Preview: Inner Sanctum

The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art returns with an abundance of imaginative contemporary artists

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Heather B. Swann, Place for Sea Dreamers, 2022, Collaboration with Nonda Katsalidis for the 2022 Setouchi Triennale
Published 28 Feb 2024

Featuring new works by 24 artists and poets, including Vivienne Shark LeWitt, Christopher Bassi, Teelah George and many more, the Biennial captures a striking and hopeful image of contemporary Australia. The Biennial, now in its 18th iteration, is this year curated by José Da Silva, the current director of UNSW Galleries in Sydney and a former curator at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.

The title of this year’s Biennial is Inner Sanctum, acknowledging the multiple internal and external, private and sacred, physical and psychological spaces that humans create, occupy and navigate. Many of the artists exhibiting this year explore Australasian and Pacific spiritual and cultural traditions through artistic practice, across centuries of movement, dispersal and exchange. As audiences experience the works of these 24 artists at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Da Silva instructs us to “think of imagination as a place of refuge and sanctuary”.

Kaye Brown draws on the longstanding visual languages of the Tiwi Islands to create works celebrating the connection between land, lineage and ceremonial practices, demonstrating the collective approach of Tiwi people to making and storytelling. Her artworks reference the knowledge of the wulimawi (old people) through ancestral modes of minga (body markings) and contemporary forms of yirrinkiripwoja (body painting), which represents a spiritual attachment to ancestral beings. Her use of tightly clustered dots are reminiscent of the body-painting styles used to prepare for ceremony and dance and are made using the pwoja or kayimwagakimi (carved ironwood comb).

Ali Cobby Eckermann uses writing to imagine a pre-colonial refuge that allows space for healing and re-connection with oneself and with the earth. For Inner Sanctum, Eckermann has created a visual representation of her 2023 work She is the Earth, which consists of 90 lyric poems set in the liminal spaces between the earth and the sky. The artist will produce a series of images in response to her poems, based off an archive of negatives from the period of her life when she was reconnected with her mother.

Meanwhile, Ruha Fifita draws on a range of global textile techniques in her installations, including ngatu (a form of painted bark-cloth tapestry from Tonga) and Welsh pattern-making techniques and symbols. Fifita’s work is very much a unification of the various cultural and spiritual influences in her life, including her Tongan and Welsh ancestry and her BaháΚΌí faith. She explains that throughout the Pacific region, "there is not a separate word for art. It is often associated with how we generate knowledge or hold on to knowledge and share it". The techniques for creating and painting ngatu are passed down generation to generation, becoming akin to heirlooms.

Like Fifita, Marikit Santiago also draws on themes of lineage and spirituality. Santiago works with her immediate family as her subject, and often creates works in collaboration with her children. Her collaged works, that incorporate a plethora of painting and mark making techniques, include multiple scenes filled with family figures in various natural landscapes. Santiago uses recycled cardboard as a base for her works, which specifically references Balikbayan boxes, which global Filipino migrant communities send back to their families in the Philippines. In Sa Simula (In the Beginning), her work for the Biennial, Santiago recasts her family members as ancient Tagalog gods and goddesses alongside references to Greek and Roman mythology, as well as symbolism relating to the Indigenous creation myth of Bathala. 



Inner Sanctum, Art Gallery of South Australia, until 2 June