Dark Mofo cans project that asked Indigenous Australians to donate blood for artwork

Dark Mofo, a festival in Tasmania put on by the Museum of Old and New Art, has cancelled an art project that called for Indigenous Australians to voluntarily donate their blood, which would have gone down as perhaps the event’s most controversial art project to date.

With the return of the cult-classic event in 2021, Dark Mofo is back with a bang after a year-long hiatus, in typical fashion: followed by controversy.

An artwork by the name of Union Flag, which was set to be displayed at the event in June and created by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, would have seen the British flag immersed in the blood of First Nations peoples from territories colonised by the British empire.

In a statement on the Dark Mofo website, the organisers of the event said, under the headline ‘We Want Your Blood’: “Spanish artist Santiago Sierra will immerse the Union Jack in the blood of its colonised territories.

“The blood will be volunteered by First Nations peoples from places claimed by the British Empire throughout history, including lutruwita/Tasmania.”

However, after just a few days since its call for expressions of interest, Union Flag has been cancelled.

Dark Mofo’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, said in a Facebook post released on Tuesday afternoon that “the hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t worth it”.

“We made a mistake, and take full responsibility,” Carmichael said. “The project will be cancelled.

“We apologise to all First Nations people for any hurt that has been caused. We are sorry.”

On behalf of the artist, Dark Mofo had been looking for people to take part in Union Flag.

Expressions of interest were open to First Nations peoples from countries colonised by the British Empire at some point in their history, who reside in Australia.

Participants were be invited to donate a small amount of blood for the artwork, Dark Mofo explained, facilitated by a medical professional before the festival.

Once expressions of interest were closed, one participant would be randomly selected to represent each country, with blood drawn from selected participants only.

Prior to its cancellation, Sierra, the artist behind the project, said the use of the British flag is not about any specific people, but rather seeks to reflect on the material “on which states and empires are built”.

“The use of First Peoples’ blood from different populations, and its indiscriminate mixing, has impact within the act itself – all blood is equally red and has the same consistency, regardless of the race or culture of the person supplying it,” he said in a statement.

“The First Nations people of Australia suffered enormously and brutally from British colonialism.

“Nowhere more so than in Tasmania where the Black War in the early nineteenth century had a devastating impact, almost killing the entire Tasmanian Aboriginal population – an act that has since been defined as genocide.”

Sierra said, at the time, the intent of this project is against colonialism.

“It is an acknowledgement of the pain and destruction colonialism has caused First Nations peoples, devastating entire cultures and civilisations.

“Colonisation by the British Empire is only one example of plundering and conquest, albeit one of the most forceful, both for its geographic reach and for the genocidal methods applied.”

With the artwork’s expression of interest shared on social media, the reaction to it was mixed, with hundreds of people tweeting in opposition to the art under the hashtag #whitemofo.

It even drew criticism from multiple sources within the ranks of MONA, with one of the museum’s curators, Emma Pike, taking to Instagram to detail her opposition.

She said she didn’t support “Australia’s Indigenous people spilling one more drop of their blood … especially in the name of art and especially for the benefit of a European artist”.

“I do not believe reenacting acts of colonialism is the same as critiquing it,” Pike said.

She added Dark Mofo and MONA’s curatorial teams operate separately and stressed she didn’t have a direct role in the project.

“As you were, we were blind-sided by the announcement of this project last week,” she said.

“I’d heard whisperings of a proposal from Santiago years ago, but I didn’t think anyone would be ignorant enough to go ahead with it. Clearly, I misjudged.”

Pippa Mott, another of MONA’s curators, also posted her criticism on Instagram, saying Sierra’s ‘Union Flag’ work was “an abomination that stands to exploit and re-traumatise First Nations people”.

“This is not a ‘colonial critique’. This is not cutting edge,” Mott said.

“This is bad art and an abuse of the platform that Dark Mofo could and should be using to do meaningful, challenging and illuminating work.”

Dark Mofo festival curator Leigh Carmichael had, however, initially defended Santiago’s work and the Union Flag piece.

Earlier today, Carmichael told ABC Radio Hobart that it was up to the community to decide if the festival had gone too far.

“At this stage we will push on,” he said. “Provided we can logistically make this work happen, we will.”