Prominent Indigenous artists and culturally significant artworks are currently taking part in the 14th Istanbul Biennial, one of the most prestigious biennials on the visual arts calendar, which opened last Saturday.

Djambawa Marawili and Vernon Ah-Kee have been commissioned by the Biennial’s Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to create new work for the Biennial, entitled, ‘SALTWATER: Theory of Thought Forms’.

In addition, important cultural works have travelled to Istanbul to provide context to her artistic vision for the biennial “ the ‘Maw and Dhangatji Mununggurr Maak Message Sticks‘ (1935); the ‘Yirrkala Drawings‘ (1947); the ‘Yirrkala Bark Petitions’ and the ‘Thumb Print’ petitions (1963), and four of the famous ‘Saltwater Barks’ produced by the Yolngu to support their claims for Sea Rights (1998-2000). Both the artists and the works have been supported by the Australia Council to be in Istanbul.

Djambawa Marawili is currently Chair of ANKAAA and a member of the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council. He won the Best Bark in the 1996 Telstra Art Award and his works are held in many public and private collections in Australia and overseas “ including barks in the Australian Maritime Museum’s important ‘Saltwater’ collection. Two of his have travelled to Istanbul and one each by Gawirrin Gumana and Boliny Wanambi.

Vernon Ah-Kee is a well-respected Brisbane-based Blak artist both nationally and internationally, having represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale in the group exhibition ‘Once Removed

Australia Council Director of Visual Arts, Julie Lomax says the invitation from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to exhibit at the Istanbul Biennial was testament to her interest in contemporary Australian visual artists, and her strong connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island art, which began when she was the Artistic Director of the 16th Biennale of Sydney in 2008. This continued when she was the Artistic Director of Documenta (13) in 2012 where she showcased Australian artists, said Ms Lomax.

As the draftsperson (CCB’s self-appointed title, rather than Director or curator) of the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Ms Christov-Bakargiev visited Australia last year through the Australia Council’s International Visitors Program to give a series of talks at Australian visual arts institutions and research artists. This resulted in Ms Christov-Bakargiev including Vernon Ah-Khee and Djambawa Marawili in the Istanbul Biennial. CCB has also invited Australian arts facilitators Franchesca Cubillo, Hetti Perkins, Ian McLean, Adrian Parr, Will Stubbs, and Jane Bennett to contribute to a series of seminars during the Biennial. The inclusion of these artists and artworks will further cement our Indigenous art as an important contributor to the international visual arts scene.

Australia Council CEO, Tony Grybowski said the Australia Council was committed to investing in innovative new practice and supporting artists to showcase work internationally. The Council has invested around $11 million a year in international arts activity since 2010-11 and in 2013-14, there were 647 grants given to support Australian artists internationally, he said. Preserving, celebrating and supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts is a strategic priority for the Australia Council.

Organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the 14th Istanbul Biennial will run until 1 November.  It coincides with ‘Australia in Turkey’ 2015, the Australian Government’s biggest cultural festival in Turkey.  The four month celebration of Australian culture will be staged predominantly in Istanbul and Ankara from September to December 2015.

Mind you, there is some doubt as to whether a close association with the Biennial will necessarily please the Turkish government. CCB is on record as having said, It is almost a ghostly exhibition. The ghosts are the ghosts of history, including the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and of Greeks. There is the purification of Turkish from the Arabic and Farsi language in the late 1920s, and then the very nationalistic attitude towards the Kurds that caused so many deaths also in recent years. Turkey has so many wounds that are not healed.

CCB’s thoughts on the ‘Saltwater‘ title for ‘drafting’ are a little less precise, but almost as political: In the Biennial, one work is about sea rights of the Yolngu people in Australia. I thought the Aboriginal people’s struggles would be interesting to knot together with these other histories of Anatolia. It is bit of a surrealist procedure ” an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table. It is a question of folding and enfolding in order to then unfold in different ways. It is knotting and unknotting history and art. That is what I do.

Despite which, at least one commentator in Istanbul, Noelle Bodick from the American magazine ‘Modern Painters’, seems to have taken her point and run with it: And despite the hand-waving explanations ” about the show’s theme of salt and waves and knots ” Christov-Bakargiev successfully lodges a critique of the humanist and digital trends in art today.

The Bark Petition of Australia’s Yolngu Aboriginal people crystalizes these ideas. In 1963, the clan leaders filed a petition to the Parliament House in Canberra to protect their land, surrounding a piece of paper typed in English with bark paintings of fish, turtles, boats. These artistic works, as well as others used as evidence in trials in the 2000s, had direct political effect on the laws in Australia, gaining the clan land and sea rights. It might sound weird and mystical to say, but the artworks were recognized by authorities ” and here by the curator ” as possessing an agency, perhaps even more agency than the indigenous people who crafted them.

Now there’s a challenging thought!