The TarraWarra Biennial, now in its eighth iteration, gathers newly commissioned works by fifteen artists to its site in Wurundjeri Country on the shoulder of the Birrarung (Yarra) River. We spoke briefly to the Biennial’s curator, Dr Léuli Eshrāghi, about their vision for the event and TarraWarra as its context.
What does ua usiusi faʻavaʻasavili mean to you?
This proverb literally means the canoe obeys the wind, demonstrating Great Ocean celestial navigation practices, which, following centuries of European and Asian colonial occupations, were revived by Satawalese Master Navigator Mau Piailug. He first restored navigation knowledge among Kānaka ʻŌiwi communities in 1970s Hawaiʻi, then shared his knowledge more widely across the Great Ocean. Celestial navigation practices teach the interconnectedness of humans with islands, reefs, stars, suns, moons, currents, winds and all other beings.
What meaning does it hold in the context of TarraWarra in Wurundjeri Country?
Previous iterations of the Biennial have looked closely at the large lakes present before the last great sea-level rise, and the omnipresence of freshwater in the Birrarung Valley as signalling sanctuary and connection between peoples and places. Bringing this lens to an exhibition context, TarraWarra Biennial 2023 imparts to audiences the wish that humility towards living beings and storied places might generate more neighbourly exchanges and resolutely joyful futures. Questions necessarily arise of the composition of neighbourhoods: Who is home/host/next door/guest? How do we create connections that cross divides and thrive despite lazy prejudice and homogeneity?
What aspects of the Biennial format are you looking to unpick?
This Biennial focuses attention on contemporary artists tied by ancestry or by materiality to the many lands and waters constituting Australia, and its immediate neighbourhood of the soil and watery expanses termed Asia and the Great Ocean. I wanted to ensure that the exhibition prioritised deep knowledge of Indigenous cultures of the continents within and without so-called Australia, Asia and the Great Ocean. Working with artists of multiple generations and languages who are ancestrally tied to storied places near to and far from the art museum is key to inciting neighbourliness and a responsible outlook on temporality.
In an essay you wrote for C Magazine in 2018, you posed the question, “What is an aesthetic experience but a passage of moments?” Has curating the TarraWarra Biennial opened up new possibilities for what an aesthetic experience could be?
Artists demonstrate keen minds and talented hands, but most of all, critical care for communities, knowledges, and futures that are being made possible today, by sensitively delving into important concerns. These include animal–human kin constellations, enduring matriarchy, cultural renaissance, intergenerational trauma, territory-based healing, unspoken loss, affirmation of intersectional existence, redress of racial hierarchy, responsibility to territory through ecopoetics, and shining a light on contributions to art histories of the Majority World. I have yet to experience a large exhibition addressing the settler colonial nation-state through rigorously upturning staid socio-political attitudes and archival erasures in the way that these incredible artists have. The possibilities for new experiences are entirely theirs and I am honoured to share their work with these worlds we live in and are responsible for.
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