Content warning: This story contains details that may distress some readers.
People across Australia are outraged after an artist requested donations of First Nations blood for an artwork that would see him soak a Union Jack flag in Indigenous blood.
Set to be part of renowned Tasmanian art festival Dark Mofo 2021, Spanish artist Santiago Sierra has plans to “immerse the Union Jack in the blood of its colonised territories”, according to the front page of the Dark Mofo website.
A letter signed by the artist explains the project’s rationale:
“The use of the British flag is not about any specific people, but rather seeks to reflect on the material on which states and empires are built. The use of First Peoples’ blood from different populations, and its indiscriminate mixing, has impact within the act itself—all blood is equally red and has the same consistency, regardless of the race or culture of the person supplying it.”
Since posting calls for donations across their social media, many have expressed their shock and dismay at Dark Mofo’s endorsement of a non-Indigenous artist even contemplating such a project, particularly with three recent deaths in custody on the country’s east coast.
Yorta Yorta rapper Briggs commented on Dark Mofo’s Instagram requesting blood donations:
“We already gave enough blood.”
Other comments on the post included:
“All kinds of stupid … Read the room.”
“How you do not see the hypocrisy in asking First Nations people to donate their blood to a white artist and in the same breath highlighting that this is stolen land is beyond me.”
“Our bodies aren’t tools to be used in colonisers art.”
“Absolutely atrocious curatorial decision-making here.”
Dark Mofo Creative Director Leigh Carmichael responded to the backlash via a statement to Facebook, claiming the “range of perspectives” they have received in response to the project “reflects the conversations we had with Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to announcing”.
“Self-expression is a fundamental human right, and we support artists to make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background,” Carmichael said.
“It’s not surprising that the atrocities committed as a result of colonising nations continue to haunt us.”
Meanjin/Brisbane-based artist Rachael Sarra hit back at Carmichael, reposting the statement via her Instagram and slamming his response.
“I am truly lost for words,” she wrote.
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“How dare you say the words ‘Self Expression is a fundamental ‘human right’ in the same sentence that you are discussing the disgusting artwork asking for our blood.
“At the time of these massacres our people were not considered human. We had no rights. We had no voice. Yet you think it’s still okay to SILENCE and DISMISS our hurt and trauma for the sake of an art project from an artist who has NO LIVED EXPERIENCE!
“All this goes to show is that in fact you knew better but decided to do it anyway knowing it would have this reaction. Our people’s trauma is click bait to you.”
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The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) has stood behind artists and the public, releasing a statement condemning the move.
“Dark Mofo has gained a reputation for displaying art that intends to shock. While NAVA acknowledges provocative art as a feature of the wider arts ecology, the national peak body joins criticism of the work, which actively disregards cultural safety for First Nations audiences and participants, and is being made at the expense of First Nations bodies and wellbeing,” the statement read.
Despite the collective outrage across Australia, Carmichael initially said the project would forge ahead.
Speaking to Leon Compton on ABC Radio Hobart on Tuesday morning, the radio host asked Carmichael if he had “gone too far this time”.
“I guess that’s for the community to decide, to make a decision on that,” Carmichael said.
“At this stage, we will push on and work through the process with the artist.
“We knew the project would be difficult. The topics around colonialism, dispossession, invasion, attempted genocide, are difficult topics for all of us. We knew this work was going to be tough. It is tough. It may be tougher than we expected it to be. Maybe too tough for us.
“I believe he (Santiago Sierra) has a right as all people to do voice their ops and views, free of ex is real, it’s a fundamental right of artists and all of us.”
However, hours later Carmichael announced they had cancelled the controversial project.
“We’ve heard the community’s response to Santiago Sierra’s Union Flag. In the end the hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t worth it,” he wrote in a statement via Facebook.
“We made a mistake, and take full responsibility. The project will be cancelled.
“We apologise to all First Nations people for any hurt that has been caused. We are sorry.”
By Hannah Cross