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Vernon Ah Kee

tall man  2010

multi-channel digital video, colour, sound

11:11 minutes

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Tate, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Qantas Foundation, 2016

2016.19
on display

About the Artwork

tall man is a four-screen video installation documenting a crisis in race relations on Palm Island, an Aboriginal community off the coast of Far North Queensland. Sourced from mobile phones, hand-held cameras and television newsreels, the 11-minute looped video intersperses aerial views of tropical Palm Island with footage of its police station on fire. In 2004 Palm Islanders rioted and burnt down the police station following the public revelation of the autopsy results of Mulrunji Doomadgee (also known as Cameron Doomadgee) who died in police custody. Doomadgee had been detained for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. An hour-and-a-half later he was found in his jail cell, dead from internal bleeding. A week later, at the public reading of Doomadgee’s autopsy results, the simmering tensions in the community erupted. The explanation of his death as an accident enraged Palm Islanders. A riot ensued and they burnt down the police station, the local courthouse, the police barracks and the home of Senior Sergeant Hurley.

tall man begins with each of the four screens showing different gatherings of the community at the time of the inquest. The mayor of Palm Island, Erika Kyle, speaks of Doomadgee’s death: ‘our young fella who died tragically … It is a mystery to all of us. There was an accident around the cell. There was a fall and an oppressive force on his body. Four ribs were broken. A huge blood loss occurred.’ Local Palm Island Councillor Lex Wotton then enters the screen shouting, ‘That’s not an accident … C’mon people we all wanted this. We wanted to know. Will we accept this as an accident?’

It was later found, in 2006, that Doomadgee died as a result of punches to his stomach. Senior Sergeant Hurley was found not guilty of manslaughter in 2007. In 2008 Lex Wotton was tried and convicted for inciting the riots. A week later the police on the island received bravery awards. Wotton served 20 months of a seven-year sentence, living the remainder of the term under severe restrictions. In 2015 he launched a civil class action claiming the police response to the riot was racist and excessive.

Using the footage that was instrumental in convicting Wotton, Ah Kee’s video installation addresses the violent escalation of simmering racial tensions on Palm Island in 2004. It focuses on Wotton’s role in bringing the crisis to a head, playing the role of the ‘tall man’ – an Aboriginal term for a bogey man or spirit who elicits the truth from wrongdoers. In doing so, the work calls attention to the people of Palm Island, their history, and the circumstances in which they live their lives. Ah Kee views their ‘… situation as a microcosm of broader Australia and the conditions under which Aboriginal people live’. tall man continues Ah Kee’s investigation of the unresolved trauma of race relations in Australia, exposing the conflict and rage that ensnared the Palm Island community in 2004.

tall man … is about the lives of Aboriginal people and the way we see ourselves in times of this kind of trouble. As a people, the Aborigine in Australia exists in a world where our place is always prescribed for us and we are always in jeopardy. It is a context that we are continually having to survive. It is a context upon which we are continually having to build and re-build.

Vernon Ah Kee, 2010

Vernon Ah Kee

– About the artist

Born 1967, Innisfail, Queensland. Lives and works Brisbane. Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yindndji and Gugu Yimithirr people.


Vernon Ah Kee is a member of the Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples. His multi-faceted practice includes works that range from large-scale drawings of his ancestors to hard-hitting text-based works and installations. In his work Ah Kee fuses the history and language of colonisation with contemporary black/white political issues in an ongoing investigation of race, colour and politics. Through clever puns and plays on words and objects Ah Kee fuses the history and language of colonisation with contemporary black/white political issues to expose degrees of underlying racism in Australian society.

Ah Kee represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale in the group exhibition Once Removed. Selected group exhibitions include Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms, 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015); Sakahàn: 1st International Quinquennial of New Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2013); My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (2013); Indigenous Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2012); Everything Falls Apart, Artspace, Sydney (2012); I Walk the Line: New Australian Drawing, MCA, Sydney (2009); and Revolutions: Forms that Turn, 16th Biennale of Sydney (2008).

Recent solo exhibitions include Brutalities, Milani Gallery, Brisbane (2014); Hallmarks of the Hungry, Milani Gallery, Brisbane (2012); Barack, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2011); Tall Man, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne (2011); Vernon Ah Kee, City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand (2010); belief suspension, Artspace, Sydney (2008); and cant chant, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane (2007).

 Ah Kee’s work is held in a number of private and public collections in Australia and overseas, including the Sprengel Museum Hannover, Germany; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

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