charcoal on paper
102 × 67.5 cm
Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006
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. These are 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 photographic portraits of his great-grandfather (George Sibley) and grandfather (Mick Miller) in the collection of the State Library of Queensland. The photographs were taken on the 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 people 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 also drawn from photographs. Ah Kee’s meticulous and realistic style retains the objectivity of photography but enables 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
Born 1967, Innisfail, Queensland. Lives and works Brisbane.
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.Learn more