NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, has been unique not only because it has occurred in the time of a global health crisis, but because of its curatorship. Brook Andrew, the Artistic Director of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney chose the title NIRIN for its meaning of ‘edge’ in the Wiradjuri language of his mother’s people. To communicate this vision of edge, seven themes were created, all in the Wirajuri language:
- Muriguwal Giiland meaning ‘different stories’
- Bila meaning ‘river’ to signify the environment
- Gurray meaning ‘transformation’, which each artist hopes to incite with their unique perspective
- Ngawal-Guyungan meaning ‘powerful ideas’
- Dhaagun meaning ‘earth’, in this context the place in which connection and collaboration occurs as well as being the way in which sovereignty has been defined
- Yirawy-Dhuray meaning ‘yam-connection’ representing food and the sharing of resources
- Bagaray-Bang meaning ‘healing’
Bringing these together, NIRIN demonstrates the way in which multiple edges form a new centre and a new conversation. All the artists selected do not belong to the mainstream, living on the political and cultural fringe: people of colour, those who are queer, non-binary, from minority groups and not necessarily considered ‘artists’ in the traditional sense of the word. For Siksika artist Adrian Stimson, this is not the first time he has exhibited in Australia exploring hidden subject matter. In 2016 he contributed to With Secrecy and Despatch that marked the 200th anniversary of the Appin Massacre in New South Wales. For the Biennale, he again explored themes of deconstructing the colonial narrative, addressing violence and trauma as well as reclaiming Indigenous sexual identities using his artistic personas of Buffalo Boy, a parody of Buffalo Bill, and Naked Napi to reflect his two-spirited identity.
Also exploring concepts of gender and identity were the mixed media works of Jes Fan titled Form begets Function and Function begets Form. Using materials to explore the way in which identity is built and notions of race and gender are created, these included urine, estrogen, semen, blood, testosterone and melanin. The use of melanin, a primary basis of race categories in his sculptural work as well as the video installation Xenophoria have particular global relevance due to the way COVID has brought sinophobia to the fore, inspired by the works of Chinese medical artist Lam Qua.
The aabaakwad conference that marked the beginning of the NIRIN began with a discussion between Brook Andrew and Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Meaning ‘it clears after the storm’ in the Anishinaabe language of Nanibush’s people, the vision introduced was that Indigenous art becomes something that is Indigenous led, speaking not just to future Biennales but to arts culture in general. Elle Máijá Tailfeathers’ contribution to the Biennale is a highly personal short film that speaks to this importance of autonomy as she shared her story. Titled Bihttoš, the film is a mixed media piece comprised of film, animation, family photos and historical photographs with Tailfeathers’ narration throughout. She takes the viewer through her parent’s love story, her mother a Blackfoot woman from Canada, her father a Sámi man from Sápmi and her experience as someone growing up with two First Nations parents passionate about the rights of their people as well as the toll intergenerational trauma has in their lives.
In his curation Brook Andrew observed that previous Biennales drew sharp Eurocentric distinctions between artistic styles and used this as the basis of what not to do. The inclusion of Adrift Lab is an example of this unique approach. A scientific organisation led by a team of Canadian and Australian scientists investigating everything adrift on the ocean is not typically associated with art. However, Sublethal, their exhibition piece using materials from their work on Lorde Howe Island does just that, combining science and art to make an environmental statement. Showcasing the general complacency of society towards ocean pollution, they presented piles of plastic gathered through research and videos of dissected birds with stomachs filled with rubbish.
Dealing with the environment, but in a different way, was the work of Vancouver based artist Randy Lee Cutler. Collaborating with Australian artist Andrew Rewald, they created Mineral Garden, exploring the relationship between humanity and ecology. By putting a queer lens on Western history, an alternate way of interacting with the natural world is suggested with inspiration from mineralogy, eco-feminism and sustainable agriculture informing this new world.
Speaking to the effect of environmental ruin on the Inuit people, Taqralik Partridge created artistic pieces that speak to the wider effect on the global Indigenous community and to humanity at large. Her largest work was an installation piece of written text with accompanying audio on the loss of resources. The text was inspired by the work of Brazilian artist Denilson Baniwa and written in multiple languages: Dharug Dlang, English, Inuktitut, Latin script and Inuktitut syllabics, signifying the universality of this concern.
During the aabaakwad conference Nanibush spoke of her observation that First Nation artists tend not to make strict divisions between activism and art whilst also dealing with the prejudice of not being seen as belonging to the canon of ‘art’. Although not all artworks of the Biennale are the work of Indigenous and First Nations artists, all come from a spirit of activism making the Biennale an educational experience. Creating installation pieces of humanitarian activism, Egyptian, Armenian Canadian artist Anna Boghiguian’s work was inspired by a residency at Monash Art Design & Architecture. Focused on diasporic communities and the impact of being displaced from land, The Uprooted explored the way a community’s way of life is connected to ancestral land. This exploration of displacement was explored not only through the perspective of immigrant communities but the experiences of the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Throughout the Biennale venues were recurring installations of ‘Powerful Objects’ – items of historical and cultural significance, a fibreglass 3D print of a sacred Dendroglyph, felled and taken from Kalimangl Bora Ground in northern New South Wales to England to name just one. These reflect the impression NIRIN made, that art is a powerful means of education, enacting change and creating new conversations.
A Q & A with Barbara Moore, CEO of the Biennale of Sydney
We spoke to Barbara Moore about the Biennale that has just passed; its cultural impact, the Canadian artists who participated, the impact of COVID and what the future holds with the artistic director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney recently announced.
Canada Down Under: NIRIN put the voices of people on the political and cultural fringe on centre stage through the curatorship of Brook Andrew. What has the response been to such a strong message of activism through art?
Barbara Moore: Under the artistic direction of Brook Andrew, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, titled NIRIN, is artist- and First Nations-led, presenting an expansive exhibition of contemporary art that connects local communities and global networks. NIRIN proposes that creativity is an important means of truth-telling, of directly addressing unresolved anxieties and imagining new self-defined futures. Many artists in NIRIN present strong messages of activism as a strategy to move forward and connect. With the current global political climate reflecting the anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and racial injustice, the response to NIRIN’s activism has been immensely supportive with deep and sustained audience engagement to the themes, ideas and artworks of NIRIN.
Canada Down Under: So many Canadian artists were featured in this Biennale: Adrian Stimson, Jes Fan, Elle Máijá Tailfeathers, Adrift Lab, Randy Lee Cutler, Taqralik Partridge and Anna Boghiguian. Why were these particular artists chosen?
Barbara Moore: Canada has highly talented Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, creatives, curators and filmmakers whose concepts and ideas resonate strongly in an Australian context. The participants in NIRIN celebrate indigenous perspective and values, ideas of intersections of gender, art, science, and technology, and explore our global histories and stories. Their multiform, collaborative, intergenerational creative practices are deeply embedded in community and language and, under Brook Andrew’s vision for NIRIN, we were so pleased to exhibit these Canadian artists as part of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. We are also sincerely thankful to the Canada Council for the Arts, Global Affairs Canada, and the Art Gallery of Ontario whose support of the artists and the exhibition making their participation and inclusion in this international discussion possible.
Canada Down Under: Considering the impact of COVID, what are your hopes and fears for the arts in both Canada and Australia?
Barbara Moore: I feel it is the responsibility of collective communities to support the tremendous work of the arts, acknowledging and reaffirming their contributions to our social, cultural, and mental wellbeing. The arts are part of what make us human. In one form or another, they are essential to our wellbeing. Through the pandemic, and beyond it, artists can lead us through the turmoil, with innovation, reflection, optimism, and creativity that feeds our souls and helps us look to the future filled with possibilities. Hopefully, we all find benefit in this pandemic, such as the positive effects it has had for our planet and shift our priorities so that these benefits continue long into the future. If we all shift our thinking to being artist-led and First Nations-led, the world will be better off, and a much more enjoyable place for all of us to live.
Canada Down Under: COVID temporarily put a stop to the Biennale and from this a fantastic Google Arts & Culture site was created that allowed people to have a virtual experience of the event. What are your thoughts on the virtual experience of art not just for this Biennale and for future festivals?
Barbara Moore: A digital experience provides opportunities for engagement with contemporary art that complement a physical exhibition, not substitute, or replace it. The average time people engage with art in real life is 17 seconds, whereas our audiences are engaging with NIRIN digital content for an average of 90 seconds. So digitally, people are engaging with content and concepts more deeply, whereas the physical experience includes a more holistic approach, including sound, smell, and light, for example. The digital and physical experiences are quite different, and understanding the differences, and the strengths of each, will help inform planning for future festivals. This year, to ensure our digital content was engaging and aligned with audience expectations, the Biennale of Sydney partnered with Google Arts & Culture, experts in digital, to help ensure artists in NIRIN were enabled to share their work with the world, bringing people, ideas, and stories closer together during a very isolating time.
Canada Down Under: Throughout the Biennale venues was the recurring installation of ‘Powerful Objects’. What was the significance of these pieces?
Barbara Moore: Under the artistic direction of Brook Andrew, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, titled NIRIN, demonstrates how artists have the power to inspire and lead through difficult times, such as environmental disasters and urgent times of social transformation, to reframe histories. The recurring installation Powerful Objects is a selection of ephemeral and cultural objects and documents from private and public collections. This intervention emerged out of Brook’s vision to complement the works of NIRIN and to remind us of forgotten or ignored histories, ceremonies and trajectories set forth by artists and communities before us. Brook’s vision was for these objects to help reignite and sustain our connection to each other across times, places and people that may not be immediately apparent.
Canada Down Under: The artistic director of the 23rd Biennale has recently been announced as José Roca. What do the next two years look like in this new world where travel is so limited, impossible for some?
Barbara Moore: After an extensive international search, the Biennale of Sydney is excited to have Columbian curator José Roca as the Artistic Director of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney. José will be moving to Sydney for the duration of the process and, in addition to working with a local Curatorium, will rely on a trusted network of colleagues worldwide to help undertake research for the exhibition. With travel restrictions over the next two years being limited, we will work with our local and international colleagues to ensure the themes, ideas, and artworks of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney are created collegiately and shared widely.
Canadian participation at the Biennale of Sydney NIRIN was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts, Global Affairs Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.