Archie Moore: winner of the Golden Lion at the 60th Venice Biennale

Jessica Lack visits the Australia Pavilion to view Moore’s installation, kith and kin, which encompasses 65,000 years of history and articulates the catastrophic impact of colonialism on the country’s Indigenous people

Golden Lion winner Archie Moore with kith and kin, 2024. Australia Pavilion installation at the Venice Biennale 2024

Artist Archie Moore with kith and kin, 2024, Australia Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2024. Photographer: Andrea Rossetti. © The artist. Image courtesy of the artist and The Commercial

‘Country’ is the term used by First Nations to describe the land that spiritually connects Indigenous Australians. It is a word that encompasses not just the vast rugged terrain beneath their feet, but the water, the customs, the laws that govern, and the collective memories that stretch back 65,000 years through tribal songlines.

‘Our country is a very big story,’ wrote the Waanyi author Alexis Wright in her novel Carpentaria; and it is this concept of place, in which history and myth are interwoven, that Archie Moore explores in his exhibition kith and kin in the Australia Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale.

The artwork, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, is political and deeply personal. Moore is of the Bigambul and Kamilaroi nations, whose lands are in south-west Queensland and New South Wales. An account of the impact of genocidal conquest on Australia’s Indigenous population, kith and kin is part of an ongoing narrative by the artist that combines reportage, folklore and science fiction to articulate the long-denied fact of Aboriginal sovereignty.

Golden Lion winner Archie Moore, kith and kin, 2024. Australia Pavilion installation at the Venice Biennale 2024

Archie Moore (b. 1970), kith and kin, 2024. Australia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2024. Photographer: Andrea Rossetti. © The artist. Image courtesy of the artist and The Commercial

Born in 1970, Moore grew up in one of only two Indigenous families living on the edge of a town in rural Queensland. His father, a socialist labourer who had British heritage, encouraged his art; his Aboriginal mother had very little education. It was a tough, lonely upbringing. Moore experienced racism at school and found refuge at home in TV and science fiction.

The impoverishment of the artist’s childhood was brought into sharp focus when he recreated parts of his family’s dilapidated home for an exhibition at Griffith University Art Museum in 2018 (he has made other versions since). The kitchen was blackened with smoke from the wood stove, there were holes in the walls, and the house sank after every downpour. However, as Moore recalled, he preferred being ‘inside its ugliness, to the ugliness of racism outside its walls’.

Installation view of Archie Moore, Dwelling (Victorian Issue), presented at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, 2022

Installation view of Archie Moore (b. 1970), Dwelling (Victorian Issue), presented at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, 2022. © The artist. Courtesy The Commercial, Sydney. Photo: Christian Capurro

It was in science fiction such as The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a cult series of novels by the American writers Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, that Moore found liberation. Wilson in particular was a man of wild beliefs, who considered it absurd to frame an intellectual argument into only two competing sides. Through Wilson’s books, such as The Mask of the Illuminati, Moore learned to question everything — and he soon turned his focus on the disinformation fostered by the Australian government about the nation’s origin story.

Moore studied fine art at Queensland University of Technology, then spent a year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, during which time he began exploring his country’s unwritten history and the collective amnesia surrounding its traumatic past.

Archie Moore, Kamilaroi Neytion, 2014/2017, from the series United Neytions. Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

Archie Moore (b. 1970), Kamilaroi Neytion, 2014/2017, from the series United Neytions. Polyester, nylon, zinc-plated alloy. 180 x 180 cm. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. © The artist. Courtesy The Commercial, Sydney. Photo: Sofia Freeman / The Commercial

As a Bigambul and Kamilaroi artist, Moore has spoken of his frustration at not knowing more about his ancestors, and concedes that much of his art is a metaphor for his own identity. ‘I am still intrigued by who I am, what I think I am and the reasons why,’ he says. This is reflected in works such as United Neytions, a series of flags he designed for the 28 Aboriginal Nations based on a map created by a 19th-century anthropologist who recognised that, contrary to colonial opinion, Aboriginal peoples understood the concept of land boundaries.

Golden Lion winner Archie Moore, kith and kin, 2024. Australia Pavilion installation at the Venice Biennale 2024

Archie Moore (b. 1970), kith and kin, 2024. Australia Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2024. Photographer: Andrea Rossetti. © The artist. Image courtesy of the artist and The Commercial

The question of identity is intrinsic to kith and kin. The work charts the artist’s history in two parallel time zones — one linear, the other in an infinite spiritual cycle. In the centre of the pavilion is a floating table on which sit neatly stacked reports, some redacted, documenting the hundreds of Indigenous deaths (including those of people related to Moore) in police custody since 1991, when a research programme was established. The surrounding walls contain the names, written in chalk, of the artist’s ancestors dating back 65,000 years, in a miraculous family tree. Parts have been erased, where the history has been disrupted by colonisation, massacres and incarceration.

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Many artists have struggled to convey the catastrophic impact of the arrival of the British in Botany Bay in 1788 on Australia’s Indigenous population. Here, the theme of intergenerational trauma is conveyed by embracing both formal and informal registers. The minimalist aesthetic of the documents, with their bureaucratic language, stands in contrast to the temporal poetry of the artist’s family tree.

As with all good political art, Moore has brought the whole world into the picture. ‘The tree includes every person on the planet,’ he says, ‘because we all have a common ancestor.’

Archie Moore, kith and kin is on show in the Australia Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale until 24 November 2024

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