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  • Apr 29, 2020

Biennale of Sydney Pushes Back Against Anniversary of Colonial Invasion

In light of the

The 22nd Biennale of Sydney (BoS) is hosting a series of online events and programs this week that critique the country’s colonialist-centric narrative of its history, and the settler nation-state’s abuse of the Indigenous people who inhabited the continent for more than 60 millennia prior to the British’s claim of ownership over the land and peoples there. This arrives on the week of Australia’s commemoration, on April 29, of the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s landing in Botany Bay.

The virtual events include a recorded conversation between BoS 22 artistic director Brook Andrew about Indigenous life before and after Cook’s arrival in Australia with Indigenous Studies professor Marcia Langton, Māori artist Emily Karaka, Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens, and Tlingit and Unanga artist Nicholas Galanin. The Biennale describes the dialogue as “a pan-Pacific discussion on sovereignty, resistance, memory, monuments and solidarity punctuated around the 250th year anniversary of the then-Lieutenant Cook illegally (under international law of the time) claiming the lands of Australia and its islands for the British monarchy in 1770 for the establishment of a British colony.” 

The BoS has taken a strong stand against the glorification of European colonization. “As an artist and First Nations-led Biennale, NIRIN challenges dominant narratives surrounding histories such as [the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing],” the Biennale announced on its Instagram account and emails about the programs. Titled “NIRIN,” a Wiradjuri word meaning “edge,” BoS 22 offers alternative perspectives that empower Indigeneity, boasting a different take of global colonial histories. This year’s edition is the first time in the Biennale’s 47-year history that it is led by a First Australian. Furthermore, Andrew has chosen 98 artists from 47 countries, most of whom are Indigenous, non-binary, queer, and/or POCs; all are activists of some sort. Instead of raising controversy, Andrew told AAP that the Biennale platform aims to promote respect around the global issues of exclusion, prejudice, and environmental preservation. Though the Biennale managed to open in March, it later closed its physical venues due to Covid-19, moving instead into the digital realm.

In the online conversation with Andrew, scholar Marcia Langton ruminates on her essay Ancient Sovereignty: Representing 65,000 years of Ancestral Links to Land, while the artists speak about their own practices and artistic contributions to BoS. Emily Karaka reviews her paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which reflect her involvement in Māori rights and treaties. Nicholas Galanin shares his multidisciplinary, artistic subversion of the archaeological notion that frames Indigenous culture as something that belongs to the past, while Karla Dickens explains how she pours her personal experience of being an Aboriginal gay woman into her installations.

For NIRIN Online, BoS launched a Spotify playlist curated by the rock band Ripped Effect on Monday. Hailing from Maningrida, Northern Territory, the all-female music group sings in four different Aboriginal languages. Aside from their own songs, the playlist also includes songs by other female musicians as well as by other bands from their native rural area. 

NIRIN’s learning resources regarding First Nations stories include a kangaroo stew recipe from Australian First Nations-owned catering company, Kallico Catering, alongside works from Aboriginal-owned and directed space Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre, and a podcast about Native American stories hosted by Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) and Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation).

This Thursday will see the release of the first reading session of NIRIN NGAAY (Wiradjuri for “see”), a volume of texts that addresses and elaborates upon the themes and artistic contributions of the Biennale. The event features a performance by artist and spoken word poet Melanie Mununggurr, a Djapu writer from Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land.

In addition, starting with Tracey Moffatt of Aboriginal descent’s montage movie Lip (1999), NIRIN will be sharing a variety of film recommendations with a First Nations narrative on kanopy.com for free, although a library or university account is required to watch the films. Another viewing experience is the Mulka Project’s Watami Manikay(Song of the Winds) (2020). Though its release date is still not confirmed, the film will be launched online in the form of an immersive 360-degree experience not dissimilar to the way it was presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for BoS 22. Based in Northeast Arnhem Land, the Mulka Project is known for promoting the region’s Yolngu culture and its digital artists.

Wrapping up the week’s programs, NIRIN will release on Friday a conversation headed by Brook Andrew with the exhibition team to talk about the behind-the-scenes works of installations at Cockatoo Island, National Art School, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific; Ashlyn Chak is an editorial intern. 

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