Vernon Ah Kee
'wegrewhere #3', 2009
“Fill Me”, Vinyl lettering, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane
"Tall Man”, Charcoal, crayon and acrylic on linen, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane
"Australia thinks of itself as a good country," Ah Kee says. "Its treatment of immigrants, of people of difference - different language, different colour - should demonstrate emphatically that Australia is not a good country, to the point where it's actually quite a nasty country."
In Ah Kee's sights are the narrow ideas of what it means to be an Aborigine and the limiting affect this then has on Aborigines' place within contemporary Australian society.
"Even when you do find positive representations, they're often very benign and they're not mostly harmless, they're completely harmless - politically, emotionally, economically," he says.
"There are lots of people who would think they are familiar with Aboriginal life, the vagaries of Aboriginal life but [their view is] widely inaccurate and very narrow still, 'cause people apply their own sensibilities to things they don't understand.
"[In my art] I'm talking about the modern idea of contemporary life for Aboriginal people." (Source: The Sydney Morning Herald)
About Vernon Ah Kee
Image source: Sydney Morning Herald
Artist’s Background Born in North Queensland and based in Brisbane, Vernon Ah Kee is Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidindji, Gugu Yimithirr and Koko Berrin. Vernon holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts with Honours (Fine Art) and a Bachelor of Visual Arts in Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (Honours Fine Art) Queensland College of Art, Griffith University and is researching for his doctorate. Vernon currently lectures on contemporary Australian Indigenous art at Queensland College of Art, with interests including Aboriginal education, identity and art.
Ideas and inspiration Vernon Ah Kee’s work explores his life, family and his background and issues which deeply affect Aboriginal people. His work is primarily a critique of Australian popular culture specifically demonstrating the black/white dichotomy, which he expresses through the idea that the Aboriginal condition is more a white Australian construct than Aboriginal reality. As a strong part of his practice, Vernon uses language and text to communicate his ideas, manipulating the visual and semantic properties, producing new, often sharply ironic meanings and powerful commentary on the history of Aboriginal dispossession and contemporary Australian racism.6 His previous work and ongoing practice includes drawing and, in particular, photo-real representations of his relatives, conceptual use of text and design and more recently photography, video, digital printing and 3D installation. His background in drawing and screen-printing is an important influence. Vernon’s work and in particular, his drawing has also been influenced by the comic book superhero ‘Spider Man’ through observing the development of the drawing style over many years. His photoreal portraits are directly influenced by and reference photographic records of his grandparents, from Palm Island in 1938, at a time when these images would contribute to records of what was seen as a dying race.
Vernon explains; “Aboriginal people have been stopped at the door of humanity and denied the rites and levels of autonomy, decision-making and freedom afforded to white people. These works represent strong emotions felt by Aboriginal people by the way they feel they are viewed by white people such as anger, endurance, persistence, frustration and desperation”
The work Cantchant (wegrewhere), 2009 was presented in a group exhibition Once Removed as part of Australia’s representation at the Venice Biennale. Exhibited in two spaces, one space presented a range of surfboards hanging from the ceiling, painted with north Queensland rainforest shield designs in red, black and yellow with faces of aboriginal people on the reverse and large text slogans on the surrounding walls. The second space, with a three-screen video installation, features young Aboriginal men surfing competitively. Another sequence presents ‘dead’ boards (waterlogged surfboards) hanging from trees, wrapped in barbed wire, bullet holed, blasted by guns. The Aboriginal surfers pose as white yobbos, wearing slogans such as ‘We grew here, you flew here’.9
In this work, Vernon explores and questions the notion of the beach and surf culture as being a white Australian domain, a place only for the cultural elite, strongly linked to white Australian identity and way of life. The symbolism of the colours of the Aboriginal flag in shield designs and the brutal element of barbed wire and shootings, all allude to reclaiming territory and ‘killing off’ the ownership of the beach and surfboard culture from white Australian ownership. Here, the beach becomes a competitive arena and unrestful place – no longer a destination for leisure, relaxation or fun but an unwelcome cultural battleground. The T-shirt slogan and ambiguous title, wegrewhere, implores us to question and consider, post the Cronulla beach riots in 2005 in western Sydney, issues surrounding cultural identity, displacement and ownership within a type of film noir beach film set.10
'Vernon Ah Kee’s “Tall Man” is a smartly composed yet painful examination of race relations in Australia. The exhibition takes as its theme the subject of the 2004 Palm Island riots that occurred in the wake of Indigenous Australian Cameron Doomadgee’s murder at the hands of a white police officer, Chris Hurley. Anchoring the show was tall man (2010), a four-channel video installation, which was accompanied by a drawn portrait of Lex Wotton (the man convicted of inciting the riots), and a textcovered piece of linen titled fill me (2009).'
Read about Tall Man exhibition at Brisbane Milani Gallery.
'The installation tall man asks questions, questions that compel. What of Lex Wotton? And why don’t we talk about Palm Island?'
Read a review about the Tall Man installation on Undisclosed.
In his four-channel video installation, Tall Man (a reference to Aboriginal Shire Councillor Lex Wotton’s commitment to the rights of Palm Islanders), Ah Kee appropriates footages from mobile phones and camcorders, edited together with archival news footages to reconstruct the unfolding of events – footages that were ironically used in court as evidence to convict Wotton of inciting the Palm Island riot. But in the hands of Ah Kee, they tell a different story of the injustices faced by the Aboriginal community in Australia. In contrast to the video installation where Wotton is seen enraged and devastated in public, Ah Kee depicts Wotton with subtle and gentle lines – a non-threatening, calm and warm-hearted figure.
“Tall Man”, Four-channel video installation, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane
If I was white
Ah Kee’s 1999 debut solo exhibition ifiwaswhite loudly declared the artist’s polemic: to challenge racism in Australia by drawing attention to the unquestioned normativeness of whiteness. Some of the propositions were: ‘If I was white I could buy a bandaid the colour of my own skin. If I was white I could identify with the characters on Neighbours.’ By turning the tables on his audiences and switching the subjective positions between the viewer and viewed, Ah Kee seeks to make the ‘coloniser’ feel colonised. (Source)
Learning about Vernon Ah Kee and ProppaNOW in depth
Interview with Vernon Ah Kee about the artist group exclusively for Aboriginal artists, ProppaNOW.
This story of ProppaNOW reveals what motivates and inspires each of the seven artists and highlights how they support each other within the collective and their work and how ProppaNOW the collective contributes to the Indigenous art movement.
Article about Vernon Ah Kee, Sovereign Warrior, by Garry Jones.
Drawing is something that we do. As Aboriginal people, as Blackfellas, drawing is something we all do. For proppaNOW, it is an action, a tool, and a mechanism that we use to communicate our feelings and ideas and it is the beginning of our art-making processes. It is a human trait to recognise or sense the personal in drawing. engaging in and with drawing is to acknowledge the uniqueness we each possess as people and as individuals. But spending time with these works is really a window into how we, as a group of artists interact and engage with each other. As proppaNOW, Jus’ Drawn is about the energy, easy dialogue, and enthusiasm that our friendships and familiarity with each other generates. Jus’ Drawn is then an idea of who we are, where our ideas are drawn from, where we position ourselves in the scope of what we think is ‘Australia’. Jus’ Drawn is what we do and how we imagine ourselves. Vernon Ah Kee, proppaNOW, 2010