Asking for our blood

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

Cass Lynch

Cass Lynch is a writer and researcher living in Boorloo/Perth. She has recently completed a Creative Writing PhD that explores deep memory features of the Noongar oral storytelling tradition; in particular stories that reference the last ice age and the rise in sea level that followed it. She is a descendant of the Noongar people and belongs to the beaches on the south coast of Western Australia.

More by Cass Lynch ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. This is a great article about a terrible art proposal to which I would add how it connects to ongoing conversations around repatriations. The art work suggested all people subject to the British Empire volunteer their blood, which expands the colonial gaze here from so called ‘Australia’ to include South Africa, India, Singapore and elsewhere, making it an issue for many diaspora communities too. That makes even worse as a concept, especially at a time when many of us are still trying to get our bones, bodies, blood back from institutions just like MONA be that the British Museum, Cambridge University or local museums and galleries. Why hasn’t Dark MOFO tried to return remains rather than keep extracting more? That question is one that has been on the tongues of my family and I after reading this very proposal. Thanks to Cass Lynch for writing this and hats off to Overland for a timely, responsive, and important publication.

  2. This is disturbing. Disgusting. And completely grotesque. That this would even be asked is baffling me. In a time when we KNOW vampires are real, blood ritual is prevalent and corruption ever present, it’s interesting this would even come up. Gross.

  3. Definitely a gross idea and insensitive…

    But some have called Santiago a ‘Coloniser’ artist. That’s just bizarre… How can he be a coloniser? How many generations post-invasion till you are considered non-coloniser?

      1. Isn’t that turning what is a social issue into one of personal psychology and then performance to ‘atone’…

        I’m not sure about the idea that there’s some kind of fixed ‘coloniser’ vs ‘colonised’ reality, all over the world. I think each settler-colonial society is totally different, even ones that appear similar like Aust and US.

  4. For me it’s also notable that this is not a British but a Spanish artist requiring and investing in the extraction of blood at a time when Spain’s ex-colonies in Latin America have a dire need for vaccinations that is being met unacceptably slowly as a result of subordination by, in and to the colonial world order. Were the intention anti-colonial, this would be a vile symmetry. But clearly, anti-colonialism is not Sierra’s intention. And clearly, anti-colonialism is not a compulsory position for artists; what is most disturbing here is in fact MONA’s seeming intention – to, as Cass Lynch says, interfere with rather than stand for truth-telling. Thanks to Cass for a perceptive reading.

  5. Thank you so much Cass Lynch for giving so much of your time and energy to unpack this Sierra/ Dark Mofo arrogance. I found out about the ‘artwork’ through artist Kira Puru and immediately felt uncomfortable and upset with it. As a white Australian who has directly benefitted from the genocide of the First Nations People and the racist systems still in place in this country it is very important to me to fully understand what is so wrong with ‘Union Flag’ and Mona’s response to it. I have learned so much from this article, Cass and genuinely appreciate the emotional labour you have expended in writing and sharing this piece.

  6. Thankyou for clarifying this for a dumb white guy. Previously i just believed freedom of expression was a right of anyone no matter how blunt their expression was. Now i see the complicated but also straightfoward issues at stake. On a different topic i hope there can be something done about the rip offs of Indigenous Artwork in Queensland.I understand boomerangs are made in China.:(

  7. thank you. a right and thorough un-masking critique of an enormously hypocritical set of actions by MOna(everyone responsible there) and the artist.
    a secondary and dreadful mindset is an attack on the making and reception of art: setting up the artistic expectal as spectacle and useless as a medium for critique, activism, beauty, the grotesque and insight. Thank you again for showing how Sierra and MOna have attacked the ethics of artistic practice as well as Indigenous people.

  8. There are two names for the island. If you are going to have a mainland Aboriginal writer write about an island they have no sovereign claim to, then the very least thing they must do is get it right. It is Trouwunna AND lutruwita (which is also lowercase in the latter, not capitalised). This is substianted in community, oral knowledges, colonial records, and academic writings. Trouwunna. lutruwita. Two names. Not one. You need to use both if you’re not mob of the island.

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