When artist Brook Andrew was announced as the artistic director for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney — the first Indigenous Australian artist to be appointed to the post — he declared his intention to upend the “dominant narrative” coming out of the art world, and focus on art from “the edge”.
An initial line-up of 33 artists for the 2020 event, announced on Tuesday, follows up on this, bringing art and artists at the edge of the “art canon” to the centre.
First Nations and Indigenous artists (including from Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, South Africa, Haiti and Peru) and artists of diaspora (African, Chinese and other) dominate the line-up so far.
Among them are filmmaker and video artist Arthur Jafa (best known for his work on video clips for Jay-Z, Solange and Beyoncé), who will create a new artwork; Sydney chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong; USA-based Haitian anthropologist, artist and activist Gina Athena Ulysse; New Zealand photomedia artist Lisa Reihana; and pioneering Indigenous Australian photojournalist Barbara McGrady.
The edge is the centre
Andrew has given his edition of the Biennale of Sydney the title Nirin, the Wiradjuri word for “edge”.
“Nirin is not the periphery, it is our centre,” Andrew told assembled media at Sydney’s National Art School on Tuesday.
He also outlined seven themes, or areas of focus, within his Biennale: dhaagun (earth: sovereignty and working together); bagaray-bang (healing); yirawy-dhuray (yam-connection: food); gurray (transformation); muriguwal giiland (different stories); ngawaal-guyungan (powerful-ideas: the power of objects); and bila (river: environment).
Andrew has forefronted the language of his Wiradjuri ancestors, cognisant of the fact that 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
“But every year is that for us [Indigenous Australians], and it’s a struggle for many First Nations people around the world — and not just First Nations, but people who have experienced diaspora or the influence of dominant cultures and languages.”
Sydney-born artist S.J Norman, who like Andrew has Wiradjuri heritage, is interested in exploring local language in their Biennale artwork, and the “tensions between Aboriginal knowledge systems and colonial Western knowledge systems”.
“I’m very excited about Brook’s artistic leadership and his curatorial vision,” says Norman.
“There seems to be a really strong emphasis on relationships between artists and practices and communities and networks — which is blackfella way of doing stuff.”
Arthur Jafa is a name that resonates beyond the art world, thanks to his work as a cinematographer on video clips such as Solange’s Cranes in The Sky and Don’t Touch My Hair, and films including Daughters of the Dust, which was a direct influence on the aesthetic of certain scenes in Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade.
More recently, he directed the video clip for Jay-Z’s 4:44.
Jafa’s best known artwork to date is the seven-minute video Love is the Message, The Message is Death, a collage of found and home footage set to Kanye’s gospel-inspired track Ultralight Beam. (The film is screening as part of Vivid Live at Sydney Opera House in May, alongside a conversation between Jafa and Brook Andrew).
For the Biennale of Sydney, Jafa will create a new work inspired by Indigenous Australian art.
Jafa has an ongoing preoccupation with the “black aesthetics” of the Americas, which he describes as a by-product of the “music and to a lesser degree dance … [and] physicality, such as basketball” of “people who are the progeny of enslaved Africans”.
“Most people would say you can hear something and say ‘That’s Black music’ almost immediately — even if you don’t know who it is singing it, and even if in fact in many instances it could be a white person singing. It’s still ‘Black music’,” says Jafa, citing jazz as an example.
Jafa wants to make cinema that has the same cultural specificity as ‘Black music’.
In Australia, he says, he’s keen to understand the way of thinking that produces the ‘Dreamtime’ paintings of culture, country and story.
“Part of my coming here [to Australia] is … the space I’m interested in operating out of is answering perennial questions for myself about ‘What makes it Black?'”
Putting community and collaboration on the menu
Most Australians know Kylie Kwong as a chef, restaurateur and erstwhile TV personality — but for Andrew, she’s an integral part of his “interdisciplinary” vision for the Biennale.
“She has been working very grassroots with Indigenous foods and peoples for almost ten years,” he says.
Kwong is one of many artists on a line-up that aims “to question ‘What is art?'”
Kwong says being part of the Biennale is a “dream come true”.
Like most of the artists announced on Tuesday, she is yet to lock down her project for the Biennale, but says it will involve collaborators, community and Indigenous ingredients: “All of the things I love.”
She also says it will involve small gatherings and a more intimate experience — closer to 10 or 20 people.
The Sydney-based chef, a fourth generation Chinese Australian and 29th generation Kwong, had her Indigenous ingredients ‘epiphany’ in 2010, seeing award-winning Noma chef Rene Redzepi talk about using native ingredients, at Sydney Opera House.
“I was sitting there on the edge of my seat, thinking ‘Why aren’t I using Indigenous Australian produce?’ It was like a light going on.”
The next day, she called bush-foods nursery Outback Pride — who became the supplier for her restaurant Billy Kwong.
“It was like if you were a painter and you discovered a whole new colour palette.”
Spotlighting hidden histories
Lisa Reihana is well known to Australian art lovers, largely thanks to her popular panoramic video installation In Pursuit of Venus, which has been exhibited in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane over the last four years.
Reihana, an artist of British and Maori (Ngapuhi, Ngati Hine, and Ngai Tu) descent, will make a new immersive video installation for the Biennale of Sydney — based on the little-known story of Charlotte Badger: Australia’s first female pirate.
Badger, an English-born convict, stole a boat from Tasmania in 1804 and came ashore in the north island of Aotearoa (New Zealand), where Reihana’s father’s tribal homelands are.
A fellow female traveller in the boat was murdered shortly after arriving, but Badger survived.
“I’m really interested in where women’s power resided at this point in time,” says Reihana.
“This was before the treaty of Waitangi , and when you look at who the colonial elders got to sign that document — one of the founding documents of New Zealand — there are very few women’s names on it, but actually there were a lot of quite powerful women at that time — landowners and leaders in their own right.
“So it’s interesting comparing these two quite different women’s histories.”
Artists in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney
Tony Albert, Australia
Maria Thereza Alves, Brasil/Germany
Lhola Amira, South Africa
Sammy Baloji, Democratic Republic of Congo/Belgium
Huma Bhabha, Pakistan/USA.
Blacktown Native Institution, Dharug Nation/Australia
Anna Boghiguian, Egypt/India/Europe.
Eric Bridgeman, Australia/Papua New Guinea
Victoria Santa Cruz, Peru
Leuli Eshraghi, Australia
Jes Fan, Canada/USA/China
Nicholas Galanin, USA
Fatima Rodrigo Gonzales, Peru
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Jordan/Lebanon
Arthur Jafa, USA
Hannah Catherine Jones, UK
Bronwyn Katz, South Africa
Kylie Kwong, Australia
Barbara McGrady, Australia
Ibrahim Mahama, Ghana
Teresa Margolles, Mexico/ Spain
Misheck Masamvu, Zimbabwe
Katarina Matiasek, Austria
Jota Mombaca, Brazil/Germany/Spain
Prof Sir Zanele Muholi, South Africa
The Mulka Project, Yirrkala/Australia
S.J Norman, Australia/Germany/UK
Taqralik Partridge, Canada/Norway
Laure Prouvost, France/UK/Belgium
Lisa Reihana, New Zealand
Latai Taumoepeau, Australia.
Gina Athena Ulysse, Haiti/USA