Vernon Ah Kee is a prominent Australian artist as well as a disruptor of Australian arts. (Supplied: C-A-C/Jay Patel)
‘Maybe I’m just surrounding myself with black people’: Artist’s communal approach to creation
About 10 to 15 years ago, Brisbane artist Vernon Ah Kee started noticing similarities between the treatment of refugee asylum seekers and Aboriginal First Nations people in Australia.
“[It was] when Australia’s immigration policies … started to take a turn for the worse and started lurching into brutality,” he tells RN’s The Art Show.
“It was very clear that we were witnessing this process of arbitrary detainment and hopeless confinement again — after particularly in Queensland, we saw that over and over again in the reserves and mission systems [in the 20s and 30s].”
Members of Ah Kee’s family were among the Indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed and relocated to a settlement on Palm Island as part of the broader system that flourished under the government’s “protection laws”.
Ah Kee, an artist of Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji, Koko Berrin and Gugu Yimithirr descent, says that Indigenous Australians and refugees share “a history of wrong decisions”.
“There have been several times over the years where Australia, as a country, has had the opportunity to do the right thing and has always just turned around … and just said ‘actually, no, I think we’ll go the other way’.
“The parallels seem pretty obvious to me, and I just thought I’d draw a line between the two.”
In 2018, Ah Kee drew that line by making a video work called The Island, currently showing as part of a career survey exhibition of the same name at Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C) in Western Sydney.
The Island includes footage of tapestries, desert landscapes, oceans, barbed wire and Palm Island. (Supplied: Milani Gallery)
In the three-channel video, a refugee couple describes the circumstances that led them to leave Afghanistan, their boat journey to seek asylum in Australia, the dehumanising experience of living in a detention centre, and their experiences afterwards while living “in limbo” in the community, in Brisbane.
Their voices appear throughout the video but their testimony also appears in stark white text superimposed over footage of desert landscapes, barbed wire and aerial shots of Palm Island.
In the exhibition notes, Ah Kee writes: “I cannot escape the idea that Palm Island is the prototype for Nauru, Manus or Christmas Islands. I am unwilling, or unable, to separate my own history with what is happening in those places.”
From the distinctly political to the ‘construed as political’
Ah Kee was born in Innisfail, about 140 kilometres north of Palm Island, in 1967 — the year the referendum passed that granted the federal government the right to make laws for Indigenous people and counted them in the census.
“I think some of my works are distinctly political, but the majority of the work I make is about my experiences as an Aborigine in this country, and my experiences as somebody belonging to a family with a history that is oppositional to what this country wants to believe of itself,” the artist says.
“That is construed as political but really it’s no different to any other artists making work about their own history.”
The ‘Tall Man’ of the video is Indigenous activist Lex Wotton, who was jailed for his role in the Palm Island riots. (Supplied: C-A-C)
Another work on display at C-A-C is Tall Man, Ah Kee’s acclaimed 2010 documentary-style video.
Tall Man deals more directly with Palm Island’s history — comprised of footage taken on Palm Island in the riots that followed the 2004 death in police custody of Cameron Doomadgee.
The ‘Tall Man’ of the video is Indigenous activist Lex Wotton, who was jailed for inciting the riots.
In 2018, the Queensland government agreed to pay a $30 million settlement and issue a formal apology to the people of Palm Island after the Federal Court found the Queensland police response to the riots to be racist.
Ah Kee describes Tall Man as a “pivotal” work in his two-decade career: “I don’t know if I could have dived into a work like The Island, if I hadn’t made Tall Man.”
If I was White (2002) is the earliest piece of Ah Kee’s work on display in The Island. (Supplied: C-A-C)
The work on display at C-A-C is a testament to Ah Kee’s long-term interrogation of racism, racial violence and whiteness.
His 2002 work If I was White, the earliest in the exhibition, features a claustrophobic grid of plaques featuring text — each beginning with the statement “If I was White”, followed by scenarios that speak to his experiences of systemic and interpersonal racism, including “I would be more likely to live longer,” “I would have nothing to fear from Police” and “just think of all the names I wouldn’t have been called”.
In the middle of this grid, one plaque reads:
“But I am Black
and I am as misunderstood
as the next blackfella
but I am beginning to understand
the White Man”
What is Aboriginal art?
While all his work engages in some way with his indigeneity, Ah Kee’s practise is a far cry in both location and form from the dot paintings of Papunya that have become ubiquitous with the idea of “Aboriginal art”.
Responding to these dominant ideas of “traditional” Aboriginal art and the market surrounding it, Ah Kee’s friend and fellow artist Richard Bell wrote the 2002 essay Bell’s Theorem, declaring that “Aboriginal Art — It’s a white thing”.
The following year, Bell won the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award with a painting emblazoned with those words.
Summarising the feeling of that moment, Ah Kee says: “At the time — and still — we don’t make popular art, we don’t make this kind of art that conforms to the romantic vision that this country wants of … an Aboriginal art form.”
“Or we don’t conform to what constitutes the popular image of an Aborigine — that kind of remote, trapped-in-the-Stone-Age kind of ideology that academia and history still want to hang on to.”
Kick the Dust (2019), which features acrylic riot shield fragments, explores racially motivated violence and injustice. (Supplied: Document Photography)
In 2004, Bell suggested to Ah Kee and other Brisbane-based Aboriginal artists (including Fiona Foley and Tony Albert) that they band together.
The resulting collective took the name proppaNOW — from something Bell said to Ah Kee about how “we gotta do it proper, now”.
“One of the primary tenants of ProppaNOW [was that] we could provide support for each other, where we were getting little support outside of proppaNOW within the art industry in general,” Ah Kee says.
Kicking doors down
ProppaNOW’s first exhibition was in Auckland in 2005 and the group has since exhibited at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (2009), Adelaide Festival (2010) and the State Library of Queensland (2012).
“I don’t think people [including galleries] really knew how to take us and were being necessarily assertive and at times aggressive in stating what we believed,” Ah Kee says.
“And that needed to happen, [because] all doors were shut to us at the time and so we needed to kick a few of those doors down and hold them open for others to come through and I don’t think we’ve done enough of that, but we’ve done a little bit.”
ProppaNOW members (left to right) Albert, Laurie Nilsen, Megan Cope, Gordon Hookey, Jennifer Herd, Ah Kee, and Bell. (Supplied: The University of Queensland Art Museum/Lewis James Media)
Ah Kee says that through working as a collective the members of proppaNOW (currently Ah Kee, Bell, Albert, Herd, Gordon Hookey, Laurie Nilsen and Megan Cope) have built careers and found audiences in an “accelerated” way.
After a five-year hiatus, a major exhibition featuring new and recent proppaNOW works opens in August at the University of Queensland Art Museum.
ProppaNOW has been challenging the Australian art world to expand its ideas of what constitutes Aboriginal art for 15 years now, but when asked about whether there’s been progress in this area Ah Kee says “the most immediate answer is no”.
Speaking to RN Breakfast’s Cathy van Extel at the 2018 Woodford Folk Festival on the topic of “Indigenising the way the visual art world works,” Ah Kee said: “I think Aboriginal art should be completely dismantled down to its core elements and that’s because blackfellas, we had nothing to do with it.”
“The only way to solve it would be to completely dismantle it and let blackfellas put it back together, whatever shape it takes it’ll at least be our hands that built it like that.”
Reflecting on his career, Ah Kee says it hasn’t been easy navigating the visual arts world while creating work that explores black politics and centres Aboriginal Australian experiences.
“It doesn’t make me popular or rich or it doesn’t even make me the right kind of Aborigine, but it is what it is and I can’t be anything other than what I am.”.
The Island is showing at Campbelltown Arts Centre (Sydney) until February 23.
OCCURRENT AFFAIR: proppaNOW is showing at the University of Queensland Art Museum from August 1 to November 28.
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