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The 21st Biennale of Sydney includes an impressive display of archives from previous incarnations, 1973-1986. As Steve Dow found, these records highlight both struggles for equality and landmark moments of inclusion.

21st Biennale of Sydney: Archives 1973 – 1986
by Steve Dow 

Highlights of the early, often controversial staging of the Biennale of Sydney (BoS) have gone on public display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). The state’s major gallery has on several occasions played ground zero for combative clashes over culture and politics for the nation.

The Biennale gifted more than 1000 archival boxes to the gallery in late 2015, consisting of photos, videos, posters, letters and press clippings. This gift prompted the gallery to announce the establishment of its National Art Archive, which also holds the personal papers of more than 200 artists.

National Art Archive librarian and archivist Claire Eggleston tells Art Guide Australia that, thus far, the archive has processed the Biennale’s boxes from its genesis in 1973 through 1986, cataloguing and digitising the material.

Archive display. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous, support from Transfield Holdings. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Document Photography.

The archive’s current public display of landmark souvenirs in the 21st Biennale reveals that Australian, and female, artists in particular were forced to fight for years to have their work exhibited, with equality far from guaranteed.

A displayed black and white photo of three men in bow ties and one woman in a kimono from the 1973 Biennale opening at the Opera House (the inaugural BoS) vividly demonstrates the bourgeoning event’s profound gender problem. In this photo Labor adviser Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs faces then prime minister Gough Whitlam, who towers over sculptor Minami Tada. The Japanese artist faces industrialist and founding Biennale patron Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, whose Transfield Art Prize prefigured the Sydney Biennale.

Tada, who passed away in 2014, holds the distinction of being the only woman among 37 artists exhibiting at the Biennale in 1973. A panel comprised of three men – curator Daniel Thomas and artists James Gleeson and Ron Robertson-Swann – had selected the participating artists in the first Biennale. “Franco Belgiorno-Nettis worked really hard to have Tada’s sculpture stay in Australia,” says Eggleston, “but he couldn’t find a buyer.”

The second Biennale took place a year and a day after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, and was held entirely at the AGNSW. Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal opposition had during the previous year blocked supply, necessary for daily funds to run government, until the Labor government called an election. This brinkmanship prompted the Governor-General to sack Whitlam’s government. “CONFRONT FRASER WITH YOUR RAGE” urged a letter circulated among artists, a copy of which is now on display in the cabinet.

Archive display. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous, support from Transfield Holdings. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Document Photography.

In November 1976, when the then Prime Minister Fraser attempted to open the second Biennale, artists protested outside, while others turned their backs to him inside the building or walked out.

The agitation continued beyond the lingering anger over who formed the national government. “There was a real groundswell of dissent, discussion and argument over where the Biennale was going and what it meant to the Australian arts community,” says Eggleston.

Current Biennale artistic director Mami Kataoka says she trawled through the archives before presenting the 21st Biennale.

“Particularly around 1976 and 1979, the second and third Biennales, there was a lot of arguments in the local community: What is a biennale? Do we need this? What does it do for Australian art? What is the balance between men and women artists?” she says. “I was interested to see the selection of the works, in tandem with the social and political conditions of the time.”

Letters from 1978 to Franco Belgiorno-Nettis at the Biennale from the newly formed Melbourne-Sydney Artists Alliance, signed by artists including Robert Jacks and Jenny Watson, urged the number of European artists in the Biennale to be matched with an equal number of Australian artists. Of those Australian exhibitors, 50 per cent should be women artists, they demanded. Did they get what they wanted? “Not entirely,” Eggleston laughs.

The struggle surrounding the third Biennale, in 1979, directed by the late British-born Nick Waterlow, accelerated the formation of an Artworkers Union. That Biennale’s opening coincided with street marches and protests as artist activists questioned whether the Biennale was a “white elephant or red herring,” according to a grassroots publication circulated at the time.

Archive display. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous, support from Transfield Holdings. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Document Photography.

But the 1979 Biennale was also significant for being the first time Aboriginal artists (from Ramingining in Arnhem Land) had been invited to participate. Photographs on display show the bark artwork of David Malangi, George Milpurrurru and John Bunguwuy, who all travelled to Sydney for the Biennale.

Nick Waterlow wrote to the head of Ramingining Arts and Crafts in a letter now on display. “Everybody thought the work quite outstanding and the importance of including Aboriginal work in a contemporary exhibition was fully realised,” he said. The Biennale of 1979 has been cited, says Eggleston, as “one of the first times that Indigenous art was displayed in a contemporary and international art context.”

Lisa Catt, assistant curator international art at the AGNSW, adds, “Contemporary art in Australia was in its early stages at this point, and definitely the Biennale brought it into our institution. We didn’t have a contemporary art department at this stage; we didn’t appoint a contemporary art curator until 1979. We were beginning locally with what is contemporary art practice.”

Contemporary art could certainly provoke conniptions among conservative-minded clerics. In April 1982, during the fourth Biennale, the Vice Squad raided the Roslyn Oxley Gallery and seized Juan Davila’s work Stupid as a Painter, after a complaint by the director of the Festival of Light, Reverend Fred Nile. A clipping from The Daily Telegraph now on display calls the work “porn art” in its headline.

But there was also a rebuke for the police from the then NSW Premier Neville Wran. “I am surprised that in this age, when nudity, obscenity and pornography – rightly or wrongly – are available, that an art gallery should be raided.” (Wran’s liberal response was in stark contrast to that of Kevin Rudd 26 years later, when Rudd called Bill Henson’s photographs “revolting” when they were seized by police from Oxley’s gallery in 2008.)

The fight over gender representation continued well into the 1980s.

The fifth Biennale, in 1984, drew protests on the steps of the AGNSW. Australian women artists gagged one another’s mouths and wore outfits that read SILENT SYMBOL POLITICAL METAPHOR in capital letters over the Venus female symbol. They demanded the Biennale introduce an affirmative action policy. The vivid black and white photos on display document this anger.

The 21st Biennale of Sydney closes soon, but the National Art Archive, which is largely housed on site at the AGNSW, is open to the public, including the rest of the BoS archives that have been processed to date that are not currently on public display. Conditions for accessing the archive are posted on the gallery’s website.

In addition to the Biennale’s contribution to the archive, there are some 420 separate archival collections, including the personal papers of 226 artists, and the business records of more than 50 commercial galleries. There are also documents from various art societies and other paraphernalia.

Steve Miller, head of the archive, says that in recent years awareness of the power of archives to shape memory and identity has been raised through genealogical television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are? “Archives are also important in providing evidence,” he says. “They give evidence, not only in the narrow sense of helping to determine the truth, but in preserving the voices and stories of people and events that might normally be forgotten. This gives a richness and nuance to our understanding of history.”

Biennale of Sydney Archives 1973 – 1986
21st Biennale of Sydney
Art Gallery of New South Wales
16 March – 11 June

Steve Dow