The first thing I noticed about Venice was the quiet. To be honest I hadn’t done any research leading up to my first trip to Venice, and had made some assumptions about there being roads and cars and maybe some grassy knolls… and there was none of it. The lack of vehicles contributes to the silence, but so too does the lack of trees and green spaces – which would normally attract bird and animal life.
I was completely unprepared for the silence.
It took 3 hours at an airport in Australia, 14 hours on a plane, 3 hours in an airport in Dubai, 6 hours on another plane, 2 hours in a customs area and a small and terrifying water taxi ride over bumpy green water to reach our destination; a homely apartment in Accademia, one of a number of Vaporetto stops on this small Italian group of islands.
I was struck by the clichés around me – small groups of children playing with small dogs in front of groups of Nonna’s and accordion players, sitting in the piazza; ridiculously glorious and simultaneously humbled and ramshackle buildings desperately hanging onto their little piece of ground; shades of terracotta and grey and the reflection of the green water… and the silence.
We prepared as much as possible for the actual opening of the Australian Pavilion at the Biennale site but it was an unknown quantity. As Indigenous curators and arts workers from across the country began to stream down the gravel hill, past the Tracey Moffatt signage on the stark face of the brutalist charcoal-coloured Australian pavilion, I think we all started to feel that we were at home, in some way. With each other, our diversity of home country, community and culture colliding in a space so utterly foreign to all of us we clung more closely together, we began to understand why it was important to be here.
The trip to Venice was made possible due to the Australia Council for the Arts, who had supported a group of Indigenous curators, arts workers, invigilators and champions to Venice as part of a program aligned with our first solo female Indigenous artist – Tracey Moffatt – and her exhibition My Horizon to be shown at the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The MCA supported Emily McDaniel and myself to go, the only institution in the country to send two Indigenous staff. As part of the program we spent time with First Nations curators from other countries – Aotearoa, Canada, the United States and Norway, in a two-day intensive which was challenging.
One morning we got into a water taxi and made our way to Centosa Island, an 8-minute trip from Venice proper. I know how long it took because I would time our trips – I am deeply afraid of water and have no love for boats so I needed to know how long I would suffer panic for, before arriving at our destinations. My fellow voyagers were always kind, ignoring my tears and sometimes giving me a squeeze on the hand or a hug.
When we arrived I was glad I came. The island itself was a home for monks for the last 400 or so years until Napolean had demolished the monastery and utilised it as a place of war making. Time passed and this too shifted, but the original peace of the island had returned – long grassy areas, white flowers from the trees drifting slowly to the ground along gravel tracks, dogs, children, families, more dogs.
This is where we held our curatorial intensive. On the first day and after the shy introductions and lunch the mob warmed up. A good feed changes everything. Marcia Langton came and spoke – provoked. Djon Mundine poured out a virtual black arts history 101 to the assembled. People broke into groups and we talked, we strategized, we riffed about Manifestos.
A particularly critical thing to come out of discussion was the perceived and actual need for a peak body for Australian Indigenous visual arts curators and arts workers. Currently there is nothing that services the needs of our group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island arts professionals; neither an auspicing body or merely a network of contacts and support.
Given the physical distances between curators and art workers, the often remote locations we work in and the very western structures we undertake our practices within (not discluding mainstream arts institutions) it is necessary to lessen the physical, strategic and professional distance. Despite coming from diverse Indigenous communities our concerns are largely shared and therefore shared strategic approaches are essential.
There were many parties to celebrate the opening of the Venice Biennale, many opportunities for those who wanted to be seen to ‘be seen’, huge floating houses probably owned by movie stars moored at Giardini, small dogs in handbags, lots of gossip about Damien Hirst and the German pavilion and unanimous critical praise for the New Zealand display. And in amongst all of that were a small group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts workers and curators, debriefing in tiny apartments at day’s end over pizza and beer, telling tales of home and wondering how to make sense out of the Biennale machine. Wondering how we become stakeholders in the international curatorial market, so to speak. What relevant contribution we can make to the global question of nationalism and representation and how do we find agency in that space?
The noise back in Australia makes it easier to think about these things.
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Clothilde Bullen is a Wardandi (Nyoongar) Aboriginal woman with English/French heritage. She commenced as Curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth in January 2005, after previously managing a commercial Indigenous art gallery and remained there for over a decade until moving to Sydney earlier this year to take up the position of Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Exhibitions and Collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Clothilde has curated a number of shows independently including Darkness on the Edge of Town in 2016 at Artbank, Sydney, and When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art this year. Clothilde has written for a number of contemporary arts publications including Sturgeon and Artlink, as well as published and contributed pieces to a range of catalogues, including in the recent Defying Empire catalogue from the National Gallery, _Being Tiwi _from the MCA, the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards catalogue and Raised by Wolves for PIAF. Clothilde was on the Inaugural Advisory Committee for the Wesfarmers and NGA Indigenous Arts Leadership Program and is an Alumni member of the British Council Accelerate Scholarship for Indigenous Leadership in the Arts.