Visual Art

The power of Vernon Ah Kee’s latest show, The Island, lies in its ability to spotlight the experiences of First Nations people and refugees as the antithesis of privileged white Australian culture. By Steve Dow.

Vernon Ah Kee’s The Island

An installation view of Vernon Ah Kee’s if I was white, 2002, showing in The Island at Campbelltown Arts Centre.
An installation view of Vernon Ah Kee’s if I was white, 2002, showing in The Island at Campbelltown Arts Centre.
Credit: Document photography

Ten black riot shields hang from the ceiling above visitors entering Queensland-born artist Vernon Ah Kee’s retrospective exhibition The Island, four of them daubed in crosshatched charcoal in the artist’s drawing style. Representing “racial violence in Australia and the disparity in justice”, according to the catalogue, the gallery attendant tells me these Chinese-manufactured acrylic shields were hard to come by in the present global climate. Perhaps the majority are arming Hong Kong police against students protesting shrinking democratic freedoms.

But freedom is at the discretion of the powerful, and in Australia some 230 years ago that beachhead was established by British rule, doling out rights with diminishing returns for those well below the apex of social, political and racial class. In an adjacent room here at the Campbelltown Arts Centre south-west of Sydney, six surfboards are suspended from the ceiling, calling to mind their analogue in shields made by Aboriginal men, whose peoples’ pride and knowledge of country were ignored in their subjugation to colonial slave class. A video is projected onto the surfboards: one board, shown hanging from a tree, is wrapped in barbed wire. Not everyone gets to surf the Australian dream.

I walk around the exhibition, my clothes smelling of smoke from the distant New South Wales bushfires, as white leaders continue to deny the link between global warming and the fossil fuel industry. Also raging is the campaign to discredit Bruce Pascoe’s Bunurong and Yuin identity in order to undermine his well-researched book Dark Emu, which draws our attention to Indigenous knowledge of agriculture and aquaculture ignored for 230 years by white rulers. I am conscious of the stink of postcolonial privilege. I once told Vernon Ah Kee, who was born in the small town of Innisfail, south of Cairns, we both entered the world in 1967, the year Australians voted to change the constitution, amending two sections that discriminated against Indigenous people. “You were born into citizenship,” he remarked, noting he was aged four before he was counted in the census, in 1971, and putting my solipsism in its appalling context. “I had been born a non-person.”

Ah Kee, a member of the Kuku Yalanji, Waanyi, Yidindji, Kokoberrin and Guugu Yimithirr people, creates work that begins with family: he makes portraits of his elders, children and cousins. Powerfully, he has previously accessed the photographs of anthropologist Norman Tindale, taken in 1938 on the Palm Island mission, to which Indigenous people were forcibly sent. His powerful charcoal portraits of his great-grandfather George Sibley and grandfather Mick Miller, produced from these photos, were seen in the show Not an Animal or a Plant at the National Art School Gallery in Sydney three years ago, but are not on display here.

At Campbelltown we do get two magnificent 2011 and 2012 portraits of Lex Wotton, front on and in profile, determinedly staring back at the world, and presumably at the Queensland authorities who jailed Wotton for inciting the November 2004 riots on Palm Island, and later restricted him from speaking publicly. Rioters burned down the police station, courthouse and home of the officer-in-charge, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley (known colloquially as The Tall Man), following the death in custody of resident Cameron Doomadgee, whose tribal name was Mulrunji. In 2018, the Queensland government agreed to pay a $30 million settlement and deliver a formal apology to the people of Palm Island after the Federal Court found police officers had breached the Racial Discrimination Act. Ah Kee achieves in abundance his aim of capturing Wotton’s direct and perhaps overwhelming gaze. These portraits make you want to find out this man’s story.

Turn around, and the four-channel video work titled tall man, 2010, on the opposite wall fills you in on what happened in real time on that day in 2004, combining footage from inside the police station and in the yard outside, as pressure builds. A fire truck siren sounds; a helicopter hovers. “We’ll have to discharge a few fuckin’ rounds in the air to scare the shit out of these cunts,” one agitated male officer can be heard saying. A guard dog on a chain barks. Martial law has been declared. “People are distressed,” shouts a female Aboriginal elder with curled hair and spectacles. “Please, we are oppressed people.” Wotton can be seen with a microphone in hand; his charismatic presence was no doubt a threat to authorities. This work, usually on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia at Circular Quay, always leaves me transfixed, reminding me authoritarianism has been a lived reality for some in our country in the 21st century.

Ah Kee sees Palm Island as a microcosm of colonialisation and oppression, and in this exhibition extends those concerns to refugees. Palm Island is a prototype for the crushing of freedoms on Nauru, Manus and Christmas islands. “The history of the treatment of Aboriginal people is now being visited upon the wretched and the desperate castoffs from global upheaval in which the nation is complicit,” he writes. His three-channel video work The Island, 2018, shows seemingly idyllic island vistas with captions about “protection”. There are close-ups of barbed wire and chain fences, shadows on the ground, and voices of male and female refugees: “There is this regime of head count,” says one, commenting on sleep deprivation in the camps: “You wished you were dead … I felt it was a form of torture.” Of course, mostly living our privileged lives in our eastern seaboard homes, we rarely get to hear or see these stark narratives. Australian authorities of both major political party persuasions have rediscovered the neat and awful trick of exporting unwanted human beings from the mainland.

In the main room, the influence of the text art of American artist Barbara Kruger can be seen in the oldest series of works in the exhibition, if I was white, 2002, a set of 30 prints. “If I was White,” Ah Kee has typed in bold black font, “I could walk in a white neighbourhood and not look suspicious.” On another, “If I was White I could go to church and Jesus Christ would look like me.” Ah Kee’s point is that white people generally empathise with white people’s suffering. I agree. How can we argue when we see the priority given to tragedies that befall white people on the nightly news? Ah Kee is also influenced by the writings of Malcolm X, James Baldwin and the late Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi activist, artist, poet, playwright and printmaker Kevin Gilbert. Ah Kee agrees with another artist, Richard Bell, that “Aboriginal art is a white thing”; that the popularised desert art begins with a false premise: “All the stories and theories and historical groundings going back to the 1970s that underpin Aboriginal art is all a white construction,” says Ah Kee.

I watch a loop of Ah Kee filmed in 2004 for whitefellanormal/blackfellame. On the screen are the captions “whitefella, housefella, strongfella, brick”, then “blackfella, campfella, housefella, stick” and “poorfella, drinkfella, blackfella, sick”. I feel hope when the poem progresses to “thinkfella, wakefella, blackfella, me” and “poorfella, happyfella, couragefella, free”, but I also know that once again I am a white man imposing a narrative on what he doesn’t always understand.


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CULTURE Festival of King Island

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CULTURE Mini Mega Model Museum

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MUSIC Laneway Festival

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The Domain, Sydney, February 2

Hart’s Mill, Port Adelaide, February 7

Footscray Park, Melbourne, February 8

Esplanade Reserve and West End, Fremantle, February 9

Last chance

THEATRE 1984! The Musical!

New Theatre, Sydney, until January 25

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 25, 2020 as "Drawing on history".

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