Brook Andrew knew he wanted to be an artist when he was growing up, which is good because he is one. ‘I don’t really get asked that question much,’ he admits. ‘But when I was a kid I thought about what I wanted to do, and I suppose it was just make art, and now I do.’ It’s perhaps the most uncomplicated way I’ve heard someone with such an impressive career distil their passion. His frankness is refreshing.

With a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters in Fine Art, Brook has woven an impressive academic career through his artistic achievements, fitting them in somewhere between a photography laureate position in Paris and a survey show at the NGV! He holds a staggering number of professorships and research assistant roles at universities in Australia and the UK. He’s exhibited in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, held fellowships with the Smithsonian in the USA and a residency in Berlin. In March he received an Australia Council Award for Visual Arts. He is, without a doubt, the most astonishingly accomplished person I have ever interviewed.

But now, as the Artistic Director of the Sydney Biennale, he can weave all these tendrils of his professional life together. Drawing on his Wiradjuri heritage and the focus on community he has centred his artistic practice around, Brook developed an entirely First Nations-led program for the country’s oldest and largest Biennale.

The 2020 Sydney Biennale is titled NIRIN, the Wiradjuri word for ‘edge’. As an artist, Brook has focussed on bringing stories from the margins into the centre, and challenging the traditions that excluded them for so long. As an artistic director, he has the ability to program artists whose art asks the same questions. His groundbreaking program is dominated by First Nations artists from Australia, Alaska, South Africa, New Zealand, and Haiti, as well as artists representing the diasporas from China and Africa. Kylie Kwong even made an appearance discussing the cultural impact of food!

Brook was appointed in 2018, giving him two years to conceptualise, prepare and program over 700 artworks by 101 artists and collectives from around the world. For the Biennale’s 22nd iteration, the free contemporary program occupies five venues across Sydney, including Cockatoo Island – where the photographs accompanying this story were taken. Just 10 days after it opened, the monumental program was forced to close, as the world locked down due to the health crisis. But earlier this week the program re-opened, with extended dates. 

It’s Brook’s job to let loose hundreds of potential concepts, and then string them all back together again, catching artists and their work in his net of ideas. It’s a difficult role to pin down, and one that means something different to every person who holds it. But Brook’s programming carries the same intention as his art: to challenge the idea of Australia we have been taught for so long, by bringing new stories out of the shadows.

The most important verb in my get-your-dream-job vocabulary is…

Self-determination. It’s a pretty powerful verb. It’s about the need to control our lives and have control of our lives, and the pathway you set for yourself. Especially being Indigenous and especially being in a place which denies a lot of the history of its own country – there are real issues at stake within the concept of ‘self-determination’ that many Australians don’t understand, especially with what’s going on at the moment with Indigenous Lives Matter. I think for people to determine their own lives is the most powerful thing that anyone can do.

I came to this role by…

Following the pathway of hidden shadowed areas, in histories that often ignore a balanced view of the world.

The process of curating this exhibition has been…

A state of constant engagement and excitement, but also problem solving.

The most rewarding part of my job is…

Seeing the accomplishment in the artists and communities, and also the sense of achievement within the staff and volunteers through the development and creation of the works, and the public who finally see parts of themselves in the work, or a sense of new journeys.

Over the years I have learned…

That we constantly learn and change our mind. In our personal lives it’s okay to feel that something is shifting or that you’ve got a different opinion. I think people can get stuck with a particular rhetoric or a particular value through their childhood, or through insecurity or something else, but it’s important not to be stuck.

NIRIN is a groundbreaking program for the Sydney Biennale. As the artistic director, how is this Sydney Biennale different and what are you trying to achieve?

NIRIN is First Nations and artist-led, the trajectory is to present urgent issues of the state of where we are today in the world that is often pushed to the side, these include issues of First Nations sovereignty, working together, healing and the environment.

Biennales are the legacy of the great European exhibitions that exhibited the wealth and collections of often colonised lands, the effects of this heartache is often ignored and the inter-generational cycles of pain, trauma and poverty are greatly misunderstood by the status-quo. Therefore, to create a biennale that focuses on shadow areas due to ignorance is removing the blindspot and opening dialogue for healing and working together.

How does your work as an artist inform your work as an artistic director?

I was really surprised when I got the call to submit a proposal. But the first thing I thought about was how to empower the artists to do their work, especially when the issues [they create around] are often glanced over. Whether you’re a queer artist or an Indigenous artist, I think there needs to be a level playing field on a broader scale of how we look at the visual arts, especially when it’s usually from the European perspective of what art is. I think that because within my practice I work with communities and engage in collaboration and interdisciplinary works constantly, that really gave me those skills to support the artists in the Biennale as much as possible.

I am interested in the power of objects, and this includes historical objects that were often stolen from people’s traditional homelands and placed within international museums. These collections become places of power and voyeurism, and objects often become empty. Empowering these objects through community and ceremony, or alerting the status-quo to these histories is a passion of mine, and there is a sense of this within NIRIN.

The 2020 Sydney Biennale will run until late September. For information on programming, venues, events and a complete list of artists, visit their website here.



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