The Dark Mofo Controversy: “We are not Props for your White Guilt Art”

Dark Mofo is an annual Tasmanian art festival that has been scheduled to return in June. It has dropped one of its headlining exhibitions. The festival – notorious for its provocative and often taboo subject matters – rarely backs down from controversy as it prides itself on darker themes that celebrate the southern winter solstice. However, the pagan inspired midwinter festival has admitted guilt and apologised after a week-long controversy, centred around one of its art projects by Santiago Sierra.

Earlier this month, a promotional image was posted by organisers on behalf of the artist which ignited criticisms against Sierra, his proposed artwork titled the Union Flag, and the festival’s curators. The post served as an exclusive invitation to First Nation Australians. The simplicity of four bold words printed in black, donned on a red background, exclaimed that – WE WANT YOUR BLOOD. The caption read how “expressions of interest are now open to First Nations peoples from countries claimed by the British Empire…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”.

Though it has since been removed, the Dark Mofo website explained that the “Spanish artist Santiago Sierra will immerse the Union Jack in the blood of its colonised territories.” The blood would be voluntarily donated by First Nations peoples. Despite the organiser’s claims of support from local lutruwita (Tasmanian) Aborigines, the overwhelming response to Union Flag has been negative and deemed deeply offensive. Furthermore, the exploitation of Indigenous bodies to fulfil a violent fantasy reveals an ignorance that negates the reality of how trauma is transgenerational.

Given this lack of consideration, Indigenous Elders, artists, scholars, politicians, activists and allies mobilised an unrelenting campaign against the exhibition. Specifically, they protested against the rhetoric that Dark Mofo’s decision to hold Sierra’s instalment was confronting because of its “groundbreaking conceptual practice”. Instead, counter-arguments recognised how Union Flag was neither innovative nor ‘decolonising’ but rather, resembled “shock jock art“.

“A coloniser artist intending to produce art with the actual blood of colonised people is abusive, colonising and re-traumatising. The idea is disgusting and terrible and should not have been considered,” tweeted the Noongar writer Claire Coleman. Gomeroi journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber relayed her distaste by asserting, “our blood is sacred, your art is not. How about centring Blak voices rather than white artists.”

In a similar vein, the prolific Indigenous rapper and artist – Briggs – simply commented on the festival’s original post that “we already gave you enough blood.” It cannot be overlooked how Dark Mofo choose to promote a non-Indigenous artist in place of local Indigenous talent. This reveals what Māori artist Kira Puru perceives as an omission of “no First Nations folks in your curational/consulting teams.” Additionally, she tweeted how “Sierra’s works are notoriously expensive and to choose to give this piece a platform to tell the story of our First Nations peoples rather than elevating local Indigenous voices reeks of colonial bs in and of itself.”

The Creative Director of Dark Mofo initially defended the plans to immerse the British flag in Indigenous Australians’ blood. He invoked the Spanish artist’s words that Union Flag stood as a statement “against colonialism”. Citing the complexities of Sierra’s art, organisers “understood, respect[ed] and appreciate[d] the many diverse views in relation to this confronting project.”

Leigh Carmichael further justified that “self-expression is a fundamental human right, and we support artists to make and present their work regardless of their nationality or cultural background’. However, this position was not held for long. Following his defence, Dark Mofo later posted on social media that Sierra’s project would not proceed. Carmichael also claimed it was a “mistake” that he had “hurt” Indigenous communities, signing off by offering his apologies to First Nations people.

As mentioned earlier, Dark Mofo is no stranger to controversy. Previous art instalments publicly displayed several large inverted red crosses erected across prominent waterfront positions. Another light installation – which used artificial fog, surround sound, and strobe lighting – was closed after seven people had suffered seizures. In 2017, registered attendees could watch a three-hour show – marketed as “a bloody sacrificial ritual” – where performers stripped naked, bound themselves on wooden crosses and stretchers. At some point in the performance, they engaged with a slaughtered bull. The reviews were mixed.

It is clear that Dark Mofo’s organisers and curators sought to retain and remind audiences of their ‘edgy’ status. As summarised by Trawlwoolway/Plangermaireener artist Jamie Graham-BlairIndigenous bodies are not tools to be used by colonisers. We are not props for your white guilt art.” Considering that the Dark Mofo 2020 festival was cancelled due to COVID, Sierra’s Union Flag was not only a successful attempt to drum up publicity for the upcoming festival but also, as a tone-deaf attempt to stay relevant.