In 2020 – a year that, so far, looks to be hell-bent on mass celebrations of the 250th anniversary of first contact and Captain Cook’s expedition to Australia – it feels entirely appropriate that respected Indigenous artist Brook Andrew should be directing the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. His interdisciplinary projects explore Indigenous Australia and the history of race relations, politics, gender and ethnography, challenging common perceptions and offering an alternate, sometimes humorous and always provocative view.

Sitting more easily is the fact that Andrew is the Biennale’s first Indigenous curator and he is programming numerous First Nations artists from across the globe for the 12-week contemporary art exhibition that rolls out across the city next March.

If the first glimpse of the program is anything to go by, language, food, performance and – of course – contemporary art promise to be in plentiful supply for the 2020 Biennale.

Amid a lively DJ set that saw guests treated to afternoon tea from the kitchen of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, followed by a cleansing smoking ceremony in which every guest was invited to take part, Andrew revealed the first 33 artists, creatives and collectives of his 2020 line-up.

Australia’s Tony Albert, chef Kylie Kwong and Samoan-Persian-Australian Leuli Eshraghi were announced alongside American cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa, Maori multimedia artist Lisa Reihana, South African artist Lhola Amira and US-based Haitian artist-anthropologist-activist Gina Athena Ulysse, who gave a hauntingly beautiful performance.

“They’re more than artists, they’re interdisciplinary practitioners and they’re transformative and inspirational,” Andrew says.

He described the invitation to program the 2020 event as daunting and exciting and thanked the Biennale board for “driving an inspirational journey that is catapulting the creation of a very different kind of Biennale of Sydney, supporting interdisciplinary creatives and revealing immense dedication to urgent work”.

Andrew’s program is titled Nirin, which means “edge” in his mother’s Wiradjuri language group. With 2019 named International Year of Indigenous Languages by the UN, it’s apt that Nirin advocates for First Nation languages in the mainstream.

Within Nirin, Andrew has created seven themes: Dhaagun (earth: sovereignty and working together); Bagaray-Bang (healing); Yirawy-Dhuray (yam-connection: food); Gurray (transformation); Muriguwal Giiland (different stories); Ngawaal-Guyungan (powerful ideas: the power of objects); and Bila (river: the environment).

“The Biennale of Sydney cannot do everything that needs to happen in 2020, a year of contestation and a new kind of rightful visibility: First Nations’ sovereignty, intergenerational trauma and our stories of healing from more than 170 years of frontier wars,” Andrew says.

“Organisations such as the Sydney Opera House, Australian Museum, local libraries and community groups will be making bold and exciting statements throughout 2020, not just because histories need to be retold and made visible, but because the planet is at breaking point. It is essential that the Biennale is part of this dynamic conversation. We will work to share and create safe places for healthy debate.”

The Biennale will be exhibited across the Art Gallery of NSW, Artspace, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the National Art School, where the announcement was held.

The world’s third-oldest biennale of international contemporary art after Venice and Sao Paulo, the Biennale of Sydney has presented works from more than 1800 national and international artists from 100 countries.

The 2018 exhibition attracted 850,000 visitors, the largest in its 45-year history.

The remaining 2020 Biennale of Sydney artists will be announced in September.

The 22nd Biennale of Sydney will be held from March 14 to June 8, 2020. Entry is free.