For the 2020 Sydney Biennale, artistic director Brook Andrew is challenging the dominant narratives of this country, instead bringing together perspectives that have been unjustly relegated. “Australia is on a precipice of change in this present moment, with people renegotiating and confronting histories which shift dimensionally. It’s about who we are today, and there is a moral question that arises in this, which is: Where do you stand in the face of change?” By Amrita Hepi.

Sydney Biennale artistic director Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew.
Brook Andrew.
Credit: Leah Jing

Brook Andrew, from an outside glance, might appear as a sort of polymath. There is the temptation to frame him as some new version of a Renaissance man – the prolific artist and curator, the Oxford PhD candidate, the recently appointed director of the Sydney Biennale. This description, however, falls flat; it feels reductive.

Andrew’s studio in Melbourne’s west opens up to floor-to-ceiling windows, a spot to greet people for tea, and two big flat table spaces I imagine have been privy to artefacts that long surpass my lifetime. He has been the artist in-residence at many places, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Musée du Quai Branly, both of which house enormous colonial and indigenous artefacts, as well as human remains. Here, in Andrew’s Footscray studio, there are remains, too – photographs and other archive materials.

As we sit down to have a yarn, Andrew asks me what the piece will be about, and I say him – that is what people are interested in. But I think it will really just be two artists talking to each other, I tell him, confessing I’ve followed his career over time, even though my work is mostly in dance and choreography. He relaxes a little and tells me he’s excited to talk.

Being with him in this space, I’m reminded of the observation made by art critic John Berger, that “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”

Andrew has spoken about the influence of the Surrealist movement on his work. So many of his life-size assemblages bring to mind the game “exquisite corpse”, which was played by the Surrealists – drawing a head on a piece of paper, folding the page and handing it to someone else to draw the torso, and folding once more to finish the feet.

In the artist’s avid collection, we see a man amassing not only a series of truths, but also the space to gesture towards a horizon line – an exquisite corpse of photographs – and to acknowledge the radically different ways we can comprehend light, darkness, duality and ruptures. There is room for complication and questioning of one’s own observations, transgressions and complicity in colonial narratives.

“If we look at the history of sovereignty or the history of Australia, there is that trope that everyone that came here was an asylum seeker, and it’s true,” he says. “Australia has always been a place of movement. And the primitive narrative around that was that it was an unchanged people, or that there was no contact with the outside world, which is insane.”

To understand Brook Andrew and his success is to know that excellence can’t exist in a vacuum, especially Indigenous excellence. Of Wiradjuri and Scottish heritage, he cultivates community – that slippery and elusive word – and cements it into his practice. There is a true artistic kinship that he folds around him.

To know Andrew’s work is to understand that collective memory, assemblage and breaches are always present in the stories we tell ourselves – and that each society has ancestral versions of these. His approach has been to draw together from the nirin – the Wiradjuri word for “edge”, and the title of the 2020 Sydney Biennale. However, nirin is not, as Andrew explained when announcing the biennale, “a periphery, it is our centre, and it expresses dynamic existing and ancient practices that speak loudly”.

In his studio, he elaborates on this choice: “People are often scared to say Indigenous words or use language in the fear of ‘getting it wrong’. However, we mispronounce so many things – so I’ve felt that inserting nirin into the vocabulary and title means that people have to say it.”

As an artist, Andrew has always had a way of pushing forward soft-power provocations. In 2012-13, he curated Taboo at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, which built upon blakatak, a 2005 series of talks and performances. Although he was already a provocative artist of note by that point, Taboo was a seminal exhibition in his career.

I remember it as the first time I saw his assemblages: images of soldiers’ faces with gaffer tape on them, the debris of racist playing cards showing bodies of “ebony women” and posters of Osama bin Laden magpied together with collections of explicitly racist cartoons and depictions of black/blak people from different parts of the world.

It felt like a car crash – overwhelming, but once you began looking into the chasm of images, you couldn’t pull yourself away. And yet it never seemed a deliberately brutal vitrine, but more of a curiosity cabinet.

“When I was curating Taboo, I wanted to know what it was like when we were able to talk about issues surrounding indigeneity from a point of power and knowing,” he says, dipping into his archive to give me a physical copy of the catalogue.

The series of talks that followed Taboo raised questions that as an Aboriginal woman I had only ever encountered in a deeper, tucked-away unconscious. I remember poring over discussions with titles such as “How complicit are Aboriginal artists and intellectuals in the historical amnesia about the fate of Aboriginal cultural life?”, “Is there an overreliance on identity politics in Aboriginal art circles that masks questions of artistic integrity?” and “How important are the politics of the sacred in the public circulation of Aboriginal designs?”

These conversations – between speakers such as Wesley Enoch, Vernon Ah Kee, Marcia Langton, Fiona Foley and Gordon Hookey – brought alive the vibrancy in friction and difference, something Andrew can present in an unfaltering, rigorous but also funny way. How do we talk about these issues without being marred by the shame of history or the discomfort of saying what we know might be true?

We “deny ourselves the right to be human as Aboriginal people”, says Andrew, if in rupture or oppression “we turn to one storyline or idea about what constitutes tradition or culture without the opportunity to exist across a spectrum and to change our ideas”.

Taboo delivered insight into the rarely discussed domains of sexuality, race, “otherness”, morality, anthropology and beyond. These discussions still animate Andrew’s work, and his direction of the Sydney Biennale. But to take on such an exhibition seems a brave endeavour.

“Dealing in histories and the culture wars, there’s a lot of mess in it all,” he concedes. “And look, to be honest, I did at one point think I could just not do this, and my life might be easier. But I felt like there was an opportunity where collaboration and a true coming together would be powerful.”

Being on the inside looking out, not on the outside looking in – this idea of exposing where the centre could be, or has been, constantly arises in Andrew’s work. He is challenging delusions and confronting perversions. A reflection from Taboo’s catalogue still rings true: “Whenever a taboo is broken, something good happens. Something vitalising.”

I ask him where he started when it came to curating the biennale. “One of the first countries I went to was Haiti,” he says. “It was such a powerful place. They were the first people to revolt from slavery and they have been punished ever since for it. I really wanted to go there and understand what’s going on and why they are still being persecuted for wanting to be free.

“The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and mixed in there is the way they culturally use Vodou.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Andrew has curated into the biennale one of Haiti’s most provocative artists, André Eugène, whose work is built from the kind of materials that one – especially in the Global North – might describe as trash or scrap pieces. But in Eugène’s hands these materials become a means for transformative art: addressing the complexity of Vodou, Haiti’s economic and social crises, sexuality and mortality. Like Andrew’s work, Eugène’s has a certain charge, as he takes crisis into the art form and, through his alchemy, produces objects anew.

Andrew’s biennale is also unique in its commissioning of what some have referred to as “non-artists”. They include the radio host Namila Benson – a long-time collaborator of Andrew’s, whom he refers to as “extraordinary” – and chef Kylie Kwong. But, really, this isn’t at all out of place.

Two of the key tenets underpinning the biennale are the Indigenous ideologies of Muriguwal Giiland – “different stories”, and undoubtedly their documentation – and Yirawy-Dhuray, which means “yam-connection”, or food. It would have been more contentious for the biennale not to think about fundamental things that bring us to communion: the sharing of food and stories with people who have mastered the art of doing so.

When a rupture happens, there is something undeniable in being able to capture its unfolding effects. Speaking of his work, Andrew says he is “always searching for evidence”. But I wonder how much an artist can look for evidence in things such as colonial accounts without a process of imbuement.

“What we know now is that the dominant narrative has always had an evidence base,” Andrew reminds me. “But so too have Aboriginal people; however, it hasn’t been regarded in the same accounts – and, where it has persevered, in its dynamism.”

We riff through movements recorded by history, such as the Freedom Rides, and those chapters still being written, such as the Uluru Statement from the Heart. “Australia is on a precipice of change in this present moment, with people renegotiating and confronting histories which shift dimensionally,” he says. “It’s about who we are today, and there is a moral question that arises in this, which is: Where do you stand in the face of change?”

There is a feeling of excitement in standing at a precipice, but also the fear that one slip could spell disaster.

I don’t believe it’s explicitly the role of the artist to be useful, though there are great examples of art being bent to political use or charged with change – mostly from those who have experienced firsthand the pressure of immeasurable rupture or turmoil. But there has been a push for Indigenous artists, in particular, to be responsible and articulate, to make art that explains, or even absolves.

Andrew’s answer to this is the dynamism of those he has approached for the biennale. There is never a lone person or artist answering; rather, each artist is coming to this project with a neighbourhood of knowledge from the edge and beyond.

His appointment as the festival’s director speaks to the urgency of our present moment – at the intersections of big “firsts” and his groundbreaking status as a queer Aboriginal artist and parent. These things are undeniable in his astute observations and selections.

But his success is not in spite of these “firsts”, and also not purely because of them – rather, it flows from his understanding of a fundamental truth. Beneath the pressures of ideas of an Australian “nationhood”, there has never been a singularity, a single story, even with hegemonic squeezing and flattening. Andrew has the ability and motivation to present, and to be, myriad stories and songlines – with clarity, space and, indeed, urgency.

As I leave, we continue to yarn about our set of mutual relations and kinship that stretches across art, dance and radio. A drink at some point is suggested, and I linger as he softly shows me the way through the studio door, realising I’m wanting to stay in the constellation of conversations just had. But I’m comforted knowing that he will continue to look far in the arts and the varied communities he intersects with for the evidence of impact and existence.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 21, 2019 as "Brooking defiance".

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