So far the 2020s have been the decade of the ‘water’ and
‘decolonial’ biennial. Everyone’s doing it — bringing together
Indigenous and non-white artists against the loose themes of
‘flows of resistance’ or the like, attempting to make sense in a
moment of intersecting and layered crises. Questions around
institutional transformation, curatorial activism, representation,
the environment, climate change, equality, and how a museum
might ‘care’ are dominant themes of contemporary curation.
ua usiusi fa’ava’asavili, the 2023 edition of the TarraWarra Biennial launched in this context. Curated by Dr Léuli Eshrāghi, the Biennal’s title is a Samoan proverb that translates to ‘the canoe obeys the wind.’ Dr Eshrāghi sees their Biennial as existing within a ‘contemporary revival of Great Ocean celestial navigation practices,’ which teaches the interconnectedness between humans, land, water, and the elements. Across the work of fifteen artists and collectives, Eshrāghi envisions the Biennial as coming from a place of humility towards one another and our environments to generate neighbourly exchanges and joyful futures.
There is a lot of expectation on this Biennial, if the packed VIP preview is anything to go by. Industry people have been looking to Black and brown (and trans, queer, disabled, women) artists as a tangible form of ‘curatorial activism’ and this Biennial ostensibly fits the bill.
The reduction of these kinds of exhibitions to ideas of representation, activism, decolonisation, diversity or the like is an impossible burden to place on artists and guest curators. It is this kind of labour that ua usiusi fa’ava’asavili pushes back against.
Phuong Ngo’s Remastered (2023), sits in the central gallery space of TarraWarra. Minimalist in style, it is a series of empty plinths, with one plinth holding an upturned coffee table. ‘AMAZING SOLID WOOD TABLE FROM DÉCOR COBURG’ is soldered into the top of the table alongside, ‘THIS IS MID CENTURY MADE MELBOURNE, NOT SOME CHEAP ASIAN IMPORT.’
The table and plinths are remnants of a period where ‘European Only Labour’ was a proud marker stamped onto Australian-made furniture. It lasted from 1896-1963. The plinths are painted with a colour called ‘White Comfort.’ Our relationship to Asian and racialized labour has changed, not least within the cultural industries. ‘European Only Labour,’ though, could apply to many of the staffing structures within the Australian arts.
The strength of Ngo’s work and ua usiusi fa’ava’asavili is that space has been made for artists to unshackle themselves from the burden of institutional ‘activism’ or ‘decolonising’ an inherently colonised cultural infrastructure. It is an impossible task to lay on the shoulders of individual curators and artists to redress systemic issues.
Leyla Steven’s new video commission GROH GOH (Rehearsal for Rangda) (2023) works with Hindu Temple dancers based in Bali and continues her exploration of the colonial and touristic frameworks that are placed onto Bali in the Australian imagination. Bali, the ‘Island of the Gods,’ has been turned into a space for spiritual yearning, relaxation and partying for tourists, within a purposefully underdeveloped economy where local labour costs are low. If the Indonesian Government agitated for economic development in Bali then where would tourists go for a cheap holiday? Where would we go to see exotic temple dancers?
Young dancers in Steven’s video rehearse to perform the story of Rangda, a ‘witch-widow’ shapeshifter, both destructive and protective, who maintains a central place in Balinese Hindu cosmogony. There is downtime where the dancers have a conversation about the figure of Rangda and how she might fit into daily life, in an intimate moment away from a gawking tourist audience whose presence is an outcome of ongoing structures of imperialism and extraction. This tension of finding moments of beauty, intimacy and connection within fundamentally colonised dynamics of exchange is a common thread through many of the works in the Biennial.
We are facing unprecedented levels of inequality in Australia. Between the years of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and 2019, the top ten per cent of earners captured 93 per cent of the wealth generated in Australia (cracking the top ten per cent involves earning $130,000 or more). On my visits to TarraWarra, the carpark is filled with Audis, Mercs, BMWs and other luxury cars. The demographics of audiences and stakeholders in the contemporary art industry are notoriously narrow.
TarraWarra Museum of Art is built off the wealth of the Besen family, who are worth $3.4 billion. Marc Besen founded Highpoint Shopping Centre in Maribyrnong, colloquially known as ‘knifepoint.’ It is ground-zero for teen-Islander shopping mall culture. The Besens also own the Sussan Group, which includes Sussan, Suzanne Grae and Sportsgirl. These all manufacture in Vietnam and China and lack transparency around their ethics of procuring raw and processed materials. Fast fashion is a major contributor to climate change and deeply exploitative labour practices for people on the wrong side of the global colour line.
Asking for some kind of ‘curatorial activism’ through representation or ‘decolonising the museum’ in this context are the wrong questions to be asking of projects with no white artists or curators in sight. Indeed, one could see the projection of these ideas onto such exhibitions as a form of control by the wealthy and the state who gatekeep access to public cultural discourse. It is a way to keep artists and curators bound up in and distracted by the impossible task of institutional transformation in a deferral of responsibility onto individuals who are cast as a radical presence in the museum.
As a curator, Eshrāghi seems all too aware of this dynamic. There is space in this exhibition for joy and love, and for taking the time to try and imagine a world outside of the concepts and structures we have inherited within a fundamentally colonised space.
David Sequeira loves love and the sincerity of emotion. Emotional sincerity was deeply unfashionable in the intellectual postmodern boom of the 1990s in which he came up as an artist.
You and I, we’re like diamonds in the sky (after Rihanna) (2023) features miniature portraits of David and his partner Ben. The two are guided towards each other across the paintings by their star signs (Pisces and Aquarius, respectively) rendered in Swarovski crystals, until they come together and kiss in the one painting with both star signs above them.
For anyone who has brought a white person home to a brown family (let alone in a queer relationship), you would know there is a lot of work that needs to happen on both sides for an intercultural relationship. This is especially fraught in David and Ben’s context — here grounded by an image of the observatory Jantar Mantar, in Jaipur, India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalised homosexuality under British rule in 1861. It was only repealed in 2018. Better protective rights for LGBTQIA+ people are a long way off.
While this political background hangs against David and Ben, the sheer intimacy and love between them emanates from David’s work. It is political, yes, but it is the sincerity and intimacy of feeling, relationships and joy that is at its core.
Jenna Lee’s to nurture, to gather, to sustain presents a development in her practice that makes clear the drive to come
to articulate and clarify a language that we do not have yet, outside of our collective colonial inheritances. Here she creates a
series of forty-eight paintings based on Gulumerridjin verbs that
have theretofore only been translated by colonial linguists. The
series speaks to how artistic practice can be an ongoing process
of making sense of the world.
Within the trajectory of Eshrāghi’s curatorial practice, this is a constructive metaphor for reading ua usiusi fa’ava’asavili as a project. The ‘Great Ocean’ could be read as a membrane that ties a series of practices together when we are trying to collectively navigate a political, economic and social structure that has been
ruining us for centuries. The 2023 TarraWarra Biennial feels like
an exercise in reorienting the emotional energy of these artists away from the weight of expectation, where museums and their
core audiences and stakeholders believe that exhibiting and platforming non-white voices will somehow save us all.
While we might not have answers for what the world might be on the other side of compounding crises brought on by inequality and racial capitalism, usiusi fa’ava’asavili gestures to a generative and poetic space where we might find the means to navigate the state of the world alongside our neighbours, embedded in kinship and cultural groups that have historically been disempowered, and in relationships of love and reciprocity.