In a statement released today, Dark Mofo creative director Leigh Carmichael announced the Tasmanian festival has decided to cancel its first major project for its 2021 edition in June after growing criticism.
“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. 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,” he said.
The project by the Spanish artist was announced by the Museum of Old and New Art’s annual Hobart festival last Friday but it quickly faced backlash.
The project saw Sierra and the festival invite First Nations peoples from countries and territories colonised by the British Empire to donate a small amount of blood, which would then be used to soak a British flag.
“The First Nations people of Australia suffered enormously and brutally from British colonialism,” Sierra said in a statement. “Nowhere more so than in Tasmania where the Black War in the early 19th-century had a devastating impact, almost killing the entire Tasmanian Aboriginal population – an act that has since been defined as genocide.
“The intent of this project is against colonialism. It is an acknowledgement of the pain and destruction colonialism has caused First Nations peoples, devastating entire cultures and civilisations. Colonisation by the British Empire is only one example of plundering and conquest, albeit one of the most forceful, both for its geographic reach and for the genocidal methods applied.”
The message Dark Mofo posted on Instagram announcing the project received a number of negative comments, including from Gomeroi woman Rachael McPhail, who led the campaign to have Indigenous place names recognised by Australia Post. “This is definitely not the way to support First Nations people. Our ancestors had their blood spilled, violently and devastatingly. It’s abhorrent and culturally unsafe to ask their descendants to spill theirs willingly,” she wrote.
Kimberley Moulton, a Yorta Yorta woman and senior curator for Museums Victoria also responded. “This is an insulting and abhorrent curatorial decision @dark_mofo there has been ENOUGH First Peoples blood spilt across the world because of the English.”
Marcus Whale, an artist also taking part in the 2021 festival, announced he was pulling out of the festival because of the piece. “I would love to hear from anyone else who was gonna be presenting work at Dark Mofo this year. I’ll obviously be pulling out after this dismissive trash but I’m sure there’s a more productive collective response.”
Brian Tairaku Ritchie, curator of the festival’s summer arm, Mona Foma, began distancing his festival from the winter Dark Mofo. “Regarding the Dark Mofo gimmick and publicity stunt disguised as a mediocre artwork: I would like to call attention to the fact that Team Mona Foma are a completely different and separate organisation and had/have nothing to do with the programming of that work,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Many others are rightfully decrying the cultural insensitivity of this work. Exploiting people while claiming to protest on their behalf is intellectually void. Stupid programming is aesthetically null. Controversy outweighing the quality of the work is bad art. My apologies to the people affected by this poor behaviour. I hope Mona as a wider organisation steps up to the plate and does the right thing. I am advocating for that internally.”
Yesterday Carmichael defended the decision for including the project. “We’ve been overwhelmed with responses to Santiago Sierra’s Union Flag by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from around the world,” he said in a statement.
“Self-expression is a fundamental human right, and we support artists to make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background. The range of perspectives reflects the conversations we had with Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to announcing the project. It’s not surprising that the atrocities committed as a result of colonising nations continue to haunt us.”