Arizona Biennial 2023, a six-month showcase at Tucson Museum of Art, includes sixty-seven works selected by curator Taína Caragol.
TUCSON—The Arizona Biennial 2023 in Tucson is putting Arizona arts on the map, thanks in part to Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture, and Latino art and history at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
She is best known to many for leading the gallery’s commission of Kehinde Wiley’s 2018 portrait of President Barack Obama.
“There’s a movement in the art world to look beyond the art centers, but places like New York, California, and Miami still steal the spotlight,” according to Caragol, who served as juror for this year’s biennial, which opened April 1 and continues through October 1 at the Tucson Museum of Art.
“The museum has such a long history of organizing the exhibition and bringing in jurors from other places,” says Caragol, who spoke with Southwest Contemporary in April. “It’s a great way for artists to get exposure beyond Arizona.”
The museum traces the exhibition’s roots to 1946, although it wasn’t dubbed the Arizona Biennial until 1980, according to Julie Sasse, chief curator for the Tucson Museum of Art. That year, the juror was Barbara Haskell, a curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
“It’s important that artists get to be seen by someone outside the state who can discover them,” explains Sasse. “Arizona is still so underappreciated.”
This year, the biennial includes sixty-seven pieces by fifty-six artists selected from 400 open-call entries. Featured media include drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, textiles, video, and more. Most artworks in the exhibition were created between 2020 and 2022.
So what does the artist list look like this year?
According to Sasse, there are more emerging than established artists, and more Tucson-based artists than usual. Jurors don’t see artist names while reviewing their work, by the way.
“We always have a group of artists selected for the ways they’re working with flora and fauna, and we always have some politically minded artists,” Sasse says.
This year, for example, the biennial includes sculptures by Nikki Berger Martinez, who incorporated foraged and found objects such as seed pods and wire, as well as video and photography from David Taylor’s Complex series exploring migrant detention centers into her work.
“I was very impressed with the wide range of media, the rigor of the work, and how you could see the state’s ethnic and cultural diversity,” Caragol recalls of reviewing artist submissions during her first trip to Arizona in 2022.
“I loved the focus on the environment and the immediate geographical context,” adds Caragol. “You can see the beauty and the harshness, and the way geopolitics are embedded in the landscape of this border state.”
But she was also struck by works addressing several additional themes, including labor and obsolescence, pandemic experiences, and cultural assimilation.
While discussing her experience jurying the biennial, Caragol noted the particular strengths of several artworks, including Kaitlyn Jo Smith’s Fixtures (2021), an installation created with porcelain, PVA, wood, and steel.
“There’s a beautiful quality to this seemingly archeological site of our post-industrial era, with its illumination and the way it sheds light on the economic realities of blue-collar workers displaced by automation,” she says.
Before jurying the exhibition, Caragol hadn’t heard of artist Safwat Saleem. Now, she describes his Oral History (of us), created in 2022, as one of her favorite pieces in the show. “It’s a powerful artwork and one of the most poignant parts of the exhibition.”
Museum-goers place a tape in the player, listen to Saleem describe his experiences as an immigrant of South Asian and Muslim descent, then remove the tape and discard it in the bin. “It’s such a strong metaphor for that sense of cultural loss that comes with assimilation and what gets lost or sometimes passed down from generation to generation,” Caragol explains.
Caragol hopes to return to Arizona during the exhibition’s run and spend more time conducting artist studio visits in the state. “I’m grateful for being exposed to these artists and having them in my field of view.”
On Thursday, September 7, Arizona Biennial 2023 artists Safwat Saleem and lydia see will discuss their work and practice during an artists spotlight event at the Tucson Museum of Art.