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The National 2021 opens at three of Sydney’s leading cultural venues

The National 2021 opens at three of Sydney’s leading cultural venues
March 26, 2021

The National 2021: New  Australian Art - a major survey  of contemporary Australian art - opens today across three of Sydney’s leading cultural institutions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), presenting 39 new commissioned projects by established, mid-career, emerging artists and artist collectives from across the nation.

The third iteration in a series of biennial surveys, originally launched in 2017, The National 2021 showcases the varied and vital work being made by Australian artists, in urban and regional centres, as well as remote communities, by artists of different generations and cultural backgrounds.

Three distinct exhibitions have been developed by four curators, Matt Cox  and Erin Vink (AGNSW), Abigail Moncrieff (Carriageworks) and Rachel Kent (MCA Australia). Each exhibition invites collective dialogue about the ideas and concerns mobilising some of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists.

The  National 2021  at AGNSW presents a diverse selection of works from 17 artists and cultural practitioners, including five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from the Zendath Kes (Torres Strait Islands), Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South  Australia, Brisbane, and Canberra.

AGNSW Co-curator Erin Vink notes “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in this exhibition present works that exist between moments of categorisation and form, relying  on and claiming Indigenous and non-Eurocentric forms of knowledge. Significant commissions include two large-scale nocturnal, healing landscapes by Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton, a daguerreotype installation reclaiming Kaurna place names by James Tylor, and large fibreglass sculptural forms of sea creatures by Alick Tipoti.

AGNSW Co-curator, Matt Cox added “Reflecting on the six years since the inception of The National and its intention to present new Australian art that observes moments in our collective histories, the third iteration offers a renewed sense of what it means to be living in Australia and despite post-truth cynicism, an optimism in the transformative value of art.”

“The exhibition harbours a tension between sorrow and hope. The sites of grieving in the work of Fiona Hall and Gabriella Hirst, which respond to the devastation of the bushfires and the Barka Darling River system, are buoyed by an undeniable joy and promise of alternative futures in the performative installation of Justin Shoulder,” added Cox.

A deep sense of questioning and responsiveness lies within the works presented at Carriageworks. Interrogating ‘who is speaking’ and ‘what is being said when we speak’ the works contain both messages and warnings. The cry of Guwayi bird warns of a turning  tide in Vernon Ah Kee and Dalisa Pigram’s work, while the Karrabing Film Collective use filmmaking to interrogate the conditions of inequality for Aboriginal people  in the Northern Territory  and to retain connections to land and their Ancestors. Alana Hunt turns her lens on colonial aspirations of leisure,  tourism  and development that underpin contemporary life. The material complexity of Isadora Vaughan and Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s sculptures speak to a sense of place and history while Sarah Rodigari’s performance installation draws from conversations with casual staff at Carriageworks, providing a new reading of the site and its relationship to labour.

Carriageworks Curator, Abigail Moncrieff advises “Collaboration, kinship and sociality threads throughout the work of the 13 artists and artist collectives at Carriageworks, with each work navigating the measure and texture of our actions and engagement with the world around us. These urgent voices from around Australia speak to our complicated and fractured present,  and within this, offer hope for a renewed future.”

The National at the MCA presents the work of 13 artists who consider diverse approaches to the environment, storytelling, and intergenerational learning. Their works incorporate natural materials and processes, as well as found objects and detritus, to explore notions of planetary caretaking and our relationship to place in an era of dramatic change.

Unseen physical forces – wind, gases, emissions – power works by sculptor Cameron  Robbins,  as seen in his five-metre-tall kinetic wind powered sculpture, commissioned for the MCA Sculpture Terrace. Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke looks to the natural world using objects such as river reeds, kangaroo teeth and echidna quills in her work, while Lauren Berkowitz  transforms plastic waste into powerful statements on the fragility of our environment. Women’s practice is central to The  National  at the MCA, explored through diasporic and familial histories by artists such as Sancintya Mohini Simpson, Mehwish Iqbal, and Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, whose large-scale painting reflects her mother’s Country, Antara – a portrait of four generations of women  in her family.

MCA Chief Curator, Rachel Kent added “For me, symbiosis in nature is an enduring and meaningful exhibition motif. It is expressed in the art of Mulkun Wirrpanda, whose bark paintings demonstrate the ways that diverse animal communities cohabit harmoniously, in the termite mounds of north-east Arnhem Land. Her works reveal intricate patterns of connection and the balance of all things in the natural world.”

The opening weekend at AGNSW features a range of free events including, the launch of Justin Shoulder’s immersive performance series, AEON†: TITAN ARUM on Saturday 27th March; two special performances of Baydham a Dhangal Sagul, a shark and dugong cultural performance by Alick Tipoti and family on Saturday 27th March and Sunday 28th March. Plus, artist talks with collaborative duo Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler; Gabriella Hirst and Gallery conservator Paula Dredge; and Fiona Hall on Saturday 27th March.

Three free artist performances will be presented at Carriageworks on Saturday 27th March including, the premiere of Sarah Rodigari’s poetic monologue On Time exploring the precarity of casual labour in the art world; a live-streamed performance of a monologue describing her six-year  engagement with The National  by artist Agatha Gothe-Snape with Andrew Burrell; and a series of impromptu performances by artists and audience members in the installation of international collective A Constructed World. A highlight of the opening program will be a series of artist talks featuring Vernon Ah Kee, Janet Burchill, Isadora Vaughan, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Alana Hunt, Michelle Nikou, Mitch Cairns, Sarah Rodigari, Darren Sylvester and Brendan Van Hek.

A special in-conversation event will take place on Sunday 28th March at the MCA with artist John Wolseley and Gurrundul Marawili, daughter of the late senior Yolŋu artist Mulkun Wirrpanda, as they reflect on the artists’ important  relationship and honour Ms Wirrpanda’s life. Plus, hear MCA artists Maree Clarke, Sancintya Mohini Simpson, and Sally Smart, in conversation with MCA Chief Curator,  Rachel Kent. practice in conversation with MCA Chief Curator,  Rachel Kent.

The National 2021 is supported by a dedicated website offering a comprehensive record of the participating artists across all three 2017, 2019 and 2021 iterations. Available resources include artist biographies and texts, curatorial essays, and photographic documentation of all works.
For exhibition details and program updates, visit:

Exhibition dates

Art Gallery of New South Wales: 26th March – 5th September 2021

Carriageworks: 26th March – 20th June 2021

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: 26th March – 22nd August 2021

Images top and above: The National 2021 at Carriageworks; Image centre: The National MCA. Credit Anna Kucera


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