NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney

This month, the much anticipated 22nd Biennale of Sydney (BoS) opens its doors at several venues across the city. It will be a significant moment in the Biennale’s forty-seven-year history. Extraordinary as it may seem, for the first time the Biennale had appointed an Indigenous Australian as its artistic director, a welcome sign that change was coming to the Biennale. The Wiradjuri heritage multi-disciplinary artist Brook Andrew assumed the role two years ago with an unwritten remit from the BoS board, to do ‘something a bit different.’

With an emphasis on Indigeneity and First Nations people Andrew’s biennale is radically different from any that have gone before, bringing together artists, collectives and communities, as well as scientists, academics and thinkers, from across the globe. There will be ninety-eight artists from forty-seven countries, with the majority being coloured, Indigenous, gay or identifying as non-binary, with practices that offer alternative narratives to the racism and gender stereotyping that swirls around these cultures. When I asked Andrew recently if BoS22 will also challenge the dominant Western art world narrative that has existed for centuries – a trope in his own work – he replied rather impishly, ‘I think it might.’

That challenge can be seen in the Old Court Galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). These elegant neoclassical rooms have received a dramatic makeover under Andrew’s leadership. Historic European masterpieces have been shipped out and into the space Andrew has juxtaposed art from several countries, including contemporary paintings from Haiti. He felt strongly that the cultural hegemony projected by the building’s architecture and Court rooms needed to be dismantled. ‘They mimic that of cultural institutes around the world. It was extremely urgent to shift these spaces and a prerequisite for the AGNSW as a venue,’ Andrew commented. This radical upending of the Old Court Galleries has been enthusiastically welcomed by Michael Brand, director of the AGNSW. ‘Brook is responding to art in our collection as well as the architecture of the institution itself, layering different histories within the framework of his exhibition … The project resonates with our commitment to readdressing established and Western-centric art histories, and engaging with First Nations narratives,’ he said via email.

Andrew’s art purview is driven by many things, chief of which is uncovering the hidden iniquities of colonialism and Indigeneity, and these tropes are inevitably reflected in BoS22, which he has named ‘NIRIN’, a Wiradjuri word that he explained is not easily translated into English, but which means ‘where edges overlap, to form nuanced central points.’ ‘NIRIN’ has several loose themes – environmental, healing, working together and sovereignty, for example.

Andrew’s remit from the Biennale board was to find a new model for the exhibition. Not that the board said that in so many words. ‘We are trying to reinvent BoS. It is time to try something a bit different,’ Kate Mills, the Chair of BoS board told me in 2017. Her view was echoed back then by Japanese curator Mami Kataoka, the artistic director of BoS21. There was, Kataoka implied to me, problems with the biennale in its current form, openly questioning the biennale’s role. ‘It was outdated and long overdue for a change,’ she commented.

BoS22, with its global reach-out to minority artists around the world, has done more than ‘try something a bit different.’ It has upended the accepted ideas of what the Biennale of Sydney should be, building a strong focus on socially and politically, relevant artists, uncovering how Indigenous people are often written out of history or ignored by the mainstream. ‘NIRIN’ is a palimpsest of activism, a metaphorical bricolage assembled from various themes.

Andrew refuted any suggestion that he had strong-armed his artists into making art that mirrored his own practice. ‘All artists are representing what they see and feel and do in the world today. I’m a catalyst driven by communication, process, authenticity and how we need to juxtapose different thoughts and ideas,’ he said. ‘I’m very much driven by conversations with artists and many are already exploring these colonial pathways.’

Andrew’s biennale – although he pushed back at it being called his, and stressed it was a collaborative effort – captures the zeitgeist of ‘now’ with its concentration on ethnic and cultural minorities from Australia, North America, Finland, Brazil, Haiti, South Africa, Jordan and all points of the compass in between. Some, like Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit-Unangax artist from Alaska, already have substantial reputations in the northern hemisphere. Galanin’s video and installation practice aims to bring about social change through cultural reclamation and environmental issues. He has a video in the Court Galleries juxtaposed with the aforementioned Haiti painters. Haiti was the first country Andrew visited during his global biennale exodus.

Beirut-based sound artist Jordanian Lawrence Abu Hamdan – who humorously refers to himself as a ‘private ear’ – was one of the four shortlisted artists for the 2019 Tate Turner Prize who voted to receive the prize as a collective rather than individuals. His audio-visual installation Once Removed (2019), first seen last year at Sharjah Biennale, is in the Convict Precinct on Cockatoo Island. It chronicles the acquisitive life of historian Bassel Abi Chahine, who saw himself as the reincarnation of a soldier killed in the Lebanon civil war. In the open area close by, Australian Indigenous artist Tony Albert is firmly grounded with a greenhouse-like installation that deals with healing and country. Visitors are invited to take away native seedlings as a gift of memory.

There is also a stage for curiously challenging artists. While not necessarily wedded to reincarnation herself, South African artist Lhola Amira insists that two spirits inhabit her body, in a plural existence – which is not uncommon in her home country. She will make a healing chamber where people can enter and summon their ancestors.

Installation does dominate ‘NIRIN’, but there is a lot of painting too, Andrew assured me, ‘three or five painters are in the Art Gallery of NSW … and on Cockatoo Island.’ The Tennant Creek Brio group of painters are also on the island, and the sophisticated organic paintings by Indigenous artist Nonggirrnga Marawili are in the Museum of Contemporary Art.

It is Cockatoo Island that may well carry the Biennale’s show-stopping work, where Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has created a site-specific installation from stitched coal sacks. His installations are often monumental in size – sometimes draped across entire walls or even buildings – questioning the conditions of colonial supply and demand in African markets, a continent that has suffered under colonial rule more than most.

‘Australia is now more and more diverse, people stand with Aboriginal people, calling for a change as a mark of respect. Basic respect. Not about being polemical. It is about being respectful. That is very important. People are interested in sovereignty, environment, healing. When it comes to 250 years of Australian history, people are really wanting change.’ Andrew’s opinions can be strong and direct. But the art in ‘NIRIN’ is often subtle, non-confrontational, more coercive in its nature to proselytise; although Andrew accepts that BoS22 does have a ‘political edge.’

‘NIRIN’ will overlap with the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay in April 1770, an event being marked by the Federal and state governments splashing $50 million for a makeover of the landing site. Three million dollars is earmarked for a new statue of Cook, and Andrew diplomatically contained himself. ‘It’s a bit outdated. It doesn’t fix anything either. It is like Band-Aid,’ he stressed.

‘(We) don’t feel like we are victims, we feel incredibly empowered. (It is) a kind of enabling. I’m working with artists who have always been on the edge of the mainstream, and who are being allowed space to work,’ he explained.

Andrew knows that ‘NIRIN’ is a radical and controversial proposition. However one can only hope that the biennale going public will be sympathetic to his radical ideas. ‘NIRIN’ is about confronting the global issues of racism, exclusion, environment, climate change, and Indigeneity. It is also about the efficacy of art. ‘It is about sharing and solidarity and how that connects to community. There is a hunger for (change). People want it,’ Andrew said.

It might all seem like iconoclasm gone mad, but everything has been carefully thought through by Andrew. He remarks, ‘I am really challenging what biennales are historically, what they mean today.’

At the dawn of the new decade, ‘NIRIN’ is a gamble for the Biennale of Sydney. Kataoka’s biennale in 2018 achieved the highest ever visitation numbers for BoS, in excess of 850,000 but that hasn’t stopped the Biennale board from flirting with change. Whether Andrew can pull-off a biennale that brings together popular activism while screaming for change, remains to be seen. Only time will tell.

NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney
14 March to – 8 June 2020
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

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