• Issue
  • Aug 27, 2020

Sydney: 22nd Biennale of Sydney: “NIRIN”

22nd Biennale of Sydney: “NIRIN”
Multiple locations

AZIZ HAZARA, Bow Echo, 2019, still from five-channel digital video with color and sound: 4 min 17 sec. Produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation. Courtesy the artist.

A boy stands on a mountain, blowing a tiny plastic bugle, clothes whipping in the wind. A dirge-like sound grows louder and louder, drowning out the boy’s jaunty music. The noise reaches a pitch so high that it becomes unbearable, an aural presence that blankets the landscape, cancels out its beauty, replacing it, instead, with an atmosphere of doom.

Bow Echo (2019), a five-channel video work by Aziz Hazara, played on screens suspended in mid-air at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) as part of “NIRIN,” the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, curated by Brook Andrew, the first Indigenous artistic director in the exhibition’s 46-year history. Hazara’s work takes its name from a bow-shaped meteorological system that appears out of nowhere, sparking winds that rip through places with the magnitude of bullets. Bow Echo references the suicide bombs that ricochet through Hazara’s native Kabul, the way in which the unspeakable creeps over the ordinary. But it also articulates how different kinds of climate—natural, political, cultural—can coalesce into the perfect storm.

It’s been a year of extraordinary weather: a month before the Biennale opened in March, bushfires ravaged the east coast of Australia, killing one billion native animals. Soon after launch, the show closed as a pandemic forced the world into lockdown. It reopened the same month that Black Lives Matter protests swept across American cities, exposing systemic inequality with renewed vigor. The movement created a powerful sense of solidarity between Black survivors of police brutality and Indigenous Australians, who are 12 times likelier to be incarcerated than the rest of the population.

“NIRIN” loosely translates to “edge” in Wiradjuri, the language of Andrew’s mother. In the context of the contemporary art world, the word suggests the ways in which art from, say, Haiti or Ghana arises out of a context that is marginal to capitals like London or Paris. Simultaneously, work by artists with histories that have been buried by the Western canon might be marketed as having “edge,” which reveals more about how the White/Western-dominated art world seizes upon difference as a form of cultural capital and less about these artists’ formal innovations or aesthetic achievement.

The Biennale, which featured 101 artists and collectives from 47 countries, with an emphasis on First Nations voices, pushed back against these colonial legacies. Sprawled across five sites, the Biennale at times felt freewheeling and garrulous, but it was also radical. It didn’t presume an ideal viewer. It drew on Andrew’s longstanding research into the power of collective memory to explode Eurocentric modes of display and to challenge notions of center and edge in the process.

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” the writer Arundhati Roy said in her famous lecture for the 2004 Sydney Peace Prize. The phrase re-entered my mind as I stood in front of Zanele Muholi’s black-and-white photographs, which lined the walls of a large room at the MCA. The Johannesburg-based artist has been shooting Faces and Phases since 2006, the year South Africa legalized same-sex marriage. The ongoing series comprises over 500 portraits of Black lesbian, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people—non-existent in the country’s visual history—captured with profound humanity and depth. The subjects are unflinching in returning the viewer’s gaze, rerouting a history of fetishized Blackness and queerness. Muholi registers dark skin in an infinite spectrum of tones and gradients. The artist’s eye also alights on small details: how the set of one subject’s shoulders or the glint of another’s eyes offer glimpses of who they are as people and the depth of their inner lives.

Installation view of LATAI TAUMOEPEAU’s The Last Resort, 2020, single-channelvideo installation with sound: 23 min, and durational performance, at the 22nd Biennaleof Sydney, Cockatoo Island, 2020. Photo by Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist.

Ideas of self-determination rippled across “NIRIN,” braiding together work forged by different places, histories, and mediums. Among the most poignant examples were the clusters of plastic shopping bags emblazoned with intricate watercolors of sites in Australia’s Central Desert, including Rwetyepme (Mount Sonder), Yapalpa (Glen Helen), and Ormiston Gorge. These works, placed in areas of transit across the Biennale’s venues, were conceived by members of Alice Springs’ Iltja Ntjarra / Many Hands Art Centre, operated by descendants of the great Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira, who was born in 1902 near the site of the Hermannsburg Mission. After learning to paint in the 1930s, he founded The Hermannsburg School, one of the most significant 20th century Australian art movements. Despite sell-out exhibitions, Namatjira was often homeless, forced to camp with his family near an Alice Springs creek bed. Generations later, his relatives are part of this cycle of dispossession. The shopping bags are symbols of transience, of being caught between places. One side of each bag is a canvas for a painting, but the reverse bears simple statements written in black marker, such as “HOMELESS ON MY HOMELAND.” With this series, Iltja Ntjarra both honors Namatjira’s contribution to Australian visual culture and wrests their ancestor’s legacy from the White dealers and collectors who largely defined and profited from it.

Western history celebrates progress, but the past often moves in patterns and circles. This idea was articulated beautifully at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), where works by First Nations artists acted as visual footnotes to the institution’s Western art collections, complicating their place in the art-historical canon and conveying the ways in which the wheels of history shape contemporary experience.

Photographs by Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens and Gomeroi yinnar photojournalist Barbara McGrady occupied the institution’s 19th century spaces. Mounted in the gallery’s vestibule, Dickens’ Hard-hitting sister II (2019) portrays an Indigenous woman staring defiantly at the camera. Wearing a sequinned, Australian-flag mini-dress, the woman stands proudly as a testament to survival in the face of ongoing colonization, appearing as stoic and immovable as the venue’s classic sandstone walls.

Installation view of IBRAHIM MAHAMA

Elsewhere, Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan (2006), a two-channel video work by Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unangax artist and musician from Alaska, commanded the site’s Grand Courts. The pair of videos, soundtracked by hypnotic electro dub music that reverberated through the gallery, floated above paintings by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and John Constable. The work’s placement reversed the hierarchy of cultural expression that has valorized Western masters at the expense of other visual cultures, indicating that these standards are not a given. In one channel of the video, David Elsewhere, a California-born Latino dancer, moves to the rhythm of a traditional Tlingit song. On the second screen, he adopts the liquid choreography of the break-dancer. Here, bodies aren’t objects to be acted on; they are resilient, flexible, capable of rewriting the future.

Wildly ambitious, “NIRIN” also highlighted invisible threads that connect different places. At AGNSW, André Eugène’s playful sculptures spun out of garbage found a correlative in Latai Taumoepeau’s video The Last Resort (2020), shown on Cockatoo Island. The latter portrays the Sydney-born, Tongan performance artist crushing glass bottles—the detritus of Western tourists in the Pacific Islands—with brick sandals. These spoils of paradise are destined to clog the ocean, a pollution crisis that binds many of the islands.

“NIRIN” gave the viewer a visual language for thinking through this fractured present, for suturing together age-old wounds. This was expressed most powerfully in Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s No friend but the mountains, 2012–2020 (2020), an epic installation of jute sacks imported by the Ghana Cocoa Board. Puckered and creased like human skin, the stitched-together sacks blanket the walls of the Turbine Hall, hinting at the site’s history of convict labor as well as the exploitative systems that bring commodities to the West. Along with the logos of specialty coffee and cocoa companies, the sacks are signed with the names of real people: Fran, John, Nuhi. Like the best works in “NIRIN,” Mahama’s project asks the viewer to bear witness to the human cost of painful histories, even those we’d rather forget.