Art Festival Dark Mofo have announced an artwork by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra called Union Flag, in which First Nations people are invited to donate their blood to drench a Union Jack flag. An image circulated on Instagram with the words WE WANT YOUR BLOOD printed in black against a red background. The caption read as follows:
On behalf of artist Santiago Sierra, we are looking for people to take part in Union Flag: a new artwork that will see the Union Jack immersed in the blood of its colonised territories at Dark Mofo 2021.
Expressions of interest are now open to First Nations peoples from countries claimed by the British Empire at some point in history, who reside in Australia. Participants will be invited to donate a small amount of blood to the artwork, facilitated by a medical professional before the festival. Register now via link in bio.
The post included a link to the Dark Mofo website, which states in bold, black letters:
Spanish artist Santiago Sierra will immerse the Union Jack in the blood of its colonised territories. The blood will be volunteered by First Nations peoples from places claimed by the British Empire throughout history, including lutruwita / Tasmania.
If I squint, I can see that this is an attempt to make an artwork of global shared history: a blood-drenched flag could embody ideas critiquing the violence of colonial systems. However, the concept of a British flag drenched in Indigenous blood in any medium (photography, painting, sculpture, video, etc) is highly problematic because it contains ambiguities around power and domination. Simply stating or depicting that the beginnings of the Australian colony were brutal and bloody for Indigenous people is a passive act. Portraying a symbol of power such as the British flag covered in Indigenous blood is a passive act.
If someone were to depict a blood-soaked flag on a sign during an Invasion Day march, there would need to be a written explanation to show an active engagement with truth-telling – a rejection of cultural hegemony that seeks to forget Australia’s violent beginnings. If that sign had no words, just that image of a blood-soaked flag, the sign-bearer could be a counter-protestor celebrating the domination of Indigenous people by the British empire.
The concept on its own isn’t active as an agent of truth-telling, it doesn’t contain an Indigenous voice or testimony, it has no nuance. On its own, it leans into the glorification of the gore and violence of colonisation.
Santiago Sierra and Dark Mofo have taken this bloody concept and amplified it. The result is an incredibly arrogant artwork in which the blood of First Nations people ‘will be volunteered’ to drench a real flag. What started out as a passive act that does nothing for truth-telling turns into an extractive exercise that repeats the loss of blood suffered as a result of colonisation. What were ambiguities around violence and domination at the concept stage are magnified into a methodology of extracting blood from Indigenous people to attempt to give an active voice to a passive artwork. The proposed artwork betrays itself as hinging on violence against Indigenous bodies in order to be ‘relevant’.
The invitation to donate blood to this project is disrespectful and ignorant. 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. Mob won’t be paid, there’s no mention of donations to Indigenous orgs. There aren’t any Indigenous people mentioned in the project.
At first I thought, how could such a proposal be genuine, it must be a hoax, a publicity stunt in poor taste and bad faith (considering the website also has an Acknowledgement of Country). However, the website contains artist documents, FAQs and a place to register to donate blood to the project.
We request the donation of a small amount of blood, less than what is usually taken from donors, and carried out by a medical professional prior to Dark Mofo 2021.
Firstly, hospitals and medical procedures are situations of racism and violence for mob, so there are huge issues there being made invisible or simply ignored by the organisers.
a small amount of blood, less than what is usually taken
The focus on blood is alarmingly fetishistic. To reduce massacre in the colonies to the metonym of blood dehumanises and erases the parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins that were murdered. We are not blood, we are people.
small … less
This language around how Dark Mofo will facilitate taking the blood attempts to minimise the act. Small amount, less than. Persuading, exhorting, needling. Just this once. It’ll only hurt a bit. And no wonder, because what would this artwork be without our blood? Essentially, Dark Mofo are just some festival employees and a Spanish artist standing with a flag bought from a supply store begging for our blood to make their statement.
The Artist Statement further elaborates:
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.
There is a very large gap here between intent and impact. The proposed artwork reads like a love letter to colonialism, as it appears to seek to recreate its gore, aesthetics, and power dynamics, and nothing more. It doesn’t challenge the status quo. It isn’t ‘controversial’ – it’s redundant. Perhaps the reason for this gap is that Europeans only know their own history. They only know what their own cultural hegemony has promoted to them. Europe, Britain, and the British colonies are rife with inequality, unjust incarceration, food insecurity, addiction and family violence. Sierra might claim to have the objectivity to tell the story of Western imperialism, but he might well have internalised the violence of Western culture and is just perpetuating it through art.
The art-going public know what colonialism is. Australians know that Indigenous people were killed to make way for the colonisers’ ancestors to settle here. There are Australians who publicly state that they are glad at the brutal treatment of Indigenous people at the hands of colonisers, and wish that all of us had been killed. What the art space needs is mob telling their own stories, as the public needs to see us as we see ourselves, not through the lens of sensationalist media, biased journalism, or even someone from the other side of the world breezing in for a festival. And Indigenous people are telling an incredible story; of resilience in the face of oppression, the joy of caring for Country, kinship systems that spread across a continent, climate knowledges dating back to the last ice age. This is truth-telling we need, and that Australia needs.
The intent of this project is against colonialism
Dark Mofo has commissioned an artwork that interferes in Indigenous truth-telling in Lutruwita/Tasmania. Dark Mofo has given Santiago Sierra funding and a platform to attempt to act out a violent fantasy on stolen land, one that reinforces the harmful notion that Indigenous bodies, histories and stories are sites of exploitation and extraction. A fantasy of blood-soaked silence to be hung on a wall.
Image: Gavin Clarke