An ongoing aim in Australian diplomacy is to deepen the nation’s engagement with the dynamism and diversity of the Asia Pacific region. Through cultural exchanges like the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art artists can engage in and extend the diplomatic endeavour, helping us to celebrate our differences and contemplate shared futures.

In 1995, just two years after the Queensland Art Gallery launched the first edition of its flagship exhibition series, the Asia Pacific Triennial for Contemporary Art (APT), former foreign minister Gareth Evans spoke of Australia’s turn towards its neighbours:

We looked in the mirror in the early 1980s and began to see ourselves as others had seen us: politically and militarily depend on others half a world away; culturally and economically insular; not understanding of, or responsive to, the richness and opportunity unfolding around us [. . .] What we have found is [a region] more responsive to us, more capable of enriching our experience and more alike us than we could have ever previously dreamed.

Evans’s words reflect a time of optimistic neighbourliness in a less turbulent, more certain world. Decades on, COVID-19 has exacerbated a contemporary sense of regional and global flux, testing the resilience of established institutions, pulling at the fabric of social and economic cohesion, and bringing old and new fault lines to the fore. With divergence in interests, values and systems increasingly apparent, countries across the globe face new challenges in managing their international relations. New research published by the British Council underscores the enduring significance of cultural engagement in maintaining essential channels of dialogue and cooperation between people and nations — especially through times of political tension. Good-faith cultural exchange highlights the unique potential of cultural institutions to deliver intentional and sustained engagement, underscored by participatory and inclusive values. Ultimately, cultural engagement builds mutually beneficial resilience into broader bilateral and regional relationships.

When looking to examples of Australian cultural engagement in the Asia Pacific region, one cannot look past the APT. In her review of APT9 (2018–19), Australian journalist Miriam Cosic made the point that, as one of the nation’s most significant regional cultural engagements, the Triennial also offers ‘a crash course in political and social developments in the region’.

Seleka International Art Society Initiative / Hifo ki ‘Olunga 2021 / Synthetic polymer paint, recycled fabrics, barkcloth, wood, coconut shells, dried pandanus, mixed media / Commissioned for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Purchased 2021 with funds from Tim Fairfax AC through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © The Artists / Photograph: K Bennett © QAGOMA

Artists play a central role in this diplomatic endeavour. Unlike traditional diplomats, they are neither constrained by official talking points nor required to subdue or smooth over the rough edges of human experience and interaction. Their role is one of exploration and provocation. Over the decades, APT artists have actively engaged with challenging themes of significance for the region, teasing out key tensions within notions of possession and dispossession, identity and indigeneity, power, influence and wealth, as well as through our problematic relationships with each other and the planet. The subtle connections — between artists, their institutions and broader audiences — cultivated and sustained through the APT over some 30 years, offer powerful conduits of conversation, critique, understanding and trust. Through this deep engagement, we are provoked into deeper contemplation of ourselves and our place in the world.

Further to this, QAGOMA itself plays a key role in providing space for these conversations to take place with the intent of drawing out shared meaning. The fact that the QAGOMA has acquired ‘so much era-defining art’,presented through the Triennial since 1993, demonstrates a deep commitment to the underpinning philosophy of cultural engagement as partnership. Investing in the artistic talent and reputation of the Asia Pacific region in this way sets QAGOMA apart as a world-leading institution when it comes to contemporary cultural engagement.

Despite the dynamics of flux and turmoil in our contemporary world, and the myopic tendencies these might generate — particularly with travel limited by the present pandemic — it is critical that we find ways to embrace the diversity and energy of our region. Now in its tenth iteration, the Asia Pacific Triennial offers us that chance. It picks up on the challenge set out by Gareth Evans some 25 years ago: to celebrate our different perspectives, to enrich one another’s experiences, and to contemplate together the shared challenges that lie ahead.


Professor Caitlin Byrne is Director, Griffith Asia Institute.

This article first appeared at QAGoMA.