The power to answer back: 2020 Sydney Biennale at the cutting edge

Artist S.J. Norman remembers being the only child of Aboriginal descent in her local primary school when her teacher told the class that Aboriginal people were all but extinct.

''I was eight-years-old at the time,'' she recalls. ''I didn't have the power at the time to answer back to that narrative." In her diverse artistic practice, Norman has found different ways to respond to that historical ignorance.

''What I'm actually much more interested in now is what does black future look like.''

Artists Arthur Jafa, Gina Athena Ulysse, Barbara McGrady, S.J Norman, Nicholas Galanin and Lhola Amira at the announcement of artists for the Biennale of Sydney 2020 exhibition.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Norman, who works between Berlin, London and Melbourne, is one of 33 creatives and collectives developing work for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, the first show in its 46-year history to exclusively consider the experience of First Peoples across the world. All this in a year in which Australia marks the 250th anniversary of the Australian east coast voyage of Captain James Cook.

The Biennale is led by artistic director Brook Andrew, the first Indigenous Australian artist appointed to the role, who has taken a single word of the Wiradjuri people of western NSW to develop a culturally sensitive exhibition of international art.

Nirin means edge in Andrew's mother's tongue and is the title of the three-month-long show which opens March 14 at the Art Gallery of NSW, Artspace, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Art School.

Not having the same usage as in English Nirin, explains Andrew, more closely approximates the idea of the ''cutting edge''.

That means challenging dominant Eurocentric narratives and shining a light on spiritual sites, ceremonies, rituals and histories from around the world.

''Because of coming from Australia and my mixed cultural heritage I've always been in my own centre and it's about empowering other artists and creatives and interdisciplinary practitioners and communities to see how they connect,'' he says.

Indigenous artist Tony Albert and photographer Barbara McGrady will be joined by creatives from the wider ''First People'' cultural diaspora including multi-award winning visual activist and photographer, Zanele Muholi, Haiti-born anthropologist, poet, and performance artist Gina Athena Ulysse and the African American video artist and cinematographer, Arthur Jafa.

The work will be arranged around seven themes: dhaagun, meaning earth; bagaray-bang meaning healing; yirawydhuray meaning yam and connecting with food; gurray, transformation; muriguwal giiland, different stories and alternative; ngawaal-guyungun, powerful ideas and objects; and bila, the river and the environment.

While the Biennale program was not intended to highlight next year's Cook commemoration it was inevitable that the different stories told within would form a counterpoint to the ''very problematic'' narrative of exploration and discovery.

''It is contested history, it is contested land and there was genocide in Australia, we can't deny it, the history books say it and I think that's why there is so much intergenerational trauma,'' Andrew said.

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