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In his first interview since his appointment, celebrated Colombian curator José Roca speaks about bringing a sense of radical urgency to his new role. “I intend to look for practices that are already under way and let the biennale be a catalyst for the process. One of my guiding principles is to build upon what is already built.” By Neha Kale.

José Roca, artistic director of the 23rd Sydney Biennale

Colombian curator José Roca, the artistic director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney.
Credit: Alejandra Quintero Sinisterra

For José Roca, hype is not the same as significance. Art isn’t about the code of insiders, the journey from biennale to art fair to exhibition opening. It’s about the work itself.

Events such as the Venice Biennale – the archetypal global contemporary art exhibition, upon which others have long modelled themselves – have their own version of hype. “There’s that comment ‘I saw it in Venice’ – yeah, you did, but no one else did,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “An interesting work that has been seen elsewhere is in no way exhausted of its meaning. It can speak to a new public, not just the privileged few who can travel to Venice or documenta.”

The celebrated Colombian curator believes novelty never determines the connection between art and the person who sees it. It doesn’t dictate the power of an artist’s work.

Roca, 58, was appointed artistic director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney last month, succeeding the artist Brook Andrew, who was the first Indigenous curator in the exhibition’s 45-year history. He’s bringing a radical new vision to Sydney in a year of environmental and social crisis.

Roca has curly black hair and blue-green eyes that shine with intensity behind a pair of round silver-rimmed spectacles. Speaking from his home in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, he articulates his ideas with a rare intellectual and ethical conviction.

He found himself saying “yes” when the Biennale of Sydney asked him to submit a proposal. He saw the biennale for the first time two years ago, he tells me, while visiting his daughter, who lives in Melbourne.

“I learnt that it was one of the oldest biennales in the world, the first to show Aboriginal art, the first artist-led biennale,” he says. “As an institution, it is eager to reinvent itself and respond to cultural shifts. I think Brook Andrew’s biennale was a very important point of departure.” He pauses for a moment. “I felt that I could contribute to that.”

Roca has learnt that energy isn’t infinite. He says that devoting yourself to an artistic endeavour isn’t only about reaching your own limits. It can also be about knowing when to hold back.

In 2011, Roca had just finished curating the 8th Mercosul Biennial, which unfolded across Porto Alegre, a town on the south coast of Brazil near the ocean, a lagoon and five rivers. He vowed it would be his last.

“It was a super-complex project on the periphery of the periphery,” he says. “In Latin America, we are not the centre of the art world, we are an alternative centre. We did a lot of things there to expand the notion of the biennial in time and in space.” He flashes a proud smile. “I gave it all there. [But] I felt depleted. I got asked, ‘When is your next biennial?’ And I said, ‘I will never curate a biennial again because I have run out of ideas.’ ”

Ten years on, ideas of time and space, centre and periphery are being overturned and rewritten – and not just in the art world.

“The art world is different. The world is different. The climate crisis didn’t seem so urgent in 2011 – and now it is,” he says.

On paper, Roca – a global authority on the contemporary art of Latin America – is the consummate international curator. Over 30 years he’s worked with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern, where, as the Estrellita B. Brodsky Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art, he made flying visits to London. He co-curated the 27th São Paulo Biennial, based on a series of Roland Barthes’ lectures titled “How to Live Together”, and served on the jury for the 52nd Venice Biennale a year later.

In November, Roca will relocate to Sydney with his wife, Adriana Hurtado, with whom he runs FLORA ars + natura, a pioneering Bogotá art space that explores the connections between art, bodies and nature.

“For me, it was imperative to move to Australia for the entire duration of the process,” he explains. “If you are talking about the environment, you can’t contribute to a huge carbon footprint. We have to be thinking about the craft of doing larger exhibitions.”

Roca’s vision is intertwined with his principles. His biennale, planned for March 2022, will be fiercely anti-hierarchical. For instance, he will share curatorial responsibilities with a collective named the Curatorium. It includes the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Paschal Daantos Berry, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Anna Davis, Artspace curator Talia Linz, and Hannah Donnelly, producer of First Nations programs at Information + Cultural Exchange in Parramatta.

Their work, subject to a set of guidelines created by Roca, won’t involve countless research trips. “We will be relying on a network of trusted colleagues who will introduce us to the practices we need to see,” he says.

There will be no dramatic reveal of artists. No white cubes unless absolutely necessary. Overseas works may be reproduced locally, and commissions may travel to other Australian cities. Roca insists the show will be “visually enjoyable and powerful and important”. “We will try to bring artists to Australia despite the environmental costs,” he says, “and let them engage with the public beyond the exhibition.”

For Roca, the biennale is a conduit for forces already in motion. “Inclusion in a biennale can be dangerous because you can start something that won’t have continuity,” he says. “I intend to look for practices that are already under way and let the biennale be a catalyst for the process.”

Roca leans forward for emphasis. “One of my guiding principles is to build upon what is already built.”

 

Roca was born in 1962 in the port city of Barranquilla. He grew up in Bogotá. His parents, he says, were “avid readers”. He studied architecture at the National University of Colombia, following the lead of his older brother, Mario, an architect. “It was a political battlefield – and a real one, too,” he says. “There were these huge upheavals every time a restrictive government put out its policies. One of my classmates was killed by a bullet, so the university was closed for a year.”

At the time, Roca was editing a student magazine, which was stocked in the bookshop at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá, the city’s major modern art museum. He found a job as a waiter in the in-house restaurant before he began working part-time at the institution’s Department of Architecture.

There he switched to exhibition design and in 1990 was hired by the city’s largest public library, Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango. It was a period, says Roca, where Colombian artists were moving away from their studios to make installations in situ.

“It gave me a close relationship to the artist’s processes,” he says. “[This] would precede my interest in curatorial practice, which was anchored by my understanding of the exhibition as a device.”

In 1993 Roca moved to Paris, where he assisted the curator Jean Dethier at the Centre Pompidou. When he returned to Bogotá, he was appointed the director of arts at the Banco de la República, home to the country’s most important art collection. The collection was originally part of the public library, but Roca fought for the works to be shown in a purpose-built museum. “Those 14 years were working against my boss and a very conservative advisory board,” says Roca, who took a one-year sabbatical at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – studying under art critic Hal Foster and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak – in 2001. “I felt an obligation to claim that space for new forms of art. Before me, there was a progressive curator [Carolina Ponce de León] who was my mentor. I had to continue the work she had been doing.” 

That work, says Roca, included curating mid-career surveys that would raise the profile of Colombian artists both inside and outside the country. “During the ’70s and ’80s and especially the ’90s and mid-noughties, Colombia was ravaged by politically instigated violence fuelled by money from the drug trade,” he says. “It was completely isolated from the wider world. [When] I had the opportunity to do things outside Colombia, I made sure I represented the interests of local artists.” 

At Tate Modern, Roca was charged with building the gallery’s Latin American art collection. He put the great contemporary artists of that region in dialogue with the stars of Western art history. In doing so, he challenged the colonial impulse to curate those making art outside Europe and America according to geography, rather than aesthetic achievement.

“[I] would acquire a piece because it would dialogue well with a Joseph Beuys piece, not another Latin American piece,” says Roca, whose acquisitions for the Tate included Beatriz González’s 1981 work Interior Decoration: an image of former Colombian president Julio César Turbay Ayala mingling with guests at a party.

“It’s printed on the curtains of an apartment and encompasses the artist’s critical stance against power,” explains Roca. He delves into the ways Colombian contemporary artists responded to the country’s changing political context at the turn of the century in his 2013 book Transpolítico: art in Colombia 1992-2012, co-written with curator Sylvia Suárez.

The Tate asked him to stay three more years. But Roca was getting tired. “I had teenage daughters,” he says. “I wanted to go back to Colombia. When you are an independent curator, you are a hired gun. Your work gets dispersed all over the world. But if you are an institutional curator, with all the red tape, you are working for a local community – even if you are a non-profit working out of a small garage.”

In 2011, Roca and Hurtado, who’ve been together since 1983, bought a building in the neighbourhood of San Felipe. In 2013, they opened FLORA. In photographs, the space – which features a courtyard filled with tropical plants – looks like a sanctuary and, in a way, it is. The couple nurtured the energies of local artists while connecting their global peers with the city’s growing art scene. At first they held residencies at their country home, exhibiting the results at FLORA. Then they started an education program titled Escuela Flora.

“It’s based loosely on the Whitney’s program – tutors give the artists seminars and studio visits,” says Roca, adding that starting FLORA was possible because the couple decided to live for 20 years on one salary.

In February, Roca and Hurtado launched a new initiative, Movimientos, leading a field trip to Sierra Nevada. For Roca, this was about enabling cultural exchange between artists and Indigenous communities. “[It’s about] valuing the thinking of communities that have lived in harmony with the earth for millennia,” he says. “One of the ethnic groups that live in the Sierra Nevada, the Kogis, were pushed up the mountain by the colonisers. They see what we are doing with the land, the water, the river, the sacred places – and they can’t do anything to prevent it.”

In 2014, Roca, alongside writer Alejandro Martín, curated Waterweavers, an exhibition at New York’s Bard Graduate Center. The show was lauded for dissolving the hierarchies between Colombian contemporary art and Indigenous material culture, drawing on these visual languages to explore the way the country’s colonial history plays out along its waterways.

It’s a thread that Roca will pick up in Sydney. “Struggles of colonisation have to deal with the political importance of water,” says Roca, who is planning an experimental art space called the Waterhouse in the year before the biennale begins.

If Andrew’s biennale, NIRIN, told a story of edges, bringing the visual cultures that European art history relegated to the fringes to the centre of the art world, Roca is decentring the role of the artist altogether.

“Twelve years ago, I started looking outside the realm of art to include self-taught people who didn’t consider themselves artists,” Roca says, pointing to a “decimero” or street poet called “El Diablo” who gave a compelling performance as part of Cacao Tumaco, a show he curated in 2018. “It opened my eyes to art that wasn’t meant to be art, to other ways of thinking.”

Roca will open the biennale up to troubadours, Indigenous elders, activists and storytellers. “We will refer to those involved as participants and not use the generic word artists,” his guidelines advise.

Reimagining a biennale, I point out, is ambitious in an art world that’s facing shrinking resources, being forced to rethink itself. Roca has been preparing all his life for this challenge.

“An important Brazilian artist, Hélio Oiticica, once said da adversidade vivemos – ‘from adversity we live’,” Roca tells me, smiling. “We have to be very resourceful in Colombia, do things in difficult situations. I think the key is to claim it as a strength.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "A catalysing force".

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Neha Kale is a Sydney-based writer and former editor of VAULT magazine.