Australian art festival cancels plan to soak UK flag in indigenous blood

Image source, MONA/Rémi Chauvin
Image caption,
Tasmania's Dark Mofo festival has a reputation for provocative artworks

An Australian festival has apologised for commissioning an artwork that would have seen the UK flag soaked in indigenous people's blood.

The work, titled Union Flag, from Spanish artist Santiago Sierra will now not be shown at the Dark Mofo festival.

It had sparked condemnation after being included in the programme last week.

The festival had asked for "First Nations peoples from countries claimed by the British Empire" to volunteer to donate small amounts of blood.

Sierra said the installation aimed to convey the pain and destruction caused by colonialism.

But critics, among them several Aboriginal Australians, variously called the work "abusive", "tone-deaf" and "re-traumatising".

They noted in particular the setting of the festival in Tasmania - an island state with a history of massacres of Aboriginal people by white settlers in the 19th Century.

"To ask First Nations people to give blood to drench a flag recreates, not critiques, the abhorrent conditions of colonisation," said indigenous artist Cass Lynch.

Another critic wrote online: "How you do not see the hypocrisy in asking First Nations people to donate their blood to a white artist and in the same breath highlighting that this is stolen land is beyond me."

Organisers defend then cancel artwork

The artist had planned for the flag to be "immersed" in a vat of blood and hung up for the festival.

The festival director initially defended the work against criticism, saying "self-expression is a fundamental human right".

"We support artists to make and present work regardless of their nationality or cultural background," Leigh Carmichael said on Monday.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Artist Santiago Sierra

But as the backlash escalated, Mr Carmichael issued an apology the next day and said Dark Mofo would cancel the work.

"We've heard the community's response to Santiago Sierra's Union Flag. In the end the hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn't worth it," he said.

"We made a mistake, and take full responsibility."

Several indigenous artists have called for him to resign.

'Approved without thought'

David Walsh, the Australian billionaire owner of the festival, also apologised, and said he had earlier received a letter of complaint from staff about the work.

"[I] didn't see the deeper consequences of this proposition," David Walsh admitted. "Naively, perhaps incredibly, I thought it would appeal to the usual leftie demographic."

Mr Walsh said he believed in "the right to express an opinion even... when experience is lacking", but agreed with critics that "my ignorance does not empower me".

Image source, MONA/Rémi Chauvin
Image caption,
Festival director Leigh Carmichael reversed a decision to stand by the work

Many people argued the work was "performative activism".

"How about instead of propping up a white artist's take on colonialism you support Indigenous artists who are actively fighting against this oppression," one critic said online.

While many online have welcomed the decision, others, including fans of Sierra's, criticised the festival's concession.

Sierra posted an image to Facebook after the cancellation which read: "Often the slave defends the symbols of the master."

The European artist is known for his provocative art pieces on human suffering.

His previous works have included featuring drug-addicted sex workers with a line tattooed on their backs and casting sculptures from human faeces.

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Media caption,
The artist cutting off the head of a British colonialist