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Archie Moore, kith and kin 2024 / Australia Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2024 / Photographer: Andrea Rossetti / © the artist / Image courtesy of the artist and The Commercial


In spring of this year the artist Brook Andrew showed his work, Splitting Memory: Muuruun (life); Galang Galang (locust); Galiyn (rain); Dhagguun (earth); Ngalan (light), as part of a group show organised by Ames Yavuz at 9 Cork Street in London. Andrew made the work after discovering ethnographic photographs of his own family in the collections of anthropological museums in the UK and France. In Splitting Memory, Andrew, who has Wiradjuri, Ngunnawal and Celtic ancestry, magnifies and obscures the portraits, layering them and bisecting each with a pole of neon light, their faces both occluded and illuminated.

Andrew’s work wrests back indigenous pride, survival and beauty from the archive; challenging an amnesiac myth of loss, extinction and empty land that underpins the ethnographic impulse. In Venice this April, during the opening week of the Biennale di Arte, Andrew, organised a day-long seminar, Indigenous Visions, that foregrounded themes which were found in many other contexts during the art event – not least the main show, the Golden Lion-winning Australian Pavilion, and the Brazilian Pavilion.

In this year’s book issue, we are proud to publish a long interview with the Waanyi Nation author Alexis Wright whose 2023 Praiseworthy, has garnered a series of long-overdue prizes in the last year. Wright’s earlier work, Carpentaria, struggled at first to find a publisher, before the writer was championed by the independent Giramondo press in Australia in 2006. After winning a major Australian prize the book was picked up in the USA by Simon and Schuster in 2009, who found it too weird and allowed it to go out of print; last year New Directions picked up the US rights for both works. Praiseworthy was published by And Other Stories in the UK at the end of last year.

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Brook Andrew, Splitting Memory: Muuruun (life); Galang Galang (locust); Galiyn (rain); Dhagguun (earth); Ngalan (light)’, 2007/2024, Courtesy Ames Yavuz and the artist


Wright talks about the practice, in her community, of “story-keeping”; the idea that certain narratives are too precious to be told: “​​Those stories are religious, they are spiritual, they are sacred. People will not share those stories openly, because they are powerful.” She describes this against the irony of last year’s failed Australian Indigenous Voice referendum, which served to underline the exclusion and silencing of Aboriginal communities by the Australian state when voters rejected the proposed creation of a federal advisory body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. 

She also discusses the Intervention, which forms the backdrop to Praiseworthy, a package of measures that ran from 2007-2012 limiting a wide range of freedoms of Aboriginal communities on the basis of a series of racist media and political narratives. According to the right-wing press and politicians, an epidemic of child abuse among Aboriginal communities necessitated bans on alcohol, pornography and state intervention, in a chilling echo of the paternalistic politics that defined the Stolen Generations, during which “well-meaning” policies saw an estimated one in three Aboriginal children separated from their families. As Wright describes it, “what it really accomplished was to take control away from Aboriginal communities, which also took away their respect and pride – respect for our elders, pride in the family bond.”

Wright’s work is formally complex and challenging. In the words of her interviewer, Claudia Steinberg, her long sentences are “as polyphonic as a Bach fugue”. It is notable that while the visual arts have been increasingly keen to include the voices and visions of indigenous and First Nations artists in a widened perspective of contemporary art, such an impulse is less common in the world of literature. In publishing, gatekeepers tend to steer “diverse” stories towards confessional, non-fictional accounts, inflected with the language of current affairs and politics – instrumentalised, in other words – while formal innovation seems a preserve for another type of author. 

Another work by Brook Andrew, Sunset III, (2016), includes an early edition of the book The Last of the Tasmanians or, The Black War of Van Diemen’s Land (1870), an anthropological work by James Bonwick which reproduces the colonial myth of the extinction of Indigenous peoples – a myth that propelled many of the policies responsible for the Stolen Generations. Set against other images of colonial life, like ethnographic postcards of tribal dances, the installation gestures to a pervasive liberal sense that the colonial subject has already disappeared, that their modes of meaning-making are antiquated, lost and only preserved in museums by the goodwill of ethnographic curators. Seen through this colonialist lens, the land is a terra nullius, a desert waiting to bloom. 

At Venice, the Australian Pavilion made a similar gesture, the black walls of the space written over in white chalk in a sprawling family tree of the artist, Archie Moore, stretching back over 65,000 years. At the centre of the room, however, surrounded by a shallow pool of water that kept them just out of reach, was a table covered in rectangular piles of white official paper: pages and pages of redacted material from coronial inquests into the 557 Aboriginal people who have died in police and prison custody since 1991. Australian Aboriginal people are some of the most incarcerated people in the world; Moore’s work forms a sombre reminder of the limit of storytelling in the face of the carceral state. Some stories are indeed too powerful to be told. Thomas Roueché