The Near Side: Artists from Aotearoa at NIRIN
by Jon Bywater | published 13.05.20
In the idiom of identity activism, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney declares itself a safe place.1 Its title is NIRIN, a locational term in Artistic Director Brook Andrews’ Wiradjuri language translated as “edge”.2 This act of naming resignifies the periphery in multiple ways: the use of the Indigenous Australian word is an index of the exhibition’s clear centring of the Indigenous (and positions outside the Eurocentric and the heteronormative), for starters, as well as of the agency of artists.
Five individuals and a collective from Aotearoa, all of whom are Māori or whakapapa to the wider Moananui-a-Kiwa (whose ancestral connection is to the wider Pacific), are among the 101 artists presenting work: John Miller (Ngāitewake-ki-uta, Uritaniwha, Ngāti Rēhia hapu of Ngāpuhi) in collaboration with Elisapeta Heta (Ngāti Wai, Waikato-Tainui), Emily Karaka (Waikato, Te Ahiwaru, Ngāti Pare, Te Kawerau a Maki, Ngāi Tai ki Tamaki, Tamaoho and Ngāpuhi), Lisa Reihana (Ngāi Tū, Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi), Kulimoe'anga 'Stone' Maka and FAFSWAG. Other Aotearoa-based artists, curators and writers also took part in aabaakwad NIRIN 2020, a symposium held to launch the exhibition over the opening weekend.3
Contrasting with the all-caps Wiradjuri titles, the lowercase aabaakwad is Anishinaabe, the First Nations North American language of Wanda Nanibush, Andrews’ collaborator in arranging a special iteration of “an Indigenous-led conversation on Indigenous art”.4 The word is rendered in English by the phrase “it clears after a storm”; but – and the obvious and overwhelming fact is already understood, no doubt – another kind of storm entirely was breaking as the event took place.
It was drizzling as I waited outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art on March 14. Sāmoan Australian artist Brian Fuata’s performance Apparitional Charlatan—Minor Appearances (2020) was due to start as the Biennale opened to the public. Two days earlier, the World Health Organisation had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. My own trip to Sydney had been in doubt but my leave to travel reinstated at the last minute. The best I’d been able to muster from my suitcase was an outfit not quite warm enough to be comfortable. A 2500-berth cruise ship docked at Overseas Passenger Terminal next door on Circular Quay felt conspicuous in a new way. I felt too aware, too, of a tickle in my throat.
Fuata (Wellington-born, Sydney-based) deftly drew such details into his monologue, acknowledging the rain dripping from the facade overhead, and addressing that suspicious ship as part of his trickster’s introductions: “Radiance of the SEAS! Radiance of the SEAS!” he hailed it, striding with playful dignity around the forecourt—grounding the small crowd in our shared situation while deftly amplifying some of its absurdities—before leading us into the gallery and picking out elements from works in the show to respond to in a similar fashion. Sighting a large red, black and yellow fabric banner opposing extractive industry, for example, he exclaimed, “Fracking EN-ER-GY! FRACK-ING EN-ER-GY!”
I assumed I’d be back to the MCA, so I left with works still to see to make it to Artspace (another of the six principal Biennale locations) for a welcome to country and smoking ceremony, an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land and cleansing for visitors ahead of performances and talks there.5 But late that evening came the messages recalling me urgently to the University of Auckland. I left early Monday morning on the next available flight, with not only those few leftover works at the MCA but whole venues unseen. With the momentum of a multi-partner institution—and representing over two years’ work for hundreds of people—NIRIN delayed a final decision for 10 of its planned 87 days, but announced closing a week later, on March 23.
Back home, Lana Lopesi expressed one strand of my conflicted feelings, writing that week: “I cannot bring myself to actually write about art. … Because how luxurious is it to be writing about art now? Why would we need it and who the hell would read it?”6 My privilege in flying internationally for an exhibition was also implicated as part of the problem, early cases of COVID-19 in Aotearoa skewing affluent for obvious reasons. In self-isolation before full lockdown restrictions were imposed, I was already disturbed by announcements in my inbox made as if everything were continuing as normal, at the same time that I myself was obliged to keep going, to teach and write from home.
It has been an unusual experience to have finished viewing an exhibition online.7 The point could be finessed, but a banal fact is that all exhibitions eventually become their documentation, though, and as art-agenda’s editors have suggested, “a crisis is not the time to question convictions, but to implement them”8 – for those with the luxury to do so at least. What I offer here is an account of the way that the work of the artists included from Aotearoa evince that NIRIN will remain worth remembering or imagining.
A key venue that I did not get to was the Campbelltown Art Centre, an hour by train from the city centre. Elisapeta Heta’s collaborative staging of a selection of John Miller’s photographs was installed there, in company with work by Gomeroi photojournalist Barbara McGrady and non-Indigenous Australian cartoonist First Dog On The Moon among others with documentary and activist tendencies. Currently the work can be seen through the Biennale’s Instagram and in a video ‘tour’.9
Miller’s sustained witness to Māori cultural and political organising is surveyed in six elegant, ochre-coloured panels floated from matching ochre-coloured walls. Most focus on causes and particular events: Sovereignty; the Māori Women's Welfare League 1975 Conference; the Māori Artists & Writers Hui; Ngā Tamatoa and Polynesian Panthers in the 1970s; Rātana Anniversary Day, January 25th, 1975; and Kai: dining halls and food preparation. The behind-the-scenes, noa or informal spaces pictured in the latter resonate with the environment Heta has built for contemplation and exchange. Benches and long tables, with photographs loaded on iPads, echo the vital social space of the wharekai or marae dining room. Equally, the visible histories that structure the installation are a living presence, uncluttered with museum commentary as they would be in the more formal setting of a carved or photo-hung wharenui or meeting house. At the head of the room, a seventh suite of images blends the six themes, the photos emphasised as physical objects, each on an individual shelf alongside three of the cameras that took them.
In the NIRIN catalogue, an essay by Megan Tamati-Quennell (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Mutunga, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu) “Symbiotic Relationships DHAAGUN: Sovereignty and Working Together” sits next to Indigenous Australian scholar Marcia Langton’s “Ancient Sovereignty: Representing 65,000 years of Ancestral Links to Land” as a primer on the longstanding alliance and differences between Māori and Indigenous Australian struggles for sovereignty and wellbeing. Tamati-Quennell addresses the unprecedented bushfire season of 2019-2020 that had looked set to overshadow the Biennale before the pandemic took its place, and draws a parallel between the Wiradjuri concept DHAAGUN’s dominant sense of ‘earth’ and the Māori importance of whenua, gesturing also towards the theme BAGARAY-BANG, ‘healing’.
The politics of self-determination and Indigenous sovereignty are a lifelong commitment in Emily Karaka’s art and public life.10 For the Biennale she presented a selection of new paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, made on a residency offered by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney,11 including depictions of the contested land at Ihumātao in South Auckland that came to national prominence last year.12 Her hapū, or subtribe, have mana whenua here: the right and responsibility to manage the area. This right has been overridden by the colonial property system and, more recently, challenged by a protest movement ostensibly for their cause but drawing in mass support without this ancestral connection—something hinted at in Karaka’s works, perhaps, where the protest group, Save Our Unique Landscape or S.O.U.L., is associated with the taniwha Kaiwhare: both guardian and menace.
In tune with the foregrounding of activist expressions, figuration and slogans throughout the exhibition, Karaka’s assertive, energetic paintings operate diagrammatically, deploying expressive colour, gesture and annotations in ways that might have as much to do with placards and toi whakairo, Māori carving, as with neo-expressionism.
Political symbolism is also key to Kulimoe'anga 'Stone' Maka’s works Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart) and Togo mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain), both 2008-10. They fill the floor of a lower gallery at the MCA, and can be viewed in the virtual tour accessible on the MCA website, along with personal commentary from the artist.13 Both works respond to Maka’s childhood memory of the British Queen’s Silver Jubilee visit to the Kingdom of Tonga in 1977. Large scale ngatu 'uli, or black tapa, associated with Tongan royalty, they are a tribute to the intensity of the bond and mutual respect felt by Tongans between their late Queen Sālote Tupou III and Queen Elizabeth II, evidenced by reciprocating visits in which Queen Salote had taken up the invitation to travel to London to attend the Coronation in 1953 and hosted Queen Elizabeth at home later that same year.
The names of the two countries in one work and the English and Tongan flags in the other act as symmetrical repetitions that balance one against the other. That the works are railed off by gallery barriers chimes with the artist’s recollection of the waving of handkerchiefs and flags on the departure of ships. This positive sense of the British Commonwealth is in competition with many harsher views of the legacies of Empire, but the ngatu 'uli also resonate with other works that draw on non-Western forms, such as the similarly potent abstract design elements of two Northern Territory artists also at the MCA, Madarrpa clan artist Nongirrna Marawili’s bark paintings and Tiwi artist Pedro Wonaeamirri’s tutini poles.
In my last hours in Sydney I made it to Cockatoo Island, where the dramatic scale and historical charge of the former ship-building warehouses felt apt as a setting for Lisa Reihana’s historical fantasy Nomads of the Sea (2019). A sequence of scenes in a three-screen, 3D video installation imagines tensions around the appearance of Pākēha mutineer Charlotte Badger in nineteenth century Ngāpuhi territory in Aotearoa. She foils an attempted rape on the ship that brings her to Southern Seas, seizing her attacker’s pistol to shoot him dead. We then see her triumphantly gripping the ship’s wheel as spray breaks behind her. A jealous love triangle develops as she enters Māori society, depicted through seething glances and the flash of toned, oiled limbs.
Reihana’s vision of lust and violence relates to a minor tradition of high-key melodrama in film from Aotearoa, including directors Stuart Main and Peter Wells. In the historical vignettes the stock nature of the action weighs against its power to engage. The futuristic and ancestral character of the Storyteller, however, escapes this limitation, mesmerisingly performed by Māori contemporary dancer Matiu Hamuera.
The collective FAFSWAG were also due to present work in NIRIN, at the National Art School in Darlinghurst, alongside English and Bajan artist Hannah Catherine Jones’ video installation Owed to Diaspora (2019) and high profile Mexican artist Teresa Margolles’ untitled installation acting as memorial to local acts of fatal violence against women (potentially one of the least safe experiences in NIRIN for its confronting use of a material connection to sites of death). They were to have worked in a project space there for two weeks in April, but will now present online only. In an Instagram post they offer a salient caution, though, about potential compromises to artistic vision and security of intellectual property in any too hasty or too casual push to move work online, observing, too, that the internet is “no longer a safe space”.
FAFSWAG’s work will find connections with that of Collectivo Allyu, for example, who I saw perform at Artspace; a Madrid-based “action group formed by migrants, people of colour and queer sexual-gender dissidents from the ex-Spanish colonies”, who also vogue, for one thing. A placard visible in video documentation of one of their actions provides a lucid reduction of a concept that weaves between the Biennale’s explicit themes: “Heterosexuality is white and colonial”.14
Collectivo Allyu relate to a distinctive strand of work from the Americas in NIRIN. Andrew writes in the catalogue that his curatorial journey “started in Haiti and went out from there”,15 and artists from Brazil and Chile, as well as further north introduce the term ‘First Nations’ that has been used by the Biennale to be inclusive of the Māori, Moananui-a-Kiwa and Australian Indigenous connections in the project.
While recirculations are typical in biennales—Reihana’s work was originally commissioned by curator Zoe Butt and shown for the first time at the 14th Sharjah Biennial, for example—there are an unusually large number of connections between NIRIN and the 2019 Venice Biennale: French artist Laure Prouvost, responsible for one of the most popular national pavilions in Venice, Madagascan representative Joël Andrianomearisoa, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahana (featured in both the Ghana pavilion and Ralph Rugoff’s curated show May You Live In Interesting Times), South African artist Zanele Muholi, as well as American artist Arthur Jafa, recipient of the Golden Lion for his work White Album (2018).
Alongside Mahama, John Miller was one of several connections between NIRIN and 2018’s documenta 14.16 A significant recent attempt to foreground Indigenous practices in a large-scale periodic exhibition, documenta 14 belongs to a genealogy of theory and practice, political and curatorial, that Andrews’ approach connects with and builds on. Alongside the emergence of the Honolulu Biennale, for example, documenta 14 forms part of what is referred to as “the current global interest in Indigenous arts” in the exhibition guide to NIRIN, and the hundreds of talks and events planned, which pinpoints the project’s vision in that it, too, is “focused on shifting the current global interest in Indigenous arts to be one that is Indigenous-led”;17 simply but crucially positioning Indigenous artists and curators as not just part of a curatorial team or an element of a project, but predominant and taking the lead.
Andrews’ curatorial approach is further characterised by two supplementary strands that run throughout the show: 15 SCREENS, a program of single-channel video that includes archival and documentary material alongside artist moving image, and POWERFUL OBJECTS, artefacts loaned from public and private collections, displayed with little explicit interpretive comment. In 15 SCREENS, for example, a dancer’s response to a ‘collected’ Māori building, Australian Māori artist Victoria Hunt’s piece Copper Promises: Hinemihi Haka (2013), tells the strange, sad story of Hinemihi: a carved house souvenired by Governor General William Hillier Onslow, which she visits in Surrey, England where it is still exiled (although now due to be repatriated).
POWERFUL OBJECTS, indeed, resembles an element of Andrews’ own art practice. An equivalent, more or less, for the theme NGAWAL-GUYUNGAN, this feature of the exhibition is driven by his expertise in the re-articulation of archives. In the marble-edged rooms of the AGNSW, for example, a glass case of items from Bernhard Lüthi’s archive made a clear point about the exhibition’s relationship to exhibition history. The Swiss curator worked at the MCA in the 1980s, and was the local collaborator in French curator Jean-Hubert Martin’s landmark attempt to treat Indigenous artists as contemporary in Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989. He facilitated the participation of Indigenous Australian artists who, as made clear in backstory shared in the wall label, were critical and reluctant. Seeing a fax signed from Martin behind glass was a moment of genuine fascination, the author’s blindness to his own power bringing the well-intentioned racism of this recent past into clear view.
It is in this context that Karaka’s canvases (already described) infiltrate the old ‘Court Galleries’, home to the early colonial-era collection. Contemporary (and non-Australian historical, including Haitian) works bring the origins of the usual hang into stark relief. North American star Arthur Jafa’s social media-dominated video collage on the theme of whiteness and racism is presented here, and amidst the nubile breasts and trite allegories of nearby academic painting, it appears all the more powerful than it did in Venice. Karaka’s Ihumātao paintings for their part electrify the always already political stakes of the picturesque colonial depictions of landscape they interrupt. The strategy draws on decades of institutional critique, but—in the way of the perennial protest sign “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit!”—remains utterly relevant.
1. An exchange of messages between catalogue essayist Francisco Godoy Vega of Colectivo Allyu and Artistic Director Brook Andrew, “Everyday Frustrations”, reflects on the experience of “speaking freely with one’s own terminologies” against “the expectations of dominant cultures”, including in the professional art world. NIRIN 22nd Biennale of Sydney 14 March—18 June 2020, Biennale of Sydney Ltd., 2020: pp. 87-91.
2. As are the seven themes of the exhibition: DHAAGUN (‘earth’: sovereignty and working together); BAGARAY-BANG (‘healing’); YIRAWY-DHURAY (‘yam-connection’: food); GURRAY (‘transformation’); MURIGUWAL GIILAND (‘different stories’); NGAWAL-GUYUNGAN (‘powerful ideas’: the power of objects); and BILA (‘river’: environment). See the catalogue NIRIN 22nd Biennale of Sydney 14 March—18 June 2020: p.324.
3. Art historian and writer Hanahiva Rose (Te Ātiawa, Ngāi Tahu, Tahiti) was an invited participant. She reviews the Biennale for The Spinoff in “The centre will not hold: Aotearoa at the Sydney Biennale before lockdown” (11 April 2020) https://thespinoff.co.nz/art/11-04-2020/the-centre-will-not-hold-aotearoa-at-the-sydney-biennale-before-lockdown/.
4. “AABAAKWAD 2020 NIRIN”, AGO, https://ago.ca/aabaakwad-2020-nirin.
5. Online, too, the Biennale takes care over protocol, with a pop-up on the Biennale of Sydney website that doesn’t let you read anything until you’ve seen an acknowledgement of country (akin to the Māori concept of mana whenua) for the physical exhibition venues, as has become increasingly common for public institutions.
6. Lana Lopesi, “Art in Isolation” Pantograph Punch (23 March 2020) https://www.pantograph-punch.com/post/art-in-isolation
7. Andrew Brooks and Astrid Lorange reflect eloquently on their experience of Biennale’s emerging online representation in their review “22nd Biennale of Sydney, “Nirin” March 14–June 8, 2020 (Various locations, Sydney)” art-agenda (April 28, 2020) https://www.art-agenda.com/features/328963/22nd-biennale-of-sydney-nirin
8. The Editors, “Which way to turn?” art-agenda (May 1, 2020) https://www.art-agenda.com/features/329782/which-way-to-turn
9. NIRIN SOCIAL TOUR: John Miller & Elisapeta Heta at Campbelltown Arts Centre, April 15, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3Pq3jG-JmA
10. In the online program, Karaka participates in the discussion “Indigenous life before and beyond Captain Cook: reflections on self governance”, 29 April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh9nNVI7_Hk
11. The Powerhouse Museum are also a partner in NIRIN WIR, and were to present events produced with community organizations such as the Blacktown Native Institution (https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/artists/blacktown-native-institution/), the Parramatta Female Factory (https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/artists/parramatta-female-factory-precinct-and-pyt-fairfield/), and the Bankstown Poetry Slam (https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/artists/bankstown-poetry-slam/).
12. Historian Vincent O’Malley describes the background in “Our trail of tears: the story of Ihumātao” The Spinoff (27 July 2019) https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/27-12-2019/summer-reissue-our-trail-of-tears-the-story-of-ihumatao/
13. A virtual tour of the MCA hang is accessible at: https://www.mca.art/#!/22nd-biennale
14. LGBTQIA+ perspectives do align with the theme MURIGUWAL GIILAND (‘different stories’).
15. See the catalogue NIRIN 22nd Biennale of Sydney 14 March—18 June 2020: p. 324.
16. The association is in part personal, since I was involved with representing Miller’s work in the publication program, with Cassandra Barnett and Marina Fokidis: https://www.documenta14.de/en/south/25213_treaty_and_protest_john_miller_s_photographs_by_cassandra_barnett_and_jon_bywater_with_an_introduction_by_marina_fokidis
17. NIRIN WIR guide: p.7.
Jon Bywater is a Pākehā critic with a particular interest in politics and place. He teaches at Elam, the University of Auckland, which supported his travel to Sydney for this piece. He is a member of the collective Local Time, and his writing has appeared in British and American periodicals such as Afterall, art-agenda, Artforum, Frieze, and Mute, and national publications including Art New Zealand, Landfall, and Reading Room, as well as numerous monographs and exhibition catalogues.