The artwork “Portrait of Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun” on display at the São Paulo Biennial

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.


The São Paulo Biennial will open its 35th edition today under the title Choreographies of the Impossible. The exhibition emerges as an invitation to radical imagination about the unknown. Or even the impossible.

As a result of the dialogue that arose from the ZABAL programme, the work "Portrait of Doña Catalina de Erauso, the Nun Ensign" will be the Basque presence at the most important Biennial on the American continent and one of the most important in the world.

Three of the four curators of the 35th Biennial, Manuel Borja-Villel, Diane Lima and Hélio Menezes, were able to see Juan van der Hamen´s work last year during a visit to the Basque Country as part of the ZABAL programme.

The portrait was part of the exhibition ´A Voice for Erauso. Epilogue for a Trans Time´ at Azkuna Zentroa-Alhóndiga Bilbao, which showed the work of the artistic collective Cabello/Carceller (Helena Cabello and Ana Carceller) under the curatorship of Paul B. Preciado.

Juan van der Hamen painted the portrait of Catalina de Erauso dressed as a lieutenant for the Spanish Navy between 1625 and 1628. Today it is one of the most outstanding pieces in Kutxa Fundazioa — a collection of more than 5,500 works whose purpose is to conserve, research and disseminate art and artists related to the province of Gipuzkoa.

Erauso was born a girl in San Sebastián in 1592 and was given the name Catalina. She is often better known as an ensign or lieutenant nun, thanks in part to her autobiography, in which she recounted the adventures of a young woman who ran away from the convent "dressed as a man" and then travelled as a soldier and trader through the lands colonised by the Spanish empire from Chile to Mexico (with names such as Francisco Loyola, Juan Arriola, Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán... and Antonio Erauso). Paul B. Preciado, curator of the Azkuna Zentroa exhibition, pointed out that "the portrait of Erauso as a man could be considered one of the first ´trans´ portraits in the history of Renaissance art".

Basque contemporary art and ZABAL

The portrait of Catalina de Erauso at the São Paulo Biennial is the result of the work carried out through the ZABAL programme. In 2022 June Crespo was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale, and Consonni, an independent publishing house and cultural space in Bilbao, took part in the prestigious international exhibition Documenta 15 held in Kassel, Germany.

In 2019, the Etxepare Basque Institute introduced the ZABAL initiative, with the goal of enhancing the global visibility of Basque culture and artists. The programme seeks to disseminate contemporary Basque creation by weaving networks that facilitate long-term exchange and cooperation between creators, professionals, stakeholders and local entities. ZABAL also aims to establish lines of collaboration and enduring relationships with the most prominent international art exhibitions.

In short, ZABAL aims to generate new possibilities for Basque artists, and to create new ways of connecting with the international panorama. Specifically, the Institute invites international curators, art critics and museum directors to learn about the local art scene in the Basque Country with an eye to encouraging direct collaboration with Basque artists. To execute this project, the Institute receives technical support from Artingenium, specialising in the management of projects connected to both local and international contemporary art.

To date, there have been nine visits from delegates representing some of the world´s most renowned biennials and art festivals, all with the objective of gaining insights into the Basque artistic landscape. Representatives of the São Paulo Biennial (2019 and 2022), Documenta Fifteen (2020), the Shanghai Biennial (2021 and 2023), the Venice Biennial (2022), the Istanbul Biennial (2022), Art Jameel (2022) and the Sydney Biennial (2023) have all visited the Basque Country.

Find out more about the ZABAL project here

The Etxepare Basque Institue and the artist

In 2019, the Etxepare Basque Institute introduced the ZABAL initiative, with the goal of enhancing the global visibility of Basque culture and artists

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