Vernon Ah Kee: Born in this Skin (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2009).
Boosterism reigns in Australia and particularly in Queensland, which promotes itself as ‘the smart state‘—perhaps to forget those years under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen when it was more like a police state. In 2008, Vernon Ah Kee was invited to produce a work for the Queensland Art Gallery’s latest survey of Australian art. Titled Contemporary Australia: Optimism, the show planned to bask in positivity, riding on the back of an economic boom (although, by the time the show opened, we would be in the midst of the global financial crisis). Optimism seemed a perverse context in which to place Ah Kee: what would this Aboriginal activist artist have to be optimistic about? Indeed, rather than endorse the place as a land of milk and honey, Ah Kee drew attention to a shameful moment that the good people of Queensland would prefer to forget—the death in custody of an Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, on Palm Island.
On the morning of 19 November 2004, the thirty-six-year-old was on a bender. Doomadgee was wandering the streets, singing his favourite song, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’, when he was confronted by the police. He was verbally abusive and was arrested as a public nuisance. At the police station, the inebriated Doomadgee was seen to punch his arresting officer, thirty-three-year-old Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, in the jaw. In less than an hour, Doomadgee was dead—with four broken ribs and massive internal injuries, including a split liver. (It would later be claimed that he fell on a step.) In response, the local Aboriginal community rioted, torching the police station and Hurley’s home.
At the inquiry, the acting state coroner, Christine Clements, found Hurley responsible for Doomadgee’s death, noting that police had ignored his cries for help, leaving him to die. Clements expressed surprise that Doomadgee was even arrested for such a trivial matter. Hurley was later acquitted of assault and manslaughter charges and the coroner’s findings set aside. By contrast, Lex Wotton, would be held personally responsible for the riot and received a six-year jail sentence. This sorry story serves as a reminder of a shameful history of race relations, in which Aboriginal death-in-custody has long been a fact of life.1
Ah Kee’s massive wall piece for the Optimism show, Who Let the Dogs Out (2008), introduced a new character into his work. Redhat (an acronym of hatred) is a short, skinny, rainforest Aborigine; a stick figure with a red Ned Kelly helmet. Ah Kee says that his hero is urbanised; he lives around billboards and newsstands, and speaks in quotes, slogans, and headlines.
In Who Let the Dogs Out, Redhat is surrounded by texts. The word ‘redhat’ is repeated unspaced, forming a fabric, so it can be read either as ‘redhat’ or ‘hatred’. Here and there are break-out quotes, including one from a native-American chief: the end of living and the beginning of survival’. All the rest are quotes from Shakespeare’s tragedies, full of venom and resolve: ‘I am in. So far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.’ It is hard to recall the original context of all the unreferenced quotes; to know if they were originally uttered on the side of good or evil. Similarly, it is hard to know whether they are intended here to represent the attitudes of white Australians or Aborigines, and whether Redhat is endorsing or critiquing them. Ah Kee’s title certainly recalls the famous line about ‘the dogs of war’ from Julius Caesar, but it could equally refer to Cameron Doomadgee dying like a dog on the floor of his cell.
Who Let the Dogs Out breeds confusion and plays on double standards. If Chris Hurley is a killer cop, Ned Kelly was a cop-killer. In the late nineteenth century, Kelly was warring with the police—the colonial administration—but he would later be adopted as an icon for republicanism, embraced as an Australian Robin Hood. By identifying with Kelly, white Australia distances itself from its British colonial roots and fantasises about its own struggles to forge its identity in this place, and thus conveniently sidesteps the irritating existence of the traditional owners of the land. But when Ah Kee, as another kind of Australian, appropriates Kelly, it exposes the sleight. In imagining an Aboriginal Ned Kelly who reframes the Aboriginal struggle as positively Shakespearian, Ah Kee either condemns white Australia through its own icons and traditions or simply scrambles the prevailing common sense.
Vernon Ah Kee was born in 1967, a few months before the referendum that finally recognised Aborigines as Australian citizens. For those months, he says, he was, in a sense, a non-person—officially subhuman. However, in the short period that he has been exhibiting, Ah Kee has become one of Australia’s most celebrated Indigenous artists. His work addresses the situation and experience of Aboriginal Australians and is informed by a deep resentment, grounded in his awareness of historical injustices and a sense of the ongoing exclusion and invisibility of Aborigines in Australia.
First produced in 1999, while at art school, Ah Kee’s This Man Is … This Woman Is … was a starting point for the artist.2 Its sixty panels feature a repeating sequence of six mug shots: three each of a young Aboriginal man (Ah Kee himself) and of a young Aboriginal woman, who both stare back at the camera. It’s hard to know if their gazes reflect defiance, subjugation, or both. Under each image is a brief text, a life story. These are based on actual Aboriginal lives, many researched from Ah Kee’s family histories; several describe Ah Kee himself. The texts suggest the variety of abuses and indignities that Aborigines have suffered since colonisation.
One image of Ah Kee is captioned: ‘This man was 19 years old and Aboriginal. After being shot and killed by British soldiers, his body was hung from a tree as a deterrent to other people in his clan who would resist settler expansion throughout the Sydney basin in 1816.’ Elsewhere, the same image is captioned: ‘This man was 42 years old and Aboriginal. After being forcibly moved to an Aboriginal mission in 1938, he walked off the mission to return to his tribal land. Police, along with White pastoralists, hunted him down and shot him. He may have evaded them if it had not been for the Aboriginal trackers aiding the police at the time.’
Clearly, the subject of all the texts could not be the same person, let alone this person. Thus This Man Is … could be mistaken for a classic example of conceptual art: unpicking representation, interrogating the assumed link between photographs and their captions. However, it is precisely the opposite: Ah Kee is asserting all these stories as constituting his and other Aborigines’ identities, as if he were necessarily the culmination of these collected experiences.
Early in his career, This Man Is … established Ah Kee’s modus operandi, introducing key themes and devices that continue to mark his ongoing work, including his interest in portraits, texts, and their interplay; his interest in the ambiguous gaze of the colonised subject; and his interest in the way that racist values are projected onto Aborigines (but also how this projection necessarily constitutes their identity, both in their acceptance and their resistance). Operating on the verge between pathos and defiance, This Man Is … leaves us with a sense that, for better or for worse, the experience of Aborigines has been, and will be, overdetermined by their being Aboriginal. For them, the sad truth is that ‘identity’ is inescapable.
Ah Kee first became known for his agitprop-style textworks, which have been presented in a variety of scales and formats. At first they were printed on paper, on PVC, and on T-shirts, but later they were amped up, presented in vinyl directly onto the wall at billboard-scale or painted on canvas. The textworks operate through a range of registers. Most texts are short and punchy, with the strident high-concept compression of advertising copy-writing. Some are poetic, even biblical (In the desert I saw a creature naked bestial who squatting upon the ground held his heart in his hands and ate of it …’); others are vulgar like bumper stickers (‘100% Aboriginal’). Some are witty inventions of the artist’s, others quotes. Ah Kee’s lines range from crushingly self-evident no-brainers (‘if I am extremist it is because my people live in extremely bad conditions’) to erudite wordplays (‘who deicides/you deicide’—which could be a typographical error or could refer to killing God). They make a variety of points: ‘not an animal or a plant’ reminds us that Aborigines were once effectively categorised as subhuman, on a par with fauna and flora, while ‘first person’ plays on the fact that Aborigines might have been here first but are silenced in the culture—unable to speak for themselves. The bad pun, ‘mythunderstanding’, hints that the prevailing sentimental-romantic take on Aborigines may be flawed and self-serving.
Ah Kee’s textworks are more than words. Their ostensible messages are complicated by their typographic treatment, which was inspired by Russian constructivism but also recalls concrete poetry and the look of 1960s Madison-Avenue ‘big idea’ advertising,3 not to mention the various brands of conceptual and neo-conceptual art that subsequently drew on it (thinking here of Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Kruger, Haim Steinbach, and Christopher Wool). Ah Kee favours the familiar, no-nonsense, sans-serif, Swiss typeface, Helvetica.4 He typically uses it bolded and all lower-case. The effect is at once aggressively declamatory yet chic; anonymous yet signature. Despite opting for an ultra-legible font, Ali Kee runs words and lines of text together, avoiding conventions of leading and kerning, making his words harder to read. Sometimes you need to double check that you’ve read them correctly. For example, it’s easy to mistake ‘my duty is to persecute error’ for ‘my duty is to persecute terror’. Academic Anthony Gardener characterises Ah Kee’s impacted treatment of text as ‘breathless’, suggesting excitement as much as suffocation.5
On the surface, there is nothing remotely Aboriginal about Ah Kee’s graphic-design style; indeed, it is part of a mainstream media language that might be seen to suppress Aboriginal voices. Helvetica is often celebrated for its universal quality, its democratic air—which may be why advertising agencies often favour it for spinning dubious corporate messages. Ah Kee makes an issue of its Swiss neutrality. That we would interpret many of his texts in diametrically opposed ways if we didn’t know they were written by an Aborigine points precisely to Aborigines’ exceptional nature—their exclusion from the universal’.
In around 2004, Ah Kee began drawing portraits of members of his family, mostly males. The work developed out of thinking about photographs that he remembered from his childhood. Ah Kee’s grandmother always carried two photos with her in her purse: one of Ah Kee’s grandfather (her husband), Mick Miller; the other of his great-grandmother (her mother), Annie Ah Sam. She also had a shot of his great-grandfather (her father), George Sibley.
As an adult, Ah Kee became curious about the source of the photos. He discovered that they came from the Norman Tindale Collection, held in the South Australian Museum, Adelaide. Tindale had taken them as part of a massive project of documenting Aboriginal populations. Between the late 1920s and the late 1960s he photographed hundreds of Aborigines living on missions and government stations, seeking to create a scientific record of a race considered to be dying out. Tindale was well-intentioned, and motivated by a sympathy for Aborigines, yet he photographed them without identifying them by name—simply labelling them with serial numbers. Posing his subjects front and side, Tindale’s photos suggest criminal mug shots. Indeed, when Tindale photographed Ah Kee’s great-grandparents they were in a prison of sorts—they were living on Palm Island, which was effectively a detention centre for Aborigines who could not be constrained on other reserves.
Ah Kee has mixed feelings about the Tindale images; while they provide him a point of contact with past generations, they also come with considerable baggage. From Tindale’s images, Ah Kee made portraits of George Sibley and of Mick Miller. He copied the images to investigate and come to terms with them. He went on to create portraits of other male family members, including himself and his son. He made these drawings from photographs that he took himself. He wanted to show the intense gaze of the subjects in Tindale’s original images persisting in later generations. So, when his subjects posed for his camera, he asked them to express resilience and dignity, but not anger or defiance (qualities for which his grandparents would have been punished).
Like his textworks, Ah Kee’s portraits started small and became larger. He drew his first portraits on paper, then stepped up to massive grey canvases, using white crayon for the highlights. He used an old-school, academic rendering style, building up tone through cross-hatching, creating modeling and texture. His approach suggests restraint, control, and consistency; a dispassionate rendering, rather than distortion and expression. He says: ‘the portraits are a realisation of my efforts to establish a revisioning of the Aborigine as a beautiful and worthy subject full of depth and complexity. The Aborigine is a worthy subject to be sure, but my intention is to strip away from the image any of the romantic and exoticised notions of primitivism, virtue, and, most importantly, the decorative stone age.’6 The extent to which All Kee has achieved this, however, remains moot.
The portraits are ambiguous. Ah Kee may be motivated by a desire to redeem the images of his ancestors (as captured by Tindale), by investing time in exploring and registering their details; by emphasising the intensity of his sitters’ gazes, suggesting agency; by granting them an ennobling Mount Rushmore scale; and by identifying them, tying them to a specific genealogy—his own. However, his images of contemporary sitters are tainted by association with the Tindale images, as if Aborigines today—even his young son—might still be heirs to old attitudes; imprisoned by them. All Kee, himself, could even be seen as tying them to this past by viewing them through Tindale’s lens. While the portraits could be seen as idealising, heroic depictions—a celebration of resistance, showing generations of his family surviving racism—they could also be seen as neutral depictions to which we bring our own values, making them screens for our prejudices and romantic fantasies.
Ah Kee’s 2005 show, You Must Hit, at Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane, exploited this ambiguity by interspersing textworks—such as ‘who deicides’ and ‘you deicide’—within a ‘line-up’ of portraits, so it was hard to know which texts to associate with which faces, and whether to identify the sitters as the enunciators of the words, their subjects, or neither. The installation suggested an interrogation, but which of the faces was ‘you’? Or was ‘you’ the viewer? This interpretive dilemma drew attention to the way that we project meanings onto faces, both in relation to what they are associated with (as in film theory’s famous Kuleshov Effect), and on the basis of our own sympathies, desires, and fears, perhaps revealing our predisposed attitudes to Aboriginal men—as a mix of romanticism and fear.
Many of Ah Kee’s portraits have an unfinished quality, with faces seemingly still in the process of being rendered. This is especially evident in Ah Kee’s portrait of his cherubic son, Gavin, in the 2006 triptych See Me. The boy’s locks of hair and shirt are barely delineated, drawing attention to his intensely rendered eyes. The portrait looks unfinished, suggesting its child-subject is not fully formed or not yet fully seen.
Ah Kee elaborates on this thought in his Unwritten works, which are in many ways the antithesis of portraits. They feature generic, mask-like, male heads or faces—recalling the basic heads one might find in a how-to-draw book, offering the armature for a portrait before the distinguishing, individuating details are added. In the later examples, the faces emerge from striated lines as if they are pressing through into the viewer’s space from behind the canvas itself. For Ah Kee, these works represent an Aboriginal subject becoming visible. He says: ‘They are primitive people becoming more human to the Western eye. And as that happens, white features are ascribed to them. And where white people see those features ascribed to them—like learning to dress and learning to talk—they are rewarded. So these faces have high cheekbones and long noses, characteristics of a very general white Anglo-Saxon face, but they don’t have eyes, nostrils, ears, mouths. They are people who haven’t been recognised as human and, at the same time, are starting to have this white ideal applied to them, just enough to give shape to their faces. The work is about becoming.7
With the Unwrittens, Ah Kee catches us in a double-bind. If these images are about Aborigines ‘becoming’, then this act is qualified as ‘becoming’ in the eyes of the other. Recognition comes at a cost. The images simultaneously suggest birth (as if their subjects were breaking through the canvas to be born), and death (they could be being suffocated; the faces have deeply recessed eyes, reminiscent of skulls; they also suggest death masks). The faces could belong to victims or villains; they could equally be terrified or menacing. Ah Kee plays on the classic horror-genre scenario in which those we have maltreated and misjudged return to threaten us. Paradoxically, it is the very marks of their trauma—the suffering that they have endured—that now seems to empower them and terrify us. The Unwrittens certainly recall special-effects sequences from horror films. Ah Kee was, in fact, inspired by the face of Freddy Kruger pressing through the bedroom wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as Imhotep’s face, which materialises in a punitive sandstorm in The Mummy. The Unwrittens similarly suggest something supernatural intruding from the other side’—the return of the repressed.
Desert painting is routinely celebrated as the highest form of Aboriginal art, the expression of true Aboriginal spirituality and cultural genius. By contrast, the work of urban Aboriginal artists, like Ah Kee, operating in an explicitly contemporary-art idiom, is seen as comparatively inauthentic. However, Ah Kee and his colleagues in Brisbane’s urban Aboriginal artists’ collective, proppaNOW, challenge the seemingly self-evident authority of desert painting. ProppaNOW artist Richard Bell became notorious for his catch-cry, ‘Aboriginal art—it’s a white thing’, prompting us to reconsider the ways that ‘authentic’ art produced in remote communities is symptomatic of white values and interests. (The proppaNOW artists call it ‘ooga-booga’ art.) In contrast with what he sees as this always already compromised art of remote communities, Ah Kee understands proppaNOW’s urban art as the authentic Aboriginal art.
He says: ‘The reason I say that the art that we make is Aboriginal art is because the way we live our lives is an Aboriginal experience. What happens in the deserts and remote communities is that people create art and they try to live their lives in a way that correlates to a romanticised idea. It’s a white construction. That’s why I say that the only authentic Aboriginal people in this country are the urban Aboriginal people, they’re the only ones that behave autonomously. We are the only ones whose lives aren’t wholly and solely determined by white construction.’8
In this context, it is interesting to consider Ah Kee’s opting for an old-school, Western drawing style in his portraits. In doing so, many will be reminded of Albert Namitjira (1902–59), the first Aboriginal artist celebrated by white Australia. Painted in watercolours in a Western style, Namitjira’s landscapes were appreciated by white Australians because they met white aesthetic expectations—he was proof of assimilation. Of course, since the triumph of desert painting in the 1980s, white Australia is now in love with an Aboriginal art that is understood as totally Aboriginal. (Consequently, today, revisionist interpreters now assert Namitjira’s work as a claim on country, with his choices of subject and treatments revealing a specifically Aboriginal perspective.) So, are we to understand Ah Kee’s portraits as mimicry or detournement—seeing the artist as dupe or double agent? Ah Kee leaves that question hanging for the viewer, who must confront the possibility that their interpretation may betray them more than him.
It could be argued that Ah Kee’s appropriation of a conservative Western drawing style in the portraits, like his appropriation of a Madison Avenue graphic-design style in the textworks, is overdetermined. It makes a political point: Ah Kee speaks from a marginalised position by co-opting the impersonal authority of the language of the Big Other (which claims to speak to, and sometimes for, all), making an issue of its neutral tone. He has no other option: as an urban artist, it would be inappropriate and inauthentic for him to speak in an ‘Aboriginal’ idiom. It’s his preference: he considers the `Aboriginal’ idiom compromised in advance. Plus, it is expedient: he is largely speaking to white people, and in a language they understand. In drawing on dominant aesthetics to speak from a marginal=perspective, I suspect that Ah Kee would sympathise with Barbara Kruger—who famously explained: ‘We loiter outside of trade and language and are obliged to steal language. We are very good mimics. We replicate certain words and pictures and watch them stray from or coincide with your notions of fact and fiction.’9
Undecidability is also at the crux of Ah Kee’s CantChant (2007). The project addresses that great Australian icon—that idyll, that commons, that leisure space invested with childhood nostalgia—the beach; the home of Max Dupain’s iconic Sunbaker (1937). For Ah Kee, Australia’s prevailing romanticised view of the beach masks a truth: while Aborigines are conveniently seen as people of the interior, the beach has been a site of racial conflict ever since British colonial settlement in the eighteenth century. The repressed history of the beach as a physical and ideological battleground returned with a vengeance in December 2005, when mobs of young white males descended on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach attacking Middle Eastern beachgoers while wearing and chanting such slogans as ‘We grew here, you flew here’, as if appropriating Indigenous rhetoric.
CantChant—the title of which suggests a ‘nonsense song’—highlights the superficial resemblance between surfboards and the shields traditionally produced by the Yidindji, Ah Kee’s father’s people from the North Queensland rainforest. These days the shields are seen as art objects but they were originally used in battles; their painted decorations were heraldic standards of identity. For CantCh,ant, Ah Kee decorated surfboards, painting the decks with shield patterns while incorporating cropped reproductions of his Western-style portraits on the fin sides. In CantChant‘s first presentation, at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art in 2007, Ah Kee hung the boards from the ceiling as a phalanx. Entering the space, we confronted them from the viewpoint of an enemy—facing the patterned sides—but, walking among them, we discovered the portraits. The surrounding walls were covered with textworks. One of the most prominent—’we grew here’—was reversely-appropriated from the Cronulla rioters. Here, Ah Kee was playing on the impertinence of these white youths in making such a claim; when their nationalist sense of entitlement is built on the dispossession and disavowal of the Aboriginal people. Another text, ‘hang ten’, conflated the American surf-clothing brand with lynching. Call it black humour.
The centrepiece of the show was a three-screen video installation in which the boards reappeared. The video clashed its genres and mixed its metaphors, each new sequence undermining the last. In a heavy-handed allegory, a dead board (a waterlogged surfboard) bound in barbed wire and hung from a tree was shot up. The meaning was obvious: the boards = Aboriginal bodies lynched and humiliated, and Australia = a killing field. And yet the solemn tone was immediately undercut by a comic sequence showing three Aboriginal men getting about Surfers Paradise in their garish designer surf gear. Carrying their rainforest-shield-patterned boards, they desperately try to fit in, but stick out like sore thumbs. Pointedly, we never see them get into the water. Cut to an inappropriately dramatic song, Warumpi Band’s throbbing `Stompin’ Ground’, the irony is thick. Does the sequence point the finger at the culture that excludes Aborigines, or poke fun at their desire to fit in with the white stereotype?
The idea that Aboriginal people are out of place at the beach is roundly disproved in the next sequence, which shows Aboriginal pro-surfer Dale Richards surfing on one of Ah Kee’s boards. Shot in the style of a consummate surf movie, the scene captures our attention, and we are left watching the graceful Richards ‘making it look easy’—erasing any anxiety established in the previous scenes. Political issues sink into the background as we simply marvel at—and identify with—his magisterial performance. It becomes a marker of his sovereignty, or suggests, perhaps, that the need to assert sovereignty is redundant after all?10 After that, returning to the argumentative images of dead boards under attack feels like a wake-up call. Moving genre from allegory, to skit, to surf movie and back—and tone from preachy, to silly, to sublime—the video is at once engaging and alienating.
CantChant‘s paradoxes of identification and opposition take us into an interpretative grey zone. The work draws on the ambitious position of the surfer’. As the 2007 Australian documentary film Bra Boys attests, surfers are simultaneously identified with mainstream Australian values and recognised as outlaws (an extension of the Ned Kelly mythos).11 When his three rainforest surfers line up on the beach with their rainforest surfboards, is Ah Kee pointing to the distance between Aborigines and Cronulla’s white surf-thugs or making an analogy between them? The Aboriginal surfers could be seen as equally tribal, territorial, and martial: staunchly defending their patch, or taking someone else’s. Or, they could be seen as equally deluded: why are these rainforest guys colonising Surfers Paradise? Similarly, it is hard to tell whether the rainforest shield patterns on the boards represent something authentic or inauthentic for Ah Kee; whether he is embracing the shield patterns as markers of his identity (underwritten by his portraits) or playing on them as clichés—decorative fetishes of a kind already co-opted by the hostile culture. CantChant impishly conflates white surf culture and Aboriginal sovereignty, making this seem plausible and absurd by turns, while posing the question of how we want to read it.12
In 2008, Ah Kee’s interrogation of Aboriginal stereotypes and racist clichés continued with a remarkable pair of installations made for that year’s Sydney Biennale. At first, Ah Kee only intended to show What Is an Aborigine?, a new suite of portraits, in the show. However, during a site visit to Cockatoo Island to select his exhibition space, Ah Kee discovered a ruined toilet block slated for demolition. The walls were covered in decades of obscene graffiti left by dockworkers. The graffiti was comprehensive: an outpouring of obscene racist, sexist, and homophobic sentiments. There were many anti-Aboriginal remarks, but racist sentiment was not limited to them. Where someone had written ‘Blacks will clean our toilets’, a republican had crossed out ‘Blacks’ and replaced it with ‘pommies’. Some writers named names, outing suspected gays and junkies. The walls conveyed a sense not of a common underlying humanity but of a common underlying vileness. Paradoxically, perhaps racism—anxiety over the other—is the one thing that links us all.
Thinking ‘people should see this’, and perhaps giving a nod to Duchamp’s Fountain, Ah Kee displayed the room as it was—as a readymade. Signing it, he put his own name to the collective anonymous scrawlings. He titled it, Born in this Skin, suggesting the way that Aborigines inevitably experience racism not only due to the colour of their skin but also upon their skin, in the most intimate way. The project drew an extreme response, becoming one of the most discussed and reported works in the Biennale. A complainant, taking offense on behalf of all potentially offended parties, wanted his day in court, threatening Ah Kee, the Biennale, and the Harbour Trust with legal action. Ah Kee said that was ‘shooting the messenger’.
Born in this Skin played off What Is an Aborigine?, also installed on the island, which visitors inevitably saw first. In a grand, albeit dilapidated, environment, Ah Kee’s portraits created a respectful space. But any tender feelings were violently overturned on entering the toilet block. If the portraits provided an uplifting experience, it only gave us further to fall. There was a clear link and contrast between the installations. Both were works of drawing: one refined and skilled, the other vulgar and obscene. One was invested with the artist’s own time and care, the other found. One could be read as celebrating Aborigines, the other as laced with cowardly attacks on them.
However, there was an added level of complexity. While the portraits gave white Australians the opportunity to empathise with noble Aborigines (and so, feel good about themselves), the toilet block offered no such reprieve. In confronting us with The Real in the toilet block, Ah Kee pulled the rug out from under his portrait project—rubbing our noses in our shit in the process—as if to say: here might be a better place to begin the discussion.
Ah Kee speaks like an essentialist. He says: ‘Because I am Aboriginal, because I was born with dark skin and dark, curly hair, I’ve never had the opportunity to be perceived as anything other than Aboriginal, and it has never occurred to me that I could be anything other than Aboriginal. So everything I think, say, and do is done from that position—never from outside that framework.’13 Ah Kee addresses all things Australian in terms of the suppression of Aboriginal interests, which condemns him to an art of pessimism and raining on parades!14 At first glance, he appears to have an urgent desire to broadcast basic, clear, political messages about the Aboriginal experience. The works seem plain speaking, direct, declamatory, even didactic. But looking closer, their power and intrigue come from the way that they engage and negotiate ambiguities, double-binds, and catch-22s, and by the way that they transfer the onus back onto the viewer. Through what they say and how they say it, the works implicate us in their inquiry. Thus, despite their seeming essentialism, Ah Kee’s works continually highlight the fact that identity has nothing to do with essences but is always and only forged in the interplay of an us and a them.
[IMAGE: Vernon Ah Kee CantChant 2007, installed at Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2007.]
- For the full story see Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (Melbourne: Penguin, 2008).
- The work, originally produced as screenprints, was re-produced as digital prints in 2003. A set is in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
- See the ‘Big Idea’ entry in Steven Heller and Louise Fili, Stylepedia: A Guide to Graphic Design Mannerisms, Quirks and Conceits (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006), 57-60.
- Or at least the Microsoft version, Arial.
- Vernon Ah Kee: Born in this Skin (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2009), 53–7.
- http://www.abc.netau/tv/ yours/artists/kee.htm
- Vernon Ah Kee, in conversation with the author, 2007.
- Vernon Ah Kee interviewed by Archie Moore, ‘Black Eye = Black Viewpoint A Conversation with proppaNOW’, Machine 1, no. 4 (2006): 3.
- Documenta 7, vol. 1 (Kassel: Documenta, 1982), 286.
- Alternatively, CantChant could also be read as a mark of how Aboriginal sport stars—like runner Cathy Freeman and boxer Anthony Mundine—have been embraced by white Australia, despite the marginalisation of Aborigines in sport Freeman, particularly, becoming ‘Our Cathy’.
- Bra Boys (dir. Sunny Abberton and Macario De Souza, 2007) is a documentary about a Sydney surfers’ gang. It has been described as ‘A documentary film about respect, surfing, loyalty, brotherhood, and murder. Narrated by Russell Crowe.’
- CantChant plays on the work of Gold Coast artist Scott Redford. See my ‘Rainforest Surfer’, Art and Australia 45, no. 4, Winter 2008: 640–5.
- Vernon Ah Kee: Born in this Skin, 23.
- Interestingly, Ah Kee’s Chinese heritage has not yet figured in his work. However, it may be the subject of an upcoming project for Sydney’s Gallery 4A.