Brook Andrew’s Biennale breaks down barriers and knows no boundaries

Artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney, Brook Andrew. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

Artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney, Brook Andrew. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

NIRIN is back! Presented across greater Sydney this free contemporary art exhibition delivers a brilliant artist and First Nations-led exhibition of modern art, connecting both local communities and global networks, in a digital physical space. This year’s Biennale has been imagined under the artistic direction of Brook Andrew and showcases more than 700 works from over 100 artists.

After going digital in March, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney is reopening its physical exhibition to the public with extended dates. How does it feel to be opening the Biennale on 16 June?

I am very happy that NIRIN is opening for an extended period! The venues and artists are working well with the Biennale team to bring the physical exhibition alive. There is now both a solid program online and physically which will be very exciting!

While the Biennale was met with great success back in March, after just 10 days, it had to close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us what’s happened since it first opened?

When COVID-19 first happened nobody really knew what the impact would be. And this was unfolding in Australia the weekend of the Biennale opening. We were kind of lucky in a way because we had the first week of opening events, which had a fantastic response with those who attended. In that time, we had tours with the press, benefactors, and the local community turning up. People were really overwhelmed and excited about it.

I think that what the COVID-19 situation has done, is create a lot of more unexpected connections and conversations in different media around the world. And while it has been physically in status, there has been a lot of conversation happening.

Aabaakwad, co-presented by the Art Gallery of Ontario, with Anishinaabe curator, artist, and educator Wanda Nanibush, Canada Council for the Arts, and Biennale of Sydney also brought discussion and connection. The event was important too because it brought together international First Nations artists, curators, and thinkers together to a three-day conference that empowered new thought and dialogue around broader issues of Indigenous artists.

Since the Biennale launched in March you’ve been in touch with many artists, organisations, and curators, who have been interested in the global First Nations-led 2020 program. Can you tell us about that?

I’m speaking in conversation with Pablo Jose Ramirez, who’s one of the Indigenous curators at the Tate; Wellcome Trust in London wanted to talk about what is it that NIRIN does differently, being artist-led and First Nations led; and I’ve recently given a talk in conversation with the Guggenheim, with their curators, and with Asia Art Archive. I’m also speaking with the Guggenheim about the program, and they’ve started an Indigenous advisory group. It’s especially fantastic for a traditional museum like that, with a very United States of America Western art world focus, to be interested in what we are doing.

With all the opening and closing this Biennale has really found its NIRIN (edge) in a way.

I think it has. That’s poetic justice.

One thing that came out of the pause on Biennale was your online talks Fridays with Brook. Tell us about that?

When COVID-19 happened, there was a bit of anxiety around getting online. In fact, taking the time to reflect on the best way to be online is the most important thing. And now we have Fridays With Brook, where I have this opportunity to talk on not only artists, community, scholars, curators, or even the Biennale staff themselves about what is it like to put on an exhibition. It’s also collaborations with, SMAC gallery, where it’s Lhola Amira in conversation with me. And with Goodman Gallery it was Mischeck Masamvu in conversation with me. It’s on their platforms, and it’s also on our platforms.

And really the NIRIN objective and philosophical premise was not only to be artist and First Nations-led, but to be around collaboration, working together, and being grounded in that premise. These are things that I’ve been exploring and talking with people about.

While the Biennale is reopening, the borders around the world remain pretty much shut. This is making people turn inwards to look at what art and culture is available at home. With Biennale being First Nations-led do you see opportunities in that for a change in the conversation?

Curators, directors, arts institutes, creative institutes are focusing more on Australia, and it’s not only because of COVID-19. People are starting to look at themselves. It’s about what responsibility we all have in listening, in these many nations called Australia. What is it that we can have an impact on? How is it that we relate to each other in a community that’s very complex? And I think it’s an opportunity to really look at those ideas. What kind of people do we have that we’re living amongst that we’ve often ignored as well? Or whose histories we don’t know.

The 22nd Biennale of Sydney will be open free to the public from 16 June to 6 September 2020. Exhibition dates at each venue are as follows:

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales 1 June – 27 September 2020
  • Artspace 1 June – 27 September 2020
  • Campbelltown Arts Centre 1 June – 11 October 2020
  • Cockatoo Island 16 June – 6 September 2020
  • Museum of Contemporary Art Australia 16 June – 6 September 2020 (closing date TBC)
  • Powerhouse Museum 1 June – 1 September 2020

All digital programs are now available to stream on demand:

  • Artist playlists curated by Biennale artists including MzRizk, Nicholas Galanin, Johanna Bell, FUNPARK, 4ESydney, Joey Modiba from Breaking Bread and BE. Listen on Spotify.
  • Explore the world of contemporary art and exhibition-making with Learning Resources.
  • Stream all episodes from the NIRIN Podcast Series.
  • Revisit and listen to readings of NIRIN NGAAY from artists and contributors.
  • Watch Brook Andrew in a series of in-depth conversations with artists and creative thinkers in Fridays with Brook.
  • NIRIN Social Tours with Assistant Curator Sebastian Henry-Jones across all six exhibition venues.
Image: Artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney, Brook Andrew. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

Published: 5 June 2020