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

Vernon Ah Kee

– About the artist


Vernon Ah Kee was born in 1967 in Innisfail, Queensland, and is a member of the Yidindji, Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Koko Berrin and Gugu Yimithirr peoples. He lives and works in Brisbane. At the core of Ah Kee’s work is a constant and provocative investigation of race, ideology and politics.

Learn more

Learn more

– View also

A –  Z

Related Exhibitions

Volume One: MCA Collection

– Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) 2012

MCA Collection: New Acquisitions 2006

– Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) 2006


In the library

In the shop