Seven must-sees at the Sydney Biennale

Artistic director Brook Andrew shakes up the art event and spotlights international Indigenous artists

Whiteness Ethnography, 2019 (part I of a diptych), by Paulo Nazareth
Whiteness Ethnography, 2019 (part I of a diptych), by Paulo Nazareth | Image: Courtesy of Paulo Nazareth and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

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For the first time in its 22-year history, the Sydney Biennale takes its title from an Indigenous Australian language. “Nirin” is a word of the Wiradjuri people of western New South Wales, which translates as “edge”, and was chosen by the Biennale’s first Indigenous artistic director, Brook Andrew, an acclaimed interdisciplinary artist. From March 14, Andrew will present the work of 101 international artists and collectives, focusing on themes of sovereignty, healing and transformation, while a sister programme, Nirin Wir (“sky edge”), will explore the works through talks and events.

MaID IV, New York, 2018, by Zanele Muholi
MaID IV, New York, 2018, by Zanele Muholi | Image: Courtesy of Zanele Muholi and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

“Communities, people and practices that have been pushed to the ‘edge’ – marginalised or de-centred – are rising to the foreground,” says Andrew. “It is time to listen to communities coming from supposedly ‘remote’ places, to listen to First Nations voices, to consider all issues together – from colonisation to climate change.”

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At the time of writing, many of the artworks were yet to be revealed, but here are seven artists not to miss. 

Sister Girls Stylin Up, Mardi Gras, 2013, by Barbara McGrady
Sister Girls Stylin Up, Mardi Gras, 2013, by Barbara McGrady | Image: Courtesy of Barbara McGrady

Paulo Nazareth 

In 2009, performance artist and photographer Paulo Nazareth set out to travel from southern Brazil to New York on foot. He arrived in the US city three years later, exploring along the way how his racial identity – the Brazilian artist has African and indigenous heritage – was perceived across different countries. For this year’s Biennale, he will present a series of photographs at the Unesco world-heritage site Cockatoo Island, which sits off Sydney Harbour.

Denilson Baniwa’s Pajé Yawareté in Paulista Avenue, 2018 (performance still)
Denilson Baniwa’s Pajé Yawareté in Paulista Avenue, 2018 (performance still) | Image: José Moreau, courtesy of Denilson Baniwa

Zanele Muholi

Ahead of the South African artist and visual activist’s exhibition at Tate Modern this summer, Zanele Muholi will present three new bodies of work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Working in photography, video and installation, the non-binary artist is known for their powerful black and white portraits that engage with the politics of race, gender and sexuality.

Kingitanga ki Te Ao (They Will Throw Stones), 2020, by Emily Karaka
Kingitanga ki Te Ao (They Will Throw Stones), 2020, by Emily Karaka | Image: Courtesy of Emily Karaka

Barbara McGrady

“I would highly recommend making the journey to Campbelltown Arts Centre,” says Andrew. “There is an incredibly dynamic exhibition around truth-telling, witnessing, protest and sovereignty, including the vast photographic archives of Barbara McGrady.” The Indigenous Australian photojournalist has spent her career exploring and recording the lives of First Nation communities, and now presents a major immersive installation at Campbelltown Arts Centre, alongside an exhibition of photographs entitled Ngiyaningy Maran Yaliwaunga Ngaara-li (“Our Ancestors Are Always Watching”) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

A Grain of Wheat, 2015-2018, by Ibrahim Mahama
A Grain of Wheat, 2015-2018, by Ibrahim Mahama | Image: Ollie Hammick, courtesy of Ibrahim Mahama

Denilson Baniwa

Representing the Baniwa community of the Amazon rainforest, painter and photographer Denilson Baniwa is known for his explorations of ownership, the environment and indigenous rights. He’ll be showing a series of photographs at Campbelltown Arts Centre. 

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Emily Karaka

Exhibiting a series of mixed-media works on canvas at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is Māori New Zealand artist Emily Karaka. While her textural paintings explore issues such as Māori land rights and the loss of indigenous language, she works only in high-key, bright colours, imbuing her work with a heady optimism.

Ibrahim Mahama

One of the only artists to have revealed what they will be showing in Sydney is Ghanaian writer and installation artist Ibrahim Mahama. He will present A Grain of Wheat in the open-plan Artspace gallery, an installation that will line the walls with rolled-up medical stretchers, while at Cockatoo Island a large-scale work created from coal sacks is part of his ongoing study of supply and demand in African markets.

Aunty Deidre Martin

As part of the Nirin Wir series of talks and events, Indigenous walking guide Aunty Deidre Martin will lead a guided bushwalk through the scenic Dharawal National Park near Campbelltown. Martin will be teaching visitors about the Australian landscape from the perspective of the Koori people, who originate from the area around New South Wales and Victoria. Saturday April 11, tickets cost $15 (c-a-c.com.au/nirin-bushwalk).

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