THE NATIONAL 2021: New Australian Art opens at three of Sydney’s leading cultural institutions

A major survey of contemporary Australian art, The National 2021: New Australian Art, is now open across three of Sydney’s leading cultural institutions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Carriageworks and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), presenting 39 new commissioned projects by established, mid-career, emerging artists and artist collectives from across the nation.

The third iteration in a series of biennial surveys, originally launched in 2017, The National 2021 showcases the varied and vital work being made by Australian artists, in urban and regional centres, as well as remote communities, by artists of different generations and cultural backgrounds.

Three distinct exhibitions have been developed by four curators, Matt Cox and Erin Vink (AGNSW), Abigail Moncrieff (Carriageworks) and Rachel Kent (MCA Australia). Each exhibition invites collective dialogue about the ideas and concerns mobilising some of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists.

The National 2021 at AGNSW presents a diverse selection of works from 17 artists and cultural practitioners, including five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from the Zendath Kes (Torres Strait Islands), Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia, Brisbane, and Canberra.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in this exhibition present works that exist between moments of categorisation and form, relying on and claiming Indigenous and non-Eurocentric forms of knowledge. Significant commissions include two large-scale nocturnal, healing landscapes by Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton, a daguerreotype installation reclaiming Kaurna place names by James Tylor, and large fibreglass sculptural forms of sea creatures by Alick Tipoti,” said AGNSW Co-curator Erin Vink.

AGNSW Co-curator, Matt Cox said: “Reflecting on the six years since the inception of The National and its intention to present new Australian art that observes moments in our collective histories, the third iteration offers a renewed sense of what it means to be living in Australia and despite post-truth cynicism, an optimism in the transformative value of art.”

“The exhibition harbours a tension between sorrow and hope. The sites of grieving in the work of Fiona Hall and Gabriella Hirst, which respond to the devastation of the bushfires and the Barka Darling River system, are buoyed by an undeniable joy and promise of alternative futures in the performative installation of Justin Shoulder,” added Cox.

A deep sense of questioning and responsiveness lies within the works presented at Carriageworks. Interrogating ‘who is speaking’ and ‘what is being said when we speak’ the works contain both messages and warnings. The cry of Guwayi bird warns of a turning tide in Vernon Ah Kee and Dalisa Pigram’s work, while the Karrabing Film Collective use filmmaking to interrogate the conditions of inequality for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and to retain connections to land and their Ancestors. Alana Hunt turns her lens on colonial aspirations of leisure, tourism and development that underpin contemporary life. The material complexity of Isadora Vaughan and Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s sculptures speak to a sense of place and history while Sarah Rodigari’s performance installation draws from conversations with casual staff at Carriageworks, providing a new reading of the site and its relationship to labour.

Carriageworks Curator, Abigail Moncrieff said: “Collaboration, kinship and sociality threads throughout the work of the 13 artists and artist collectives at Carriageworks, with each work navigating the measure and texture of our actions and engagement with the world around us. These urgent voices from around Australia speak to our complicated and fractured present, and within this, offer hope for a renewed future.”

The National at the MCA presents the work of 13 artists who consider diverse approaches to the environment, storytelling, and intergenerational learning. Their works incorporate natural materials and processes, as well as found objects and detritus, to explore notions of planetary caretaking and our relationship to place in an era of dramatic change.

Unseen physical forces – wind, gases, emissions – power works by sculptor Cameron Robbins, as seen in his 5-metre-tall kinetic wind powered sculpture, commissioned for the MCA Sculpture Terrace. Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke looks to the natural world using objects such as river reeds, kangaroo teeth and echidna quills in her work, whilst Lauren Berkowitz transforms plastic waste into powerful statements on the fragility of our environment. Women’s practice is central to The National at the MCA, explored through diasporic and familial histories by artists such as Sancintya Mohini Simpson, Mehwish Iqbal, and Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, whose large-scale painting reflects her mother’s Country, Antara – a portrait of four generations of women in her family – an intergenerational portrait, transmission of cultural knowledge.

MCA Chief Curator, Rachel Kent said: “For me, symbiosis in nature is an enduring and meaningful exhibition motif. It is expressed in the art of Mulkun Wirrpanda, whose bark paintings demonstrate the ways that diverse animal communities cohabit harmoniously, in the termite mounds of north-east Arnhem Land. Her works reveal intricate patterns of connection and the balance of all things in the natural world.”

The National 2021 is supported by a dedicated website offering a comprehensive record of the participating artists across all three 2017, 2019 and 2021 iterations. Available resources include artist biographies and texts, curatorial essays, and photographic documentation of all works. For exhibition details and program updates, visit

(Main image: Isadora Vaughan, Organs of  Cognition, 2021. Installation view  The National 2021: New Australian  Art, Carriageworks. Photo credit  Zan Wimberley.)