This year’s Biennale of Sydney, titled rīvus, included the work of Aotearoa-based artists Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi and Mata Aho Collective. Emma O’Neill, a writer working on Gadigal Land, responds to the exhibition and some of the work presented by the 89 participants invited to interact with different forms and bodies of water.

The opening of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney coincided with what politicians and news outlets termed a “rain bomb”. Across the country’s east coast, unprecedented torrential downpours saw rivers swell, dams bulge and entire towns left underwater. It was, in fact, the release of an “atmospheric river” that had formed in the skies over Meanjin/Brisbane in late February containing almost 16 times the amount of water in Sydney Harbour.[01] 01. Graham Readfern, “Anatomy of a ‘Rain Bomb’: Scientists Strive to Understand Phenomenon that Cuased Australia’s East Coast Floods,” The Guardian, 4 March 2022, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/mar/05/anatomy-of-a-rain-bomb-scientists-study-phenomenon-2022-australia-east-coast-floods Rainwater washed down sandstone walls, pooling at the perimeter of the expansive Cutaway at Barangaroo; cold, dank winds whistled through the nearby Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay situated at the water’s edge—two of the exhibition's five venues and the focal points of this piece. The potency of the Biennale’s aqueous theme, poignantly titled rīvus (meaning stream in Latin), was evident.

The term ‘rain bomb’ makes meteorologists twitch for its scientific inaccuracy. It also posits nature as enemy and extreme weather its terrorism, rather than a force we play a part in creating ourselves. In this case, human impact produced a La Niña “on steroids”.[02] 02. Ibid. The Sydney Biennale took a less combative approach than that embodied in the phrase ‘rain bomb’ by proposing the symbiosis of spiritual and ecological practice. Along with artists, architects, designers, scientists and communities, seven rivers were listed as participants: the Atrato, the Baaka/Darling, the Birrarung/Yarra, the Boral, the Burramatta, the Napo and the Vilcabamba. The North Sea was represented by an Embassy and each venue was situated as a ‘conceptual wetland’.

This curatorial approach arose from Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, which recognises Aotearoa New Zealand’s Whanganui River and its tributaries as “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements”. In the last decade, legal personhood has been conferred on multiple waterways across the world, including the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India, the Vilcabamba River in Ecuador and the Atrato River in Colombia.[04] 04. Alessandro Pelizzon, Erin O’Donnell, and Anne Poelina, “Australia’s Rivers are Ancestral Beings,” Pursuit, 18 October 2021, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/australia-s-rivers-are-ancestral-beings These legislative decisions are a way to both embed Indigenous knowledge in settler systems of governance and to invoke the rights of—and help protect—natural elements. 

The Western ontologies that divide the human and non-human (as well as land and water) drive governance and management of the environment. Meanwhile, “Indigenous knowledges have long understood non-human entities as living ancestral beings with a right to life that must be protected. But only recently have animals, plants, mountains and bodies of water been granted legal personhood. If we can recognise them as individual beings, what might they say?”, writes Colombian Artistic Director José Roca in the Biennale’s accompanying curatorial statement.

For the 23rd iteration of the world’s third-longest continuously running biennale, Roca took a collaborative approach to leading the exhibition, veering away from a directorship based on personality-cult in favour of a curatorium comprising Paschal Daantos Berry, Anna Davis, Hannah Donnelly and Talia Linz. Across the 330 works in the culminating presentation, the 89 participants shared Indigenous ancestral narratives, linked art making to practices of care and stretched between ecological dread and hope.

Among these academic underpinnings there are moments of awe. In the cavernous open space of The Cutaway at Barangaroo Reserve on the water’s edge, suspended boats constructed from recycled plastic catch glimmers of light beneath a large, undulating river of bamboo. These works, Balete (2022) by Leeroy New and Flow (2022) by Cave Urban, fill out the large space from top to bottom and weave together more discrete presentations that dot across the concrete floor. Upon arrival, both works also offer immediate representations of the overarching theme. 

Less tactile but equally impactful video works force viewers to contend with murky histories and ominous futures. Tabita Rezaire’s Deep Down Tidal (2017) uncovers “the ocean as a graveyard for Black knowledge”. Across the 18-minute video essay executed in net.art style, Rezaire excavates the ocean as host to a complex set of communication networks.[05] 05. “Net art emerged in the 1990s when artists found that the internet was a useful tool to promote their art uninhibited by political, social or cultural constraints. For this reason it has been heralded as subversive, deftly transcending geographical and cultural boundaries and defiantly targeting nepotism, materialism and aesthetic conformity. Sites like MySpace and YouTube have become forums for art, enabling artists to exhibit their work without the endorsement of an institution.” “Art Terms: Internet Art,” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/i/internet-art Along the ocean floor, fibre optic cables direct the world’s data flow and mimic colonial shipping routes. The French-born Guyanese/Danish artist asserts that these cables are the hardware of new digital imperialism and will “download your secrets”. The sea also contains memories of great suffering, including sunken cities and drowned refugees. “Our Water Is Traumatized”, reads one flash of the video, emoji-like fire erupting from oceanic swell; animated lightning rods framing a 90s-era Windows, 3D WordArt arc of the words beyond the horizon. American artist Will Benedict’s All Bleeding Stops Eventually (2019) adopts a similar tone of dark humour. Across a suite of six 40-second videos, a cast of threatened animals is digitally ventriloquised to politely deliver messages of caution. “The humans simply pushed a button, and the skies are emptying out”, soliloquises Benedict’s snow monkey over the drone of Sydney’s rainfall. 

Other works invite a quieter pause. Rippling in the breeze are swathes of looped nylon netting by Nicole Foreshew as part of YIRUNG BILA (SKY HEAVEN RIVER) (2022). Marked with gypsum, ochre and clay from her sacred homeland and exposed to rainfall and sunlight, this work by the Wiradjuri artist seeks to illuminate ancestral spirits that move through the sky, rivers, mountains and lakes. 

Further along the edge of the space, light plays across Mata Aho Collective’s site-specific He Toka Tū Moana | She’s a Rock (2022) backdropped by bare sandstone. White, heavy-duty tie-down webbing crisscrosses between two pillars. Eight 30-metre lengths of industrial strapping were tensioned and ratcheted in rows up to 14 metres high. Using readily available contemporary materials, the monumental installation draws on Mata Aho’s research into kawe, woven straps used to carry heavy loads for long distances, customarily made from prepared harakeke (flax).[06] 06. “Kawe (Carrying Straps),” Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/64802 The artwork’s namesake draws from a whakataukī of a rock standing firm in the ocean current, while the directional flow of the webbing reflects Barangaroo as a meeting point for fresh and saltwater. “This whakataukī seemed appropriate due to the geographical position—the headlands of Sydney Harbour,” they tell me.[07] 07. All quotes from Mata Aho Collective are from email correspondence with the author, 6 July 2022. “This was created with Hinemoana and Parawhenuamea in mind, they embody the realms of the sea and freshwater.[08] 08. Hinemoana was the second wife of Kiwa, one of the male divine guardians of the ocean. Her name literally translates as Ocean Woman and she was the ocean personified. Parawhenuamea was a daughter of Tāne and Hine-tū-pari-maunga, the Mountain Maid, and was taken as a wife by Kiwa, the guardian of the ocean. We wanted to create a work that referenced their meeting point, where the rivers meet the sea. That intermingling was the inspiration for the wrapping, weaving motion.” In line with the Barangaroo site, so named after a powerful Cammeraygal woman, they “wanted to create a work that spoke about the weight of cultural responsibility women often hold —to nurture descendants, share knowledge, uphold community—and that’s what this whakataukī does. It references the act of being a steadfast woman in a sea of influences which try to wear you down.”

The Biennale’s knowledge-sharing curatorium model and wet ontological proposition are embodied in Mata Aho’s mode of making. Formed in 2012, the collective comprises Erena Baker (Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangātira), Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe), Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) and Terri Te Tau (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne ki Wairarapa). Mata Aho’s “four heads, eight hands” approach centres on mana wāhine Māori, the power and integrity of Māori women. Foundational to every work is the goal to expand collective knowledge through a tuakana–teina approach, a reciprocal process of learning and teaching grounded in Te Ao Māori. “For this particular kaupapa, we visited taonga Māori at Canterbury Museum and Okains Bay Museum. We looked at examples of kawe … We saw a parallel between industrial tie-downs and kawe, and are interested in playing with tension, load-bearing and travel with He Toka Tū Moana.” Extending beyond its impressive materiality, the shadows of He Toka Tū Moana play across the concrete floor beneath and beyond the work, mirroring the way the work expands beyond the artists’ individual capabilities. 

Tongan-born Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi’s work at the nearby Pier 2/3 is connected to Mata Aho’s He Toka Tū Moana in that it preserves ancient weaving techniques to different effect. A cluster of more than 60 columnal forms, bound in brightly coloured geometric patterns, are suspended at various heights. Responding to their peer from Aotearoa, Mata Aho Collective tell me, “We were all drawn to Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi’s work, the labour-intensive application of the coconut fibres and coloured wool that is grounded within customary fishing and building, installed in a way that emphasises the layers of meaning held within the patterns.” 

Created over 26 years, Tohi’s work titled Haukulasi (1995–2021) redefines the Tongan lalava. The English-language equivalent of lalava, ‘lashing’, fails to translate the significance of the practice. “Because to the Western eye it’s a binding and from the Tongan [perspective] … it’s about the expression of the language and all kinds of other things,” says Tohi.[09] 09. Felipe Tohi, “Transcript of Video,” https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/auckland/on-campus/life-on-campus/pacific-life/filipe-tohi-video-transcript.pdf Customarily, coconut husk fibres are prised from the shells, soaked, dried and rolled into lengths of rope, which are then used to secure the structural frameworks of buildings, eschewing the need for glue or nails. Tohi’s lalava bears no structural responsibility at Pier 2/3, but speaks instead to how the tradition functions to assert Pacific identity and bind communities. 

The work’s intricate crisscrossing patterns are hieroglyphs of nets, fish, birds and sea, and serve as mnemonic devices. They are encoded with sacred stories to be passed through generations. Swapping coconut fibres for the multicoloured wool of his adoptive home of Aotearoa is one of the ways that Tohi innovates lalava, bringing his cultural DNA into a contemporary context. Indigenous Tongan cosmogony is inextricably linked to the ocean. In one of its creation narratives, much of the archipelago was hauled by the demigod Māui from the depths of the sea with a special fishing hook.[10] 10. Futa Helu, Critical Essays: Cultural Perspectives from the South Seas (Canberra, ACT: The Journal of Pacific History, 1999), https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/132631?mode=full Tohi smiles humbly when a member of the audience at his public talk, a fellow Tongan, describes him as the “Picasso of the Pacific”. Indeed, the artist’s four-decade resolve to preserve Tongan storytelling traditions has seen him described as the island nation’s “foremost art ambassador”.[11] 11. “Tongan-Kiwi Artist Reinvents Lalava as Language of Traditional Polynesian Wisdom,” ‘Atenisi Institute, https://atenisi.edu.to/latest/Tohi%20workshop.php Still, he reserves explicit translations of the stories told through the lalava for fakatonga (fellow Tongans). This careful balancing act between sharing and keeping is one of generative resistance—a theme that courses through the exhibition at large. 

Tohi’s Haukulasi sways to the haunting vocals of British-Finnish Hanna Tuulikki’s adjacent video work Seals’kin (2022).[12] 12. “Hanna Tuulikki – Seals’kin,” SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/user-22994623/hanna-tuulikki-sealskin Recorded on location in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where the River Ythan meets the sea, the artist echoes the mournful cries of seals as they haul themselves onto the shore. Like the mythical selkies of Norse folklore, she transforms into a seal. A desire for kinship with animals and ecological grief resounds. 

Imbás: a well at the bottom of the sea (2022) by Australian-born, New South Wales-based artist Clare Milledge invokes the more hopeful story of Sinnan, the woman in Irish mythology whose quest for knowledge released imbás/inspiration from the depths of a well, forming the River Sinnan/Shannon.[13] 13. As stated on the artist’s website: “‘Imbas’ on its own is often taken to stand for ‘imbas forosna’, great knowledge which illuminates.  As well as the name of a metre, it is also described as a technique associated with the highest grades of poets.” – Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody  https://claremilledge.com/imbas-a-well-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea Shrouds of indigo silk inscribed with poetry house ephemera of watery magic: hanging cauldrons, shipping rope and suspended glass paintings. Beyond the sounds of Milledge’s collaboratively created poetry, one can hear the chime of Yuko Mohri’s Moré Moré (Leaky): Variations (2022) in the far corner, and the underwater crackle of Ghost Reef (2020–ongoing) by the collective Embassy of the North Sea at the threshold. The space is teeming with a plurality of artistic voices. 

Taking in the minutiae of each artwork during my visits on the first and final days of the exhibition, there is an overriding relief that, unlike its predecessor and despite catastrophic weather, rīvus has remained open for its entirety. A thrust towards in-person programming leaned into the opportunity to see works in person and hear from artists directly. Whispers from peers pointed to some artworks as too literal in terms of their relationship to the Biennale theme. In fact, just as the exhibition platformed voices beyond the art world (and the human world, for that matter) Roca also ambitiously sought to translate nuanced ways of seeing the world to the broad church of Biennale goers. In the current climate (both political and meteorological), unanimity with nature seems both radical and imperative. Through non-hierarchical leadership models, slow learning, and by foregrounding Indigenous voices, Roca’s Biennale turns away from notions of fixity towards fluidity and flow, where the sacred and the scientific have equal footing. It demonstrates how a plurality of perspectives can reinvigorate and reshape current modes of governance, and in doing so, imparts a tenuous, though complex, hope for our future.

01. Graham Readfern, “Anatomy of a ‘Rain Bomb’: Scientists Strive to Understand Phenomenon that Cuased Australia’s East Coast Floods,” The Guardian, 4 March 2022, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/mar/05/anatomy-of-a-rain-bomb-scientists-study-phenomenon-2022-australia-east-coast-floods 02. Ibid. 03. Parliamentary Counsel Office Te Tari Tohutohu Pāremata, Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, 20 March 2017, www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2017/0007/latest/DLM6831607.html 04. Alessandro Pelizzon, Erin O’Donnell, and Anne Poelina, “Australia’s Rivers are Ancestral Beings,” Pursuit, 18 October 2021, https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/australia-s-rivers-are-ancestral-beings 05. “Net art emerged in the 1990s when artists found that the internet was a useful tool to promote their art uninhibited by political, social or cultural constraints. For this reason it has been heralded as subversive, deftly transcending geographical and cultural boundaries and defiantly targeting nepotism, materialism and aesthetic conformity. Sites like MySpace and YouTube have become forums for art, enabling artists to exhibit their work without the endorsement of an institution.” “Art Terms: Internet Art,” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/i/internet-art 06. “Kawe (Carrying Straps),” Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/64802 07. All quotes from Mata Aho Collective are from email correspondence with the author, 6 July 2022. 08. Hinemoana was the second wife of Kiwa, one of the male divine guardians of the ocean. Her name literally translates as Ocean Woman and she was the ocean personified. Parawhenuamea was a daughter of Tāne and Hine-tū-pari-maunga, the Mountain Maid, and was taken as a wife by Kiwa, the guardian of the ocean. 09. Felipe Tohi, “Transcript of Video,” https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/auckland/on-campus/life-on-campus/pacific-life/filipe-tohi-video-transcript.pdf 10. Futa Helu, Critical Essays: Cultural Perspectives from the South Seas (Canberra, ACT: The Journal of Pacific History, 1999), https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/132631?mode=full 11. “Tongan-Kiwi Artist Reinvents Lalava as Language of Traditional Polynesian Wisdom,” ‘Atenisi Institute, https://atenisi.edu.to/latest/Tohi%20workshop.php 12. “Hanna Tuulikki – Seals’kin,” SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/user-22994623/hanna-tuulikki-sealskin 13. As stated on the artist’s website: “‘Imbas’ on its own is often taken to stand for ‘imbas forosna’, great knowledge which illuminates.  As well as the name of a metre, it is also described as a technique associated with the highest grades of poets.” – Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody  https://claremilledge.com/imbas-a-well-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea