Queensland-based artist Archie Moore has unveiled his intention for Australia’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in April: to transform it into an examination of the impact of colonisation and incarceration on the country’s First Peoples and a celebration of their resilience.
Moore is only the second First Nations artist to make a solo presentation in the 25-year history of Venice’s Australian pavilion, following Tracey Moffatt in 2017. While key details of the exhibition were still being kept under wraps at the press briefing on Thursday, Moore said in a statement that his exhibition – titled kith and kin – would be a “site for quiet reflection and remembrance”. It will draw on his Kamilaroi, Bigambul, British and Scottish heritage and present his family story as a distillation of Australia’s 254-year colonial history.
Moore, who was born in Toowoomba in 1970 to a mother of Bigambul and Kamilaroi lineage and a father of British and Scottish heritage, is perhaps best known for installations drawing on his personal history and childhood memories. They often use scent, sound and recreated spaces – most famously, his childhood home in Tara, west Queensland, and his grandmother’s hut in Glenmorgan – to immerse viewers in his experience.
“I’m kind of interested in that impossibility of knowing or understanding another, [even] if we have the shared experience,” he told Guardian Australia on Thursday. “So [I use immersive installations] as a way to say, ‘Will Indigenous and non-Indigenous people know and understand each other?’”
Although it has been a frequent motif across his three-decade body of work, Moore only started seriously investigating his family history four years ago. He has since traced his European and Aboriginal ancestry back thousands of years using Ancestry.com as well as official and unofficial archives.
The web of stories he uncovered include a great-great grandfather who was transported to New South Wales as a convict, whose descendant (Moore’s grandfather) won a parcel of land in Queensland’s 1900 land ballots – land that belonged to Moore’s Kamilaroi ancestors.
In kith and kin, this expansive personal history will fuse with his more explicitly political ongoing concerns such as national identity and state control.
He said he will be “presenting” at the Biennale rather than “representing”, as he doesn’t see himself as speaking on behalf of anyone other than himself.
“[I hope viewers come away with] a bit more of an understanding of Indigenous Australians, because I’m not sure how much they know about Indigenous Australia, or the history, or what kind of circumstances we’re living in.”
At the Thursday event held at Moore’s Marrickville gallery, the Commercial, he and curator Ellie Buttrose were tight lipped on details of the exhibition.
“Archie’s made a lot of works [over his career] that refer to his family and also the memories of his family – and this exhibition will be no different,” said Buttrose.
Australia’s history of incarceration will also be spotlit through the story of Moore’s convict great-great grandfather and his great uncle, who was a prisoner in Queensland’s infamous Boggo Road gaol.
Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside database – which tracked every known Indigenous death in custody in Australia from 2008 to 2021 to find an ongoing record of systemic failure – was also a key point of reference.
“Archie is looking at different archives and the way that they can either motivate people to make change, or perhaps be overlooked,” said Buttrose.
Moore grew up in a small rural community in which he was the only Aboriginal child in his school. Soft-spoken at the age of 53, he said he wasn’t sociable as a young person.
“I didn’t feel like I was part of the rest of the community, because we were Aboriginal. I felt shame when I was younger, embarrassed … I didn’t talk. I tried to be invisible. So that meant a lot of time at home in my room, drawing and reading magazines.”
Becoming an artist was, he said, was an inevitability.
He wanted to call his project “kith and kin” from the beginning of the proposal process. The title plays on the original Old English usage of the terms, which referred (respectively) to countrymen, or “one’s own land”, and family members.
For Moore, this antiquated English meaning resembles “Indigenous ways of thinking about the land.”
“The land is part of the kinship system; it could also be a teacher or mentor, or parent to a child. Every living thing in the land is part of the kinship system.
“And so I was drawn to that title because it aptly describes what I’m going to do [with the Venice exhibition].”
The Venice Biennale opens on 20 April.