The full postcolonial catastrophe: ‘Nirin’

By Miriam Cosic

Intellectually ambitious, the Biennale of Sydney’s 2020 program is essential viewing

Art Gallery of NSW. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

The Sydney Biennale celebrated two important firsts this year. It was the first time an Aboriginal person, Brook Andrew, was appointed artistic director. He is also the first Australian artist to hold the position, 18 years after British artist Richard Grayson broke the curatorial mould in 2002. In addition, Andrew is a scholar, partway through a PhD examining the role of objects in inherited history, and he is involved in a research project on Australia’s frontier wars.

Andrew’s plan for the biennale seemed wildly ambitious when he first proposed it. He sought to gather contemporary art from First Nations peoples around the globe and showcase their craft, their politics, their celebrations and their mourning: the full postcolonial catastrophe. As preparations continued and organisers drip-fed the names of confirmed artists and descriptions of their work to the media, the project seemed more and more unwieldly.

In the previous few months, we’ve had an array of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-focused festivals across the country. Tarnanthi, which was headquartered at the Art Gallery of South Australia but which spread across the state, was a round-up of contemporary Indigenous art under the curatorship of Nici Cumpston. The Sydney Festival, led by Aboriginal artistic director Wesley Enoch, had less of its usual party vibe this year, with themes of protest and mourning tempering the summertime celebration of the performing arts.

All the state and national art galleries have important collections of Indigenous art. So it is interesting – but utterly in keeping with the postcolonial critique – that it is only now, 232 years since British invasion and in the Sydney Biennale’s 22nd iteration, that we see an Aboriginal artistic director curating Australian contemporary art’s highest-profile international platform.

Andrew has titled the biennale Nirin, which means “edge” in the language of his mother’s Wiradjuri people. The word has many meanings here. “Nirin represents something like a spider’s web that connects people and ideas,” the catalogue begins. “It is the border through which things stay attached. It is not about a hierarchy of ideas but rather about being together. There is no centre or periphery … Memories exist without a centre – the interconnected space which transitions between reality, the conscious and the subconscious.”

The concepts that follow throughout the catalogue accord with the time-honoured verbal vagaries of Sydney Biennale curators, but the work on show is utterly concrete and specific. There are 101 individual artists or collectives included and more than 700 works on show across five venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Art School, Campbelltown Arts Centre, and the massive spaces contained in the historic industrial ruins of Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbour.

Andrew’s artistic and academic preoccupations are centred on the historic Australian Indigenous experience. Here, however, he has flung the doors wide open, showcasing and celebrating postcolonial, LGBTIQ and other “othered” work from 47 countries.

The enterprise was so intellectually and logistically ambitious, some observers expected it to wobble. It didn’t. The biennale opened triumphantly and to wide acclaim just days before the NSW state government closed down all arts institutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a wild program that was almost defeated by the wild circumstances of the times, but the curatorial team soon assembled online walk-throughs of the venues and many of the associated lectures and panel discussions migrated to digital formats.

Walking through the entire biennale – including travelling to the venues via buses and ferries – was a tiring but illuminating business. The media preview alone took 10 hours without a break. Now that the venues are opening again, I would recommend visitors pace themselves across more than one day. There is so much to take in, and there is as much about geopolitics as there is about art. These are the stories of people – real people – caught up in the crosscurrents of world history.

Take, for instance, Anders Sunna, a genial Sámi artist from Sweden. His large-scale canvas in Campbelltown, bright and violent, tackles the dispossession of his people by the Scandinavian states. In the 1970s, Sunna’s family were among those prevented from practising traditional reindeer husbandry (Sweden spent millions building fences up to 30 kilometres long to prevent the reindeer from returning home, and it was only in January this year that Sweden’s supreme court ruled in favour of Sámi claims over their traditional grazing lands). Sunna’s painting in the biennale, which is the result of a sabbatical he took here in Australia to work with Indigenous artists, features a Sámi child giving the middle finger to a man in a Nazi uniform with a dollar sign replacing the swastika on his armband. On the other side of the painting, an Australian Aboriginal man is seen spanking Captain Cook, whom he is holding over his knee.

Also addressing postcolonial issues is an eye-catching tripartite installation by the youthful collective ArTree Nepal. One part is an assembly of traditional medicinal herbs piled up on a table. Another part shows a tall, wide glass case, its shelves containing dozens of gilded medicinal bottles, while the third is a video of violently repressed protests. Sheelasha Rajbhandari, a co-founder of the collective, explained to me how their traditional practices have been publicly derided even as Big Pharma is cornering the market on some of the herbs that scientific research has validated.

London-based artist and composer Hannah Catherine Jones, aka Foxy Moron, has twin videos up at the National Art School in Darlinghurst. Owed to Diaspora(s) investigates her Caribbean roots and imagines a putative future. It is a work in progress that envelopes the viewer in Jones’s method of connecting ancestry to universal themes through abstract sonic inventions and global panoramas.

Over on Cockatoo Island, Algerian sound artist Mohamed Bourouissa’s work plays with his discovery that the acacia he grew up with, and which for him symbolises his childhood, is native to Australia. His installation is a number of potted acacias, spread over bright artificial grass in a vast sunny room that looks out over the water. Each plant is connected to a digital system that transforms its internal electrical impulses into sound audible to our ears. It is more intriguing than this description may make it sound, and its title, Brutal Family Roots, makes us think twice about the delight it inspires. Also on Cockatoo Island, in the Turbine Hall, is a monumental work by Ghanaian author and artist Ibrahim Mahama. Virtually the entire space – the walls and part of the floor – is lined with a patchwork of repurposed jute sacks in a tribute to the history of Cockatoo Island (which has been both a shipyard and a prison), and to those who worked there. Its title, No friends but the mountains 2012-20, is also a reference to Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani’s powerful memoir detailing his six years imprisoned on Manus Island by the Australian federal government. That, in turn, is echoed in Mahama’s other work in the biennale: A Grain of Wheat at Artspace in Woolloomooloo, which is an installation of first-aid stretchers used in World War Two and found in a Greek refugee camp.

Also at Artspace is an untitled work comprising a series of boards painted by Taqralik Partridge, an Inuit woman from Western Canada. The words themselves are of consequence, written out three times in her traditional language (Inuktitut), in English, and in the Dharug language spoken by the Yuin–Kuric group in the Sydney region. The work is a beautiful eulogy to the abundance of country, and concludes with a glimpse of the edge, or end, of that abundance.

All this, and so much more, appears in Nirin. Human history is a history of conquest. European imperialism – from the Spanish Conquista, to the competition of European powers during the second colonial expansion, to the US-dominated globalisation of the 21st century – together with the rise of eugenics as a pseudoscience have added a new dimension to those conquests.   The concepts of colonialism and postcolonialism have a moral, as well as a geographic, dimension in our times.   

The twin anchors of Nirin, of course, are the physical beauty and the political imperatives of the art of Australia’s First Nations people, whether rural or urban. And what links their works to an international multiplicity of cultural expression across the biennale is a steely focus on history, a simmering rage and a palpable sense of solidarity between artists.

Academic and activist Marcia Langton makes a powerful point in the catalogue. She refers to the biennale’s installation at the Art Gallery of NSW, where famous colonial works such as Frederick McCubbin’s A Bush Burial (1890) have been juxtaposed with postcolonial art by First Peoples. Of the latter, she writes:

This is not ‘political art’, this is not merely a statement subverting the colonial conquest narrative but, rather, a statement of Indigenous sovereignty sourced in the ancient stories and genealogies, the songlines and sacred narratives and places that are the living record of the people. This is their ‘truth-telling’, similarly represented in the powerful Pitjantjatjara artworks of Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams and Sammy Dodd, which assert their historical reality so long denied and distorted.

It seems to me that the concept of sovereignty as developed in the Western legal tradition to describe nation states is artificial when applied to the Aboriginal relationship to land that is at the core of Indigenous systems. A more appropriate concept is reflected in the judgment of Judge Fouad Ammoun of the International Court of Justice in 1975 in the Western Sahara Case.

That judgement, she continues, “dismissed the materialistic concept of terra nullius, which led to the dismemberment of Africa following the Berlin Conference of 1885”, substituting for it a “spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the man who was born therefrom, remains attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with his ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.”

Such juxtapositions of colonial and postcolonial art are particularly provocative in the biennale rooms at the Art Gallery of NSW. Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens’s installation in the entry, which shows doll-like women trapped in birdcages, is another chapter of her work A Dickensian Circus, an exploration of Indigenous people’s contribution to circus work in the 20th century (a version of the work is also making a strong showing at the Adelaide Biennial).

The venue’s main hallway reveals a hanging installation by Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams, which was completed by his APY Art Centre Collective after his death last year. Called Kulilaya munu nintiriwa (Listen and learn), it contains myriad bright banners with messages from Williams’ own archive of words he thought were powerful enough to drive political and social change, and could also carry his culture into the future.

The Museum of Contemporary Art has hung a large group of Yolngu painter Nonggirrnga Marawili’s beautiful magenta-toned barks, which have been seen at several shows recently, including at Tarnanthi, but which I, for one, never tire of seeing. Marawili, who is now a magisterial 81 years old, uses the colour from cast-off printer cartridges.

The overseas artists are more novel, and so perhaps more of a drawcard, but the works by the 39 Australian artists are equally illuminating, both historically and artistically. With our international borders closed, it is unfortunate that fewer people from overseas will see this biennale. As domestic travel starts up again, however, and with museums now re-opened, it should attract a healthy crowd – it is essential viewing for locals. It would be particularly useful viewing for people in positions of political leadership, many of whom could benefit from a better understanding of Australia’s history, as well as the social and political needs of all of the people they serve.

The Biennale of Sydney is now open at all its venues and has been extended until September (dates vary across venues).

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Art Gallery of NSW. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

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