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Ten Thousand Suns: 24th Biennale of Sydney

24th Biennale of Sydney

Kaylene Whiskey with her work Kaylene TV (2023). Photo: Michaela Bear.

Spread across the traditional lands of the Gadigal, Bidjigal and Wangal people, the 24th Biennale of Sydney Ten Thousand Suns celebrates joyful acts of collective resistance that radiate out into the world. The title references the diverse perspectives and interconnected histories that make up the rich global fabric we exist within. This iteration has a strong focus on the perseverance of marginalised cultures from the global south, with many First Nations voices at the forefront of dialogues across the six exhibition sites. Biennale works are enriched by colourful gallery walls painted in bold shades of red, purple, blue and gold, with the exception of White Bay Power Station. Open to the public for the first time, the power station’s spacious industrial setting of pipes, iron railings and exposed concrete walls becomes a point of contrast for many bright ambitious works. It offers an aesthetic reminiscent of the iconic but not especially accessible Biennale site, Cockatoo Island, which has not been a venue since 2020.

All spaces are united by playful paintings of colourful ATM machines by deaf and non-verbal Manyjilyjarra artist Doreen Chapman at each site entrance. This gesture importantly foregrounds Indigenous voices and perhaps offers Biennale works as an alternative form of currency to capitalist powers. However, the wall text only briefly mentions the ATM motif as a depiction ‘…of contemporary Indigenous life…’, sadly failing to articulate the depth of this curatorial decision for audiences.

At White Bay Chapman’s work is surrounded by Indigenous dancers, including images taken by Australian-Chinese artist William Yang in 1976 of the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT). Yang captures moments ahead of the AIDT’s participation in the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria. These works contextualise Indigenous Australian resistance within a wider global movement. This reflects the broader curatorial vision for Ten Thousand Suns; the artistic directors Cosmin Costinaș and Inti Guerrero have embedded the Australian locality of the Biennale within wider interconnected discussions of resilience across time and space. AIDT conversations continue in further photographs and footage of the troupe and key member Malcolm Cole at White Bay and Chau Chak Wing Museum – including a new large-scale mural of Cole dressed as Captain Cook in the first Indigenous float at the1988 Mardi Gras by Yuwi, Meriam Mir and South Sea Islander artist Dylan Mooney. His joyful depiction of Cole shares the stage with Christopher Myers’ bright banners transmuting Black slave histories into empowering legacies at the Trinidadian Carnivale, and Kaylene Whiskey’s (Yankunytjatjara) real and imagined dancing celebrities, Black icons and superheroes spilling out of a giant television.

Nearby, Alberto Pitta’s long sheaths of colourful fabric gently dance in the wind, activating the orishas (spirits) adorning the works in honour of the cultural lineages of African slaves in Brazil. High above Pitta’s installation, kites buoyed by a static wind are animated by colourful scenes of Indigenous advocacy and community connection. Their circular sky-bound forms are reminiscent of the sun, uplifting our gaze. The kite becomes a vessel for sharing stories of culture and important issues in Sumpango, Guatemala. It took six months for local groups Orquideas Barrileteras and Barrileteros Almas del Viento to meticulously piece together each kite in an intricate mosaic of tissue paper. Despite their commanding strength, these fragile works are not built to last the test of time, instead surrendering to life’s cycles of growth and decay, rising and setting. Following Mayan tradition, the kites are flown on All Saints’ Day to honour the dead and scare off unwanted ghosts.

Elsewhere are quieter moments of resistance through strength in vulnerability. Cristina Flores Pescor’s suspended bodily installations woven together using Peruvian dyes and cotton offer embodied healing in tune with the natural environment. Meanwhile, poetic whispers of cultural persistence are found in John Pule’s words, complimenting his hiapo (bark cloth) works displayed in the foyer galleries of Art Gallery of New South Wales. They offer expressions of his native Niue world view that pose an alternative vision to colonialism.

These words of healing resonate downstairs where two floating golden figures swathed in intricate beads and cowrie shells greet visitors in a room filled with several more beaded creations. Nádia Taquary’s gods and goddesses speak to her Afro-Brazilian heritage, transmuting tumultuous histories of slave trade across the Atlantic through empowering interpretations of traditional adornments.

Dark histories continue to swell in the following rooms, acknowledging the destruction caused by bombs, nuclear testing, and cyclones. These harsh realities are situated within an Australian context with painted depictions by Indigenous artists of the 1942 bombing of Darwin by Tiwi artist Pauletta Kerinauia and of Cyclone Tracey that hit Darwin almost three decades later by the late Kukatja/Wangkajunga artist Rover Joolama Thomas. The centre of the final room is occupied by four lavishly decorated garments by the Pacific Sisters, a collective of First Nations artists from across the Pacific who return us back to adornment as a source of strength and cultural identity.

As well acknowledging traumas overcome, the Biennale artists also remind us that this world is still far from perfect. Sana Shahmuradova Tanska speaks to ongoing violence and suffering in Ukraine through ethereal paintings at Artspace; while Leila el Rayes offers quiet solace during times of terror, sharing her Palestinian-Egyptian heritage through intricate patterns of nails glinting like jewels in the darkened depths of the University of New South Wales Galleries. In bold contrast, the entrance to the Galleries is inhabited by giant butt plugs made from natural materials. Tiwi sistagirl collective Yanagamini offer these sculptures in playful protest against major oil and gas pipeline construction disturbing their sacred lands.

Amongst all this darkness and need to plug toxic gas, Crystal Love Johson Kerinauia from Yanagamini (meaning ‘hole’) reminds us repeatedly in a moving opening weekend discussion that ‘every hole has a soul’, connecting us to something greater than ourselves.

The 96 Biennale artists offer us hope. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, colour and pattern burst from Anne Samat’s elaborate totem, sharing the love that binds us all together. Using Southeast Asian weaving techniques, the Malaysian artist transforms everyday objects into the extraordinary through acts of care that extend out to the viewer. Her large-scale installation reaches out across the floor and wide along the walls, beckoning visitors into its loving embrace. In his book Love Stories, Australian writer Trent Dalton quotes counsellor Alex Whittmann: ‘…love is like the sun. We cannot look directly at it, but we see our world because of it, and experience its many life-sustaining functions….Much like the sun, love nurtures and sustains humans.’ Samat’s work reminds us that at the heart of Ten Thousand Suns is the strength of love…love expressed for culture, for self, for others here and passed, and in the simple magic of a new sunrise everyday, compelling us to continue on.

Michaela Bear is a curator and writer who sees art as a space for generosity and connection. She previously worked on the 2017 Honolulu Biennial and has written for a range of publications including ArtAsiaPacific, viennacontemporarymag and the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art. Michaela currently works at RMIT Galleries in Melbourne, Australia.

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