Focusing on the perspectives of First Nations artists from Australia and around the world, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, invites audiences to fight for greater justice and equality. It’s a triumph. By Andy Butler.
22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN
The 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, reopened last month after closing in March because of Covid-19. Two major events played out during its hibernation, and now cast their shadow on it – a global pandemic that has brought stark inequalities to the fore, and the Black Lives Matter uprising. Before NIRIN opened the first time, we were still grappling with the aftermath of the Black Summer bushfires. This biennale comes at a time when it feels as though the world is being remade.
It is an eerie experience, then, walking into the entrance court in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and encountering a wall-sized photograph from a Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney. A young woman holds a sign with the faces of nine African–American people who died by police actions. There are no placards carrying the image of George Floyd, because this image is from five years ago. Next to it is an image of TJ Hickey’s mother, tenderly held by her family as she demands justice for her son, who died at age 17 following a police pursuit. These images are from the archive of Gomeroi yinnar photographer Barbara McGrady, who has documented Aboriginal lives and stories through photography since the 1970s.
NIRIN means “edge” in artistic director Brook Andrew’s Wiradjuri language, and the biennale brings perspectives from the edge into the centre. At its heart are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, and NIRIN ripples out to global dialogues with other First Nations artists, as well as broader works from those affected by and pushing back against the legacies of Eurocentrism and colonisation.
At AGNSW, the biennale spills over into the colonial collection. Andrew is well known for his interventions in museum collections, and here the artists collectively speak to resisting and surviving the racism, dispossession and violence of European colonial histories that still flow into the present. Madagascan artist Joël Andrianomearisoa uses sheer black curtains to veil works held in AGNSW’s collection, blocking them as if to open space for other perspectives, while Tlingit–Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin’s two-channel video work Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan (2006) combines traditional Tlingit song and dance with electro-dub music and hip-hop, demonstrating the capacity of timeless Indigenous knowledges and cultures to continue to be contemporary.
Arthur Jafa’s The White Album (2018-19) is a standout work in NIRIN. Projected on a large screen, surrounded by 19th-century European paintings, The White Album is a collage of found video that constructs a portrait of contemporary racial anxieties in the United States through the lens of whiteness. In one clip, a young white woman, at pains to say she’s not racist, says she’s sick of the double standards allowing Black, Chinese and Mexican people to be disrespectful to white people. In another, a white man, who looks as if he could be a gun-toting fanatic, implores white Americans to overcome white supremacy, to look deep inside themselves to understand why they’re intuitively and violently afraid of Black people. He asks them to face the reality of white supremacy and racism in America, to hit the streets and dismantle it – “Step up, get out of indifference, do something, say something … America is made for all people, not just white people.”
NIRIN covers a lot of ground: its six sites include Cockatoo Island, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Artspace, and Campbelltown Arts Centre. There are more than 700 artworks and more than 100 artists and collectives involved. Biennales of this size and scale can often buckle under their own weight, but NIRIN is tightly curated and opens up a rich dialogue between artists, audiences and institutions. The various perspectives from the edges of Eurocentrism are woven into a whole that challenges us to think deeply about a dominant Western centre seemingly on the verge of collapse.
At Cockatoo Island, Nicholas Galanin’s Shadow on the land, an excavation and bush burial (2020) is a grave for the shadow of the Hyde Park statue of Captain Cook. It takes on the appearance of an archaeological dig, to imagine a time when the shadows of colonisation might be long behind us. Djapu artist Melanie Mununggurr’s text banners on Cockatoo Island remind us how recent the British invasion was – the sentence “My grandmother was one of the last of the first peoples untouched by colonisation” greets audiences as they arrive. Mununggurr was born in 1985: colonisation here has a very short history.
Other works around Cockatoo Island similarly bring out long connections to ancestral pasts, shorter legacies of colonisation and violence, and visions of dystopic and utopic futures. Sydney-based Tongan artist Latai Taumoepeau’s The Last Resort (2020) shows a performance of the artist and a collaborator crushing glass bottles underfoot with shoes made of bricks, and filling sandbags with broken shards – a Sisyphean performance to block rising sea levels in the Pacific.
At the top of the island, Tony Albert’s Healing Land, Remembering Country (2020) is a greenhouse nursery with native plants, handwoven baskets, a wooden awning and seats. Audiences are invited to write memories on paper embedded with local plant seeds, which will then go on to be planted and heal the land. The biennale as a whole is at pains to communicate that we all have a role in building a more just world.
Activist Zanele Muholi’s photographic work at the MCA documents the Black gay, lesbian and trans communities in South Africa. Spanning from 2006 to the present day, this series of portraits makes a marginalised group visible, through a period of political upheaval in South Africa for queer rights, and spates of violence against the community. It’s a struggle and mission for self-determination. The installation of Muholi’s work ends with a video of an elaborate Black queer wedding. A speechmaker in front of the married couple is joyous that the queer community is coming together in celebration, instead of just mourning the dead.
The works at Campbelltown Arts Centre are a highlight of NIRIN. Reaching out to the broader contexts and lives from which art is made, they are a counterpoint to the classic European idea that the artist is a white male genius in his studio, making art for an ivory tower. Instead, the art at Campbelltown is intimate and focuses on community relationships, intergenerational support, political movements, family and collective vitality.
An extended archive of Barbara McGrady’s images takes over a whole room in a multichannel video work. Images from Aboriginal life in sport, culture, politics and music appear across different screens over a thumping soundtrack. Text flashes through the work, taken from McGrady’s social media channels, speaking to her pride in documenting the struggles and triumphs of Aboriginal people, the whitewashed colonial gaze that her work pushes back against, and the privilege she feels in bringing Aboriginal stories to the broader public. It’s all for the people around her.
This is exhibited alongside Ngāpuhi photographer John Miller’s archive of protest and community images, which centres Māori people. Miller was born in 1950, the same year as McGrady. His images, which feature in a collaboration with architectural designer Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta, show a parallel narrative of First Nations resistance in Aotearoa New Zealand: the struggle for sovereignty and justice is a global movement with extensive histories beyond our current moment.
Artist Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ Bihttoš is a video work shown on a family-size TV. It’s an intimate telling of her parents’ story: her Blackfoot mother and Sámi father met in Australia at the 1981 general assembly of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. The short film spans global Indigenous struggles and solidarity, but also the collapse of a mythical love story, as Tailfeathers’ father deals with the ongoing trauma that drives his activism but also fractures relationships around him. It tells a narrative of the radical love between daughter and father that can lead to healing.
NIRIN is a triumph in bringing transformative, multilayered and complex ideas and conversations together. At a time when it feels as if the dominant centre is collapsing, the biennale reminds us that First Nations artists, and those who are still navigating the legacies of colonialism, have been fighting for a just and caring future for generations – and their art is a generous gift. NIRIN invites audiences to come together and imagine how we might collectively create a world that is better for us all.
The 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, is showing at venues throughout Sydney until October 11.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2020 as "Inside edge".
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