Brook Andrew redefines the Biennale of Sydney by challenging Eurocentric art history

Portrait of Brook Andrew. Photography by Trent Walter. Image courtesy of Biennale of Sydney.
Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams, Kulilaya munu nintiriwa (Listen and learn), 2020, installation of UV cured flat-bed prints on hand finished untreated canvas with alterations in paint, ink and tea; suspended from spears made by kulata (spearbush) and mulga, malu, pulyku (kangaroo tendon) and kiti (mulga leaf resin), dimensions variable. Installation view, detail (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts.
Installation view of the Grand Courts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts.
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The 22nd Biennale of Sydney opened across six sites in Sydney last week, just prior to the city coming under a travel lockdown and national emergency precautions. Under the artistic direction of Brook Andrew, NIRIN challenges Eurocentric histories and how we think about art. In this interview, Andrew shares his vision behind his groundbreaking Biennale.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the Biennale of Sydney and Mimili Maku Arts

Portrait of Brook Andrew. Photography by Trent Walter. Image courtesy of Biennale of Sydney.

 

In the 47-year history of the Biennale of Sydney—one of the country’s most internationally prominent events—there has yet to be an iteration that truly paid respects to Australia’s Indigenous artists and communities. That is, until now. If there’s something about the Biennale of Sydney that has long been troubling in the increasingly global art world where theories of colonialism, peripheral art and all that jazz has driven a large proportion of the art discourse of the past 30 odd years—it’s the Biennale’s predominantly Eurocentric history. The previous edition in 2017, led by Mami Kataoka, was hailed as the first time the Biennale was led by a non-European director. This year, the Biennale is taking even bigger and bolder strides forward.

Under the artistic direction of Melbourne-based artist Brook Andrew, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, titled NIRIN, ticks two checklist boxes for this longstanding Biennale as the first edition to be both artist-led and First Nation-led. Bringing together 101 artists and artist collectives across six venues with over 700 artworks, it’s nothing short of a mammoth undertaking. NIRIN—a Wiradjuri word meaning edge—strives to challenge what we think a biennale is and, even what we think art is.

When I was fortunate enough to catch the opening of NIRIN last week before the current travel bans, I found myself nothing short of overwhelmed by the dense layers of NIRIN, of which there are seven themes that primarily inspire it. But the first powerful message I perhaps found was the inclusivity of NIRIN; of artists and people of colour, queer and non-binary. The message reiterated throughout the preview that NIRIN was a “safe space” was loud and felt.

In the first of our three-part Biennale coverage, we asked Andrew to share his vision behind NIRIN and what he hopes visitors will take away from it.

 

Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams, Kulilaya munu nintiriwa (Listen and learn), 2020, installation of UV cured flat-bed prints on hand finished untreated canvas with alterations in paint, ink and tea; suspended from spears made by kulata (spearbush) and mulga, malu, pulyku (kangaroo tendon) and kiti (mulga leaf resin), dimensions variable. Installation view, detail (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts.

 

What inspired your vision and approach for NIRIN? What does it mean to you that it’s both artist-led and First Nation-led?

I’m very interested in alternative narratives. I really enjoy process and collaboration and digging deep into an idea or exposing alternative narratives and stories that are not so dominant.

It comes back to what a biennale is meant to be. The traditional model of a European biennial has been about showing off the cultures of the colonies. NIRIN proposes that creativity is an important means of truth-telling, of directly addressing unresolved anxieties that stalk our times and ourselves. Most importantly, it is a place from which to see the world through different eyes, to embrace our many edges and imagine pride in ecologically harmonious and self-defined futures, and to explore both ancient ties and new kinships borne of sensitivity, desire and multiplicity.

 

Does curating and directing through the lens of an artist create a different experience of the Biennale for artists and visitors? How so?

Artists play a critical role in creating spaces to talk about the important issues that we’re facing today globally. Culturally we have been creating silos and sticking to our own communities. One of the most important things NIRIN is doing, by turning what a Biennale can be on its head, is challenging the kind of legacies of a Eurocentric view of art and practice but to also be honest in what is creativity and how is it that diversity of arts practices act as a more realistic and open view of connecting us all to each other.

 

You have done an extraordinary job in transforming the gallery space in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, bringing the historic European narratives together with First Nation narratives. Could you tell me more about your vision and curatorial process behind this space?

I really wanted the Biennale’s presence at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to create new dialogues across different architectural spaces and within existing displays and for those from non-European backgrounds to feel welcomed and to feel represented in a space that usually focuses on European art.

NIRIN was created to invite new ways of telling histories and stories, dynamic sensory experiences, and radical transformations of space, with the aim of shifting the way we experience traditional museum architecture and display.

A strong theme informing this exhibition is DHAAGUN (earth, sovereignty and working together). Sovereignty is taken beyond a legal definition of authority to consider cultural, emotional, spiritual and ancestral ties to place. Many artists draw upon serious and playful relationships between popular culture, place and community. They gather narratives of individual and collective survival that resist mainstream practices, racism and dispossession and through their work seek to redefine the status quo. NIRIN negotiates new proposals within these gallery walls to expand our understanding of what an ‘edge’ is and how to make more room for other possibilities.

 

Installation view of the Grand Courts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of Mimili Maku Arts.

 

There is a real sense through the Biennale that art has the possibility to incite change and to be inclusive, and that even what constitutes art can be diversified. How much of this was deliberate?

From the very beginning I wanted NIRIN to be different—to change what a contemporary biennale could be. NIRIN—which means ‘edge’ in Wiradjuri, my mother’s language—is about offering different perspectives. It’s the first time the Biennale has had such a high number of people of colour, non-binary and queer artists. I think those stories are so urgent and to have them all together is just so powerful. 

Many different communities have come together to create these spaces. I’m interested in themes like transformation, healing, ways of looking at ideas of sovereignty or the decolonial. NIRIN provides a space for those without a voice, and to incite real change in our visitors.

 

What has the response been so far to the Biennale?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Biennale scholar Anthony Gardner has sent me an email stating it’s one of the best Biennale of Sydney exhibitions he has seen. Artists and colleagues are also responding with excitement.

 

What do you hope visitors will take away from the Biennale over the coming months, especially in the context of these times we are currently facing?

Art is so important at times like these. It is an opportunity to reflect and connect with not only our own histories, but also the globe. It’s also important to reflect on global issues that are urgent and that involve our own responsibilities to each other and the planet.

 

How did you ensure Biennale programming complemented the works on show?

NIRIN WIR (meaning ‘edge’ and ‘sky’ in Wiradjuri) is an extension of NIRIN itself. It is a program of performances, workshops, talks and more that continue to unpack the seven themes that inspire NIRIN, which are: DHAAGUN (Earth: Sovereignty and Working Together); BAGARAY-BANG (Healing); YIRAWYDHURAY (Yam-Connection: Food); GURRAY (Transformation); MURIGUWAL GIILAND (Different Stories); NGAWAAL-GUYUNGAN (Powerful-Ideas: The Power of Objects); and BILA (River: Environment).

 

 

22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN
14 March – 8 June 2020
Various locations, Sydney

**As per a statement on measures taken regarding COVID-19 published on the website on 23 March, the Biennale of Sydney is currently closed to the public until further notice, meanwhile they currently working with Google to create a virtual Biennale on Google Arts & Culture platform. For further information and the latest updates, refer to the Biennale of Sydney website.

 

 

 

 
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