Published by Lizzil Gay on

The decision by Dark Mofo to cancel the contentious work Union Flag by Santiago Sierra speaks volumes about the dynamic between art and activism. Whilst in the media-post apology we see a not unusual centring of the white male curators who originally pursued the work, I think what is most amazing is the power of voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Their media campaign was quick, smart and extensive. Dark Mofo and MONA were subsumed in voices of resistance at their call to take blood from First Nations people.

Initially, when the resistance from First Nations people began Leigh Carmichael marketed their curatorial decision to run Union Flag as an act of ‘self-expression (which) is a fundamental human right, and we support artists to make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background’ (see Facebook). This was posted on the Dark Mofo Facebook page and attracted a barrage of critical comments including my own: ‘You are not upholding some artist’s so called ‘fundamental human right’. You are curating a work and paying an artist, which compounds the exploitative nature of the colonial project. Seems like a publicity stunt exploiting the political struggles of Indigenous people’ (Facebook). I stand by this perspective. Carmichael’s response appears to be, if not a publicity stunt, an inexcusably simplistic conception of fundamental human rights and what ‘self-expression’ means within this context.

Eventually, after a few days of media and controversy Dark Mofo cancelled the work and apologised to First Nations people. They stated the ‘hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t worth it’.  However hurt was caused by the very idea that the blood of First Nations people is a commodity to be used for, in this case, art. And what about the hurt and re-traumatisation inflicted by the work First Nations people had to do to defend themselves against an inherently exploitative ‘artistic’ concept? As a non-Indigenous ally, I tried to amplify First Nations activist voices such as Cass Lynch, Jam and DRMNGNOW, but I can’t imagine how exhausting the task of mobilising resistance was for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in this country called Australia.  

Elsewhere, I have written extensively on the need for political art to be located within a space of direct activism for it to be genuinely disruptive and political. When it exists in a bubble of the artworld, I argue it fails to produce politics in a significant way or to disrupt the general social order. The campaign against Union Flag however shows exactly the point where art (albeit unrealised) collides with direct activism and grass roots mobilisation for its political potency. However, in this case, unlike my previous writing, the politics came from a rejection of the work. The artwork was not considered to align with the political cause it made claims to. What does this reveal about the artist and the curatorial team supporting and funding the work?

Significantly, it reveals the white privilege and colonial foundations of the artworld. I have criticised in past writing about the problematic space of privilege and complicity within the art world, especially in relation to the ongoing colonial project. At times the artworld has traded on the appearance of being progressive and supportive of those living in the margins. Here, once again we see that this is a pretence. The artworld needs to engage in genuine and focused de-colonizing practices lead by First Nations peoples. Activists who created the Blaklist Mona petition quickly circulated a list of demands which ask for a genuine commitment to de-colonise the art space that Mona and its associated entities occupy, and engage local First Nations people (specifically the pakana, Tasmanian Aboriginal People) as central to its future operations. I feel like I could write for pages about this issue, but to keep my blog short there are key links to other activists and writers who battled Mona and Dark Mofo head on.

Lizzil Gay