About the Artwork
At the core of Vernon Ah Kee’s work is a constant and provocative investigation of race, colour and politics. The artist’s practice is multi-faceted in terms of the media and processes it employs: from large-scale drawings of his forebears to hard-hitting text-based video works and installations that have incorporated surfboards cast as ceremonial shields, Ah Kee has continually fused the history and language of colonisation with contemporary black/white political issues.
Ah Kee’s installation of 13 sensitively-drawn charcoal portraits of family, relatives and ancestors from Palm Island, Queensland, were inspired by the photographs of Norman Tindale, an anthropologist who documented Aboriginal people from all over Australia from the 1920s to the 1960s. While a valuable record, particularly of the connection of Aboriginal peoples to specific lands, the photographs also infer a degree of underlying racism present in Australian society, a subject that Ah Kee regularly addresses in his drawings and text works.
Tindale’s detached, formal portraits (which includes images of Ah Kee’s great-grandfather and grandfather) identified by number rather than name, were often cropped so that the heads appeared as ‘mug shots’, rather than dignified studies. This is reflected in the off-centre composition of Ah Kee’s drawings. The artist’s cool, precise drawing style is also suggestive of the ways that art (and especially photography) is able to aestheticise or manipulate the truth of situations, although the piercing gazes of Ah Kee’s subjects provide a subtle yet deliberate measure of directness and emotional intensity.
The facial resemblances in these compelling portraits suggest an ongoing familial connection, reaffirming the artist’s place within the group and anchoring his position in the world. This genealogical study of the men in Ah Kee’s family is a visual record of the solidarity, continuity and endurance of a single family and, by extension, of Aboriginal culture.
Russell Storer (curator), MCA Collection: New Acquisitions 2006, (exhibition catalogue and texts), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2006;
Christine Morrow (curator), I Walk The Line: New Australian Drawing, (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2009
Australia, as a country, as an idea, as an ideal, as a social-political system, thinks of and believes itself, despite its history of racism and exclusion, to be essentially Good; I of course disagree. These drawings and what they represent are my evidence.
Vernon Ah Kee, 2004
– About the artist
Vernon Ah Kee was born in 1967 in Innisfail, Queensland, and is a member of the Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples. Ah Kee represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale in the group exhibition Once Removed.
Other recent group exhibitions include Revolutions: Forms that turn, Biennale of Sydney (2008); and unwritten (Asia Link & Art Gallery of New South Wales touring exhibition) (2008-11). Recent solo exhibitions include talkwalktalk, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Canada (2009), and cant chant, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane (2007) and touring (2009-11). In 2009, the Institute of Modern Art published borninthisskin, the first major publication devoted to Ah Kee’s practice.
Vernon Ah Kee holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane, where he is currently completing his doctorate of visual arts. His work is included in public collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Vernon Ah Kee is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane, Australia.