“Wanna join a religion?” Rachel Kent, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, asks me. Looking like a superhero, her eyes are framed by thumbs and index fingers coiling into a figure-eight shape. According to Kent, this make-shift infinity mask belongs to artist Deborah Kelly’s new religion, CREATION, which proposes a faith-based logic favouring the environment, science and reason to counter climate crisis denial and capitalist greed. Showing as part of The National 2021: New Australian Art, CREATION enchants with performative rituals, collages, liturgical scripts, instructional videos, and costumes. Its doctrine is guided by, as Kent says, “a feminist, Earth-centered, queer religion that embraces everybody, and cares for the planet.”
Frankly, after the bumper-to-bumper catastrophes that littered 2020, it feels like we all need something new to believe in—so The National 2021 is timely. Now in its third iteration, it carries anthems of care and regeneration—for people, lands and ecosystems—as well as familial might, cross-generational knowledge, and spiritual systems of hope. Spanning three major Sydney galleries—Carriageworks, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)—the institutions work under a shared vision, showcasing 39 artists and groups from across the country.
Staged biennially from 2017 to 2021, the visionary Sydney exhibition catalyses the latest ideas and forms that drive contemporary art in Australia, and over the last six years has seen the creation of 149 artworks. If The National 2019 was “the middle child,” (as hinted by co-curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham in the show’s catalogue), perhaps its 2021 sibling is ‘the surprise baby’: turning the arrivals of coronavirus, isolation and natural disasters into a recalibration of new concepts and ways of working.
“Covid definitely brought a different aspect to how some artists created works,” says Abigail Moncrieff, an independent curator for Carriageworks, “which is what makes this exhibition timely and urgent: it’s clear artists are approaching this present moment with very strong intentions.” For instance, social distancing and the inability to share VR masks led Agatha Gothe-Snape to adapt her audience-participation concept for Apparitional Surge into a transmitted performance at Carriageworks, culminating in an AGNSW performance lecture. Meanwhile, Kent credits Zoom for being a saviour during lockdown, showing me artwork progress photos on her phone. At one point the conversation turns to Sally Smart, who lost access to her Melbourne and Indonesian studios during lockdown, and Kent tells me how she began collaborating long-distance with seamstresses in Yogyakarta for her MCA work.
At the MCA, The National 2021 enthralls with narratives of familial lineage and women’s labour. Pulsating with rock-desert-red, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani’s 10-metre-long painting, Antara, salutes four generations of women painters in her family. Created on her mother’s Country, near Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, this gargantuan portrait “captures Betty’s ideas of family, gender, intergenerational learning and the transmission of knowledge,” says Kent. “It’s an emotional work; it blew me away.” Sancintya Mohini Simpson, who also includes her family in her practice, presents Dhūwa˜¯, a filmic roar about ancestral trauma through the burning of sugarcane plantations in Far North Queensland; its ambient soundtrack is scored by her brother Isha Ram Das. Simpson pairs this with paintings that offer tales of “land, indentured labour, migration, and the parallel histories between India, South Africa, and Queensland,” Kent explains.
At Carriageworks, the Karrabing Film Collective—known for their candid-style filming with handheld cameras and phones—will screen their five-channel video Day in the Life, documenting the factors that Indigenous families face in the Belyuen community during a 24-hour timeline. “It’s both a humorous and serious work,” explains Moncrieff, “bound by an absolute sense of human agency in the representation of a reassertion of their way of life on Country.” Gudirr Gudirr by Vernon Ah Kee and Dalisa Pigram also captures Indigenous legacy and well-being, combining Pigram’s haunting, body-centred performance with Ah Kee’s visual and oral storytelling. “The work speaks to the conditions of Dalisa’s community in Broome and broadens it out to a warning of climatic change,” says Moncrieff. “It’s a fantastic, intense and gripping work about history and the experience of place.”
At AGNSW, curator Erin Vink says care for Country and land rights remain paramount. She describes the spiritual resolve of Betty Muffler’s collaborative painting with Maringka Burton, titled Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country). “As a little girl, Betty survived the British atomic nuclear weapons testing in Maralinga, so she uses her art to talk about these experiences, because she’s also a traditional healer,” explains Vink. Other projects invite audiences to invest in alternative worlds: Lisa Sammut summons an immersive cosmological portal, while Justin Shoulder’s sculptural installation, AEON†, invents “a unique biosphere,” says curator Matt Cox, “where creatures are birthed in weekly performances and animated through hand-crafted costumes and prostheses.”
Ultimately, Kent tells me, The National aims to give audiences a renewed sense of hope through the power of storytelling and the transmission of knowledge, as well as understanding the various ways that creativity can triumph under adverse circumstances. “When we look back on this period,” she says, “my feeling is, even though it’s a terribly difficult time, some really interesting conversations and practices have come about necessarily because of those conditions.” Amen to that.
The National 2021: New Australian Art
Art Gallery of New South Wales
26 March – 5 September
26 March – 20 June
Museum of Contemporary Art
26 March – 22 August