Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006
charcoal on paper
H 102 W 67.5cm
H 139.8 W 100cm
In fantasies of the good, Vernon Ah Kee portrays his family members in 13 charcoal drawings that reference and critique the depiction of Aboriginal people in Australia. This 2004 series were the first serious portraits undertaken by Ah Kee, whose practice embraces text-based video works and installations.
fantasies of the good originated in Ah Kee’s discovery of portraits of his great-grandfather (George Sibley) and grandfather (Mick Miller) in the public collection of the State Library of Queensland. Both photographs were taken on Palm Island Mission in 1938 by Norman Tindale, an anthropologist who documented Aboriginal people all over Australia between 1921 and 1957. While a valuable record of the connection of Aboriginal peoples to specific lands, Tindale’s photographs also infer an underlying racism in their use of identity numbers rather than names, and their close-cropped mugshot-style format.
Ah Kee reclaims these scientific, historic and public photographs of his forebears by hand-drawing them on a large scale, and exhibiting them with contemporary portraits of other family members he has also drawn from photographs. Ah Kee’s meticulous and realistic style retains the objectivity of photography but allows him to emphasise the emotional intensity of his subjects’ piercing gazes. His reclamation of the original photographs also restores them to a family history, rather than a public one, by placing them amongst their kin. 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. The portraits of uncles, cousins, brothers and sons are a visual record of the solidarity, continuity and endurance of a single family and, by extension, of Aboriginal culture.
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