acknowledgement of the political situation and how it affects the art sphere. Ayón’s work touched our students so deeply, because of its expressivity and spirituality, that some of them decided to try out her technique during the program. What I most admire is the level of sophistication that the artist achieves through a technique that is, in principle, quite simple. She also broaches universal themes with which one may connect readily, through a very personal style crafted with iconographic motifs of her Abakuá community. For me, this work represents very well the journey from the local to the universal.

IR/RI: In our correspondence, you mentioned the strong display of post-colonial “revision” or commentary. I am curious about your point of view as a European woman, an art critic and practitioner (as you know, I love your work) . . . Would you comment further about your impressions about this—perhaps, “different”—presence at the Biennale?

ICC: Opening the exhibition with artists such as Simone Leigh and Belkis Ayón is, I believe, a statement in itself. So is the vast presence of indigenous art and textile pieces. Many countries are represented with a non-hegemonic national discourse or have re-thought their past, like the Scandinavian one—renamed the Sámi Pavilion—or the pavilions of Greece and Poland, which touch upon Roma culture. There is also the Ghana Pavilion, which displays anticolonial symbols. I think that, in many cases, national discourses have been left behind or questioned to—literally—leave (the) space open to minorities who are present in those territories and whose identities may defy their very concept of nation. I think the spirit can be summarized in Simone Leigh´s transformation of the United States Pavilion in which the neo-Palladian white architecture that represents Western aesthetic and political values and reason have been covered by natural materials, making a reference to former colonial exhibitions.

I also noticed representations of topics like plants or animals and their use and role in colonialism as a way to broaden the post-colonial lens to other beings beyond the human. The critique and questioning of anthropocentrism and human perspective is also an important subject of this biennale, incorporating reflections about hybridizations—animal-human-machine—and post-humanism in general. An example of this could be the Estonian Pavilion entitled Orchidelirium: An Appetite for Abundance, which reviews the history of Emilie Rosalie Saal, a 19th-century traveler and artist approaching the exploitation of orchids during colonization.

But we don´t live in a perfect World, of course. The exhibition in the Giardini section opens with the giant sculpture “Elefant / Elephant,” by Katharina Fritsch, which made me feel immediately in all the things that are not spoken in the middle of this intersectional revisions that cross the biennale such as the closing of the Russian pavilion, the presence of countries where censorship dictates art and human rights are not respected… I read that sculpture as the “elephant in the room” of institutional art.

IR/RI: You had also written to me briefly about the refreshing presence of women artists, 80%, as far as you had seen in those first few moments. Is this quite different from previous manifestations of the Venice Biennale, now in its 59th edition?  

ICC: The number of female or non-binary artists represented in the Biennale had been increasing in recent years but had never reached such a dominant presence. Women are not only represented in number; the time capsule sections also elaborate on the key role of female artists in different movements of art history since the late 19th century, like Surrealism or Futurism. I had a similar impression with the mediums represented. Abstract geometry in cold, hard materials have given way to softer pieces, for instance, textiles—knitted or embroidered—or other natural materials such as we see in Precious Okoyomon’s installation “To See the Earth before the End of the World,” which closes the Arsenale exhibition.

I think the ultimate message is not only that women or non-binary people in art history have been ignored and misrepresented, but that social circumstances have led them to focus on certain subjects and types of art in which they are indeed the dominant gender. The main exhibitions revolve around topics traditionally associated to the feminine such as intimacy, witchcraft, spirituality, or storytelling, and women have been the depositories and transmitting agents of these “cultures of the irrational” that have been proved to be as necessary for our existence as reason.

IR/RI: Earlier in Repeating Islands, we posted that Afro-Caribbean roots were “alive and well” at the Venice Biennale, when we announced that Sonia Boyce and Simone Leigh recently won Golden Lions at the Venice Biennale for work honoring the visions of Black women. Apparently, Boyce was the first Black woman to represent the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale in 2022; and Leigh was the first Black woman to represent the United States at the 2020 Biennale. Would you say that this may be, in part, a result of the now-global Black Lives Matter movement? Did you observe the work of other Black artists in your visits to the various Pavilions that made a deep impression on you?

ICC: Yes, there is a significant presence of artists of color in the Biennale and it is logical, I guess, to believe that it has been the consequence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. By the same token, the strong presence of women might be the result of the most recent feminist waves resulting from the “Me Too” movement. Cecilia Alemani is based in the United States where those movements started. In the USA these revisions are more common and start earlier than in Europe.

I´ve said that my personal and first impression of this Biennale has been very positive but let me add a critical note here. As I mentioned when sharing thoughts with our students, institutional art seems to be always the result of social change rather than the leader so there is a bittersweet feeling on this: if these artists deserve to be here, why were they not invited earlier? We all know that trendy ideological discourses can also be profitable. I agree and support the mentioned causes and I think that the process towards discourse normalization might need to go through this phase, but I have mixed feelings when I see causes like racism or feminism commodified and spectacularized. I think curating a biennale after this period of pandemic and social movements is a kind of “hot potato” and a huge responsibility and I think Alemani did an excellent job.

Regarding other artists of color who made a deep impression on me, I would mention the intense spirituality of the work of Portia Zvavahera (Zimbabwe, see above), the rawness of Rosana Paulino (Brazil) and the maturity of a very young artist, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami (Zimbabwe). I didn´t know any of these artists before this biennale and I think these magical encounters are what make events like the biennale so special and necessary.

IR/RI: Of course, the Caribbean presence has been ongoing at the Venice Biennale, at least in the 21st century. Are there other Caribbean artists that come to mind whose work was displayed at the Biennale this year?

I noticed the presence of Haitian artists such as Célestine Faustin, Frantz Zéphirin, or Myrlande Constant, and Firelei Báez from the Dominican Republic. In addition, I think it is the first year that Grenada presents its own pavilion in the Venice Biennale.

IR/RI: Are there presently or do you foresee Black artists (with roots from the Caribbean or elsewhere) representing Spain at the Biennale?

ICC: There are no Black artists representing Spain in this Biennale, but obviously there are artists of color working in Spain. In Spain, the proposal is selected by an independent jury composed of museum directors, curators and art critics that usually work at high levels and are very close to the institutions.  I guess that as soon as institutions broaden their perspectives and/or people of color conquer certain spaces both as artists and as museum curators and directors, it will be possible.

IR/RI: As I know that you are leading a select group of students in Venice this year, I wonder what is the most important lesson that you would like them to receive from this amazing aesthetic experience?

ICC: I think it is important that young artists keep educating and refining their gaze by studying art history and art theory, not only to know what has been done before them, but also to understand the historical connotations of their choices in terms of subjects and medium. In addition, I think it is key that they keep working on demolishing prejudices regarding certain types of genres or materials. I think this Biennale can teach them about the complexity of the arts in diverse cultural contexts and this may push them to interrogate their own conceptions of art and the reasons and purposes of their own art making.

In conclusion, I would like to thank you both—Ivette and Lisa—for this opportunity. It helped me to keep my eyes open and to reflect upon my impressions as a mere visitor at the Biennale.

[Photo of Isabel Carrasco at the Spanish Pavilion by Devin Fiol. Photos of the works of Simone Leigh, Belkis Ayón, and Firelei Báez by Haupt & Binder, Universes in Universe; see Photo of the work of work of Portia Zvavahera from Artsy.]

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