'We made a mistake': Dark Mofo pulls the plug on 'deeply harmful' Indigenous blood work

The Tasmanian festival renowned for pushing artistic boundaries has admitted that this time it may have gone too far

Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival has cancelled one of the key works planned for the June event and apologised, after a social media backlash led by Indigenous artists around Australia.

On Tuesday afternoon organisers of the winter festival, which is run by the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), announced that the work by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra – in which he planned to immerse a Union Flag into the donated blood of Indigenous people, as a statement “against colonialism” – would no longer go ahead.

“In the end the hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t it worth it,” the festival’s creative director Leigh Carmichael wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.

“We made a mistake, and take full responsibility. The project will be cancelled,” he said, before apologising to First Nations people who had been hurt.

Among those criticising the work was Kimberley Moulton, a senior curator for Museums Victoria and Yorta Yorta woman, who wrote underneath Dark Mofo’s callout for Indigenous blood on Instagram: “This is an insulting and abhorrent curatorial decision. There has been enough First Peoples blood spilt across the world because of the English. This is not ‘decolonising’, it’s not provocative or groundbreaking conceptual practice … it’s shock jock art.”

A direct request was given to the Palawa community here. Our answer was that we’d already had enough blood spilled under the banner of the Union Jack and would not be participating, voluntarily or not.

I’m personally angered at the suggestion of our participation and approval. https://t.co/LOwP3MZySn

— Rob Arnol (@RobertArnol) March 22, 2021

White people and colonisers don’t know how to respond to colonial trauma without reproducing it and that’s all I’m saying on the Union Jack flag period pad saga

— blak milf writer (@NayukaGorrie) March 22, 2021

On Instagram, Trawlwoolway/Plangermaireener artist Jamie Graham-Blair wrote: “Indigenous bodies are not tools to be used by colonisers. We are not props for your white guilt art.” Rapper Briggs wrote: “We already gave enough blood.”

In Overland journal, Wirlomin Noongar writer and researcher Cass Lynch wrote: “To ask First Nations people to give blood to drench a flag recreates, not critiques, the abhorrent conditions of colonisation. It asks a community upon whose blood this Australian colony has been built, a community who die younger, sicker and more marginalised due to structural racism than anyone else, for yet more blood to make a statement that makes no reference to giving back or righting wrongs.”

On Tuesday morning, the artistic director of Mona’s summer festival Mona Foma, Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, distanced his festival from the commission, saying he has been advocating internally against it.

“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,” he wrote on Facebook. “Please don’t send any more urine soaked pillows to me, because I have nothing to do with this inanity and disavow it as an individual and on behalf of Team Mona Foma.”

When announcing the commission on Saturday, Carmichael said the piece was the result of almost two years of work between the artist’s studio and the festival team.

“Sierra’s work is complex, sometimes confronting and much of his work tends to deal with social inequities,” he said.

By Monday, Carmichael had issued another statement admitting the festival had been overwhelmed with responses to Sierra’s project – but he appeared to be standing by the artist.

“Self-expression is a fundamental human right, and we support artists to make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background,” the earlier statement said.

However, the sheer volume of protest coming from Indigenous artists across Australia appears to have forced Dark Mofo to capitulate. “We apologise to all First Nations people for any hurt that has been caused,” Carmichael said in the second statement on Tuesday. “We are sorry.”

#BREAKING: @Dark_Mofo will not be proceeding with an art performance, which was going to soak the British flag in Indigenous blood @abchobart pic.twitter.com/KADnQFF0G4

— Monte Bovill (@MonteBovill) March 23, 2021

A statement released by the National Visual Arts Association (NAVA) on Monday condemned the curatorial decision to commission the “deeply harmful artwork”.

“Dark Mofo has gained a reputation for displaying art that intends to shock,” the statement said.

“While NAVA acknowledges provocative art as a feature of the wider arts ecology, the national peak body joins criticism of the work, which actively disregards cultural safety for First Nations audiences and participants, and is being made at the expense of First Nations bodies and wellbeing.”

While the Sierra work aimed to acknowledge the pain and destruction colonialism has caused First Nations peoples, the project has been variously criticised as “tone deaf” and an act of colonisation in itself, retraumatising First Nations people, NAVA said.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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