Tony Albert is an internationally acclaimed contemporary artist living and working between his home town of Brisbane and Sydney, where he lived and practised between 2010 and 2020. His work draws on text, video, drawing, painting, and kitsch objects he calls Aboriginalia, which he has been collecting since childhood. He is a founding member of the collective proppaNOW and his work frequently explores racial and cultural misrepresentation of Aboriginal people.
You set up a studio and home in Brisbane in 2020. Tell me about this place.
I now live in Arana Hills, where I grew up. I live with my sister just around the corner; she has a little girl, and I’ve also been doing respite and foster care myself. This has been a lifestyle change for me. But Brisbane is where my family is, and I always thought it would be where I’d return.
A big part of my practice is based on a collection of what I call Aboriginalia. I had these storage units all over the country – scattered, this crazy collection – and in 2020 they ended up all coming back here. For the first time in the history of my practice, everything I own was all in one place at one time. That’s been an informative and cathartic opportunity. I had purchased things with an intention, an idea that gets lost within these boxes that haven’t been open in years.
Is it overwhelming to be surrounded with these objects all at once?
Yes – it’s thousands, if not tens of thousands, of objects. Quite hectic. That’s the way they get to speak to me, by being constantly surrounded by them. For me it was more overwhelming when they were scattered. There’s a sense of reclamation to have them all in one place, and I’m going through it with the understanding that there is no rush.
I just had a show in Sydney, a new body of work which used vintage appropriated fabrics. This concept is not finished yet. I want to keep pulling out and looking at the fabrics, and keep collaging them in a way that draws out the nature of Aboriginality in home decor.
I’m interested in the iconic nature of these representations of Indigenous culture within the home, from a Western perspective. The original concept in my practice was about a representation of Aboriginal culture within the home space, looking closely at a period of time where this was fashionable. There’s an idea that Aboriginal people were meant to be seen and not heard, of ownership, that we were objects which became voiceless. That idea is an undercurrent which runs through my practice even though the imagery changes, but it is fairly new for me to want to continue with a project in an investigative way, like I’m doing with these fabrics now.
The fabrics, what is it about them that draws you in so much?
We grew up with the sewing machine in the family house. Along with the second-hand shopping, where I came across the Aboriginalia, we would get the school material and sew our own uniforms. My sister and I would trawl through all the brand name clothing and pick labels off – such a teenage concern! We always had the sewing machine going.
Having all these fabrics here, the abundance, the nature of them – I’ve never used them in the exhibition before as the object. I’ve used the faces, the plaster, the cups, the ashtrays, but they’re all tangible things. I could nail them to a wall. I’ve found the loose nature of fabric troubling as an artist. Having invested in the collaging idea, working on cutting and pasting the fabrics, I’m developing a confidence in the ability to use them. I’m excited to see how I can push that further.
The biggest fascination for me in this collection of objects is that many are handmade. There’s the mass-produced stuff, like Little Sydney Pottery, or those velvet paintings that you would get through women’s magazines. With so many of these patterns that I come across, people have invested time and energy into re-creating portraits of Aboriginal people who they wouldn’t have had any knowledge of.
There’s something in the progression of those images, how they find themselves on fabric, placed into these cheap ordinary objects. The context and the importance of the imagery just becomes so lost within it, which is important when understanding the more sinister elements of Aboriginalia. If you look at Margaret Preston’s practice – the elite nature of it, how it filters down into elements of home decor – it reminds me of the great scene from The Devil Wears Prada, where they talk about cerulean blue and how it started with this senior fashion house but then filtered down into the bargain basement bins of the fall fashion.
I’m thinking about what it means when people become the object of fashion, and I’m looking at making some of my own merchandise too. I love merchandise: I really love going to gift shops, when artists have engaged with making things for general public.
What are the ethical challenges of working with Aboriginalia – reworking and reselling it?
What I love about the collection is it has an outlet. It comes in like a wave, it washes up on the shore, and then it recedes back into the ocean. I’m so grateful that there is an opportunity for it to come to me, and then for it to be released back and to have attached to it an Aboriginal voice to the object – to gift that recognition to them.
The fact that there is an opportunity to release them back is important. But it’s releasing them with the object then being in control of itself: it has its own voice, has something to say, a purpose, a meaning. What becomes really important to me is that it leaves with those intentions. It’s better to go with that than to remain in a box or hidden from reality.
We’re seeing more Aboriginal-led enterprise, Aboriginal retail, fashion and home decor. There’s attention to ethical standards, money going back to community. There’s a scenario where you can engage with Aboriginal art and culture – with home decor, with fashion – in a way that is completely ethical.
Museums wouldn’t collect these things, they have no great monetary value, but the cultural context is important. We’re talking about many generations of Australians who grew up with these objects having meaning, sentiment. I would love to see them continue to be collected and displayed in a forum that has ownership over that history. There are museums of African–American kitsch, for example. I think there is an opportunity to learn from these objects rather than throw them away.
Maybe it wouldn’t do the story justice to just throw them away.
No. Because I did start the collection as a child, there is still a very sincere optimistic viewpoint that comes from a love of imagery as well. It wasn’t until later in the collection premise that I understood it a lot better. I appreciate the fact that I can be surrounded by the objects, constantly thinking about ways they can be reconfigured.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Tony Albert".
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