Games in the Hood: Indigenous Photographers, Part 1

When I think about photography in the context of “fine art,” I generally have categories in mind: landscape, portraiture, documentary, abstraction. The new show of Christian Thompson’s work at Gallery Gabrielle PizziAustralian Graffiti (follow the links to the exhibitions pages), and the recent exhibition, Whacked, by Destiny Deacon at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery together made me start to consider how little those classic modes of photography find expression in the work of Indigenous photographers in Australia.Thompson work can be seen to exist on the fringes of another photographic genre–one I admittedly rarely give much thought to–fashion. Australian Graffiti, indeed, is part mock-fashion show, part self-portraiture, and part, as Rex Butler astutely observes in a catalog essay, still life that harks back to Margaret Preston’s program to develop Aboriginal themes in Australian painting. (Thompson’s earlier Blaks Palace and Emotional Striptease series also deconstruct the fashion photograph. Images are available, but not linkable, on the Pizzi website from the “Artists” page for Thompson.) The images in this latest series are of Thompson bedecked twice over. He wears a crown, or tiara, or mask made of native Australian flora (banksia, flannel flowers, gum blossoms, kangaroo paw) on his head, and a selection of extraordinarily tacky feminine sweaters or blouses that vie in floral splendor with the headresses themselves. It would all be high camp were it not for “Black Gum,” the image that is being used in the publicity for the show. “Black Gum” deviates from the rest of the series in three ways. First, Thompson wears a plain black hoodie rather than an ersatz fashion item. Secondly, there are three images of him so attired, rather than one, and these three are called “Black Gum #1,” “Black Gum #2,” and “Black Gum #3”; all the rest of the images in the show are simply “Untitled.” Finally, the burst of gum blossoms pouring out of the hoodie obscures Thompson’s face almost completely: you have to look very closely to make out an eye or a cheekbone, whereas the other photographs mask without disguising him.

“Black Gum” doesn’t so much twist Margaret Preston’s view of Aboriginal design so much as, for me, serve as an ironic comment on the nineteenth-century classification of Aboriginal people as native fauna, or in this case flora. From my perspective in America, where the hoodie is an emblem of contemporary black youth culture, the multiple puns on hood as an article of clothing, the ‘hood as the locus of gang activity, and the echoes of West Side Story era juvenile delinquents known as “hoods” all load this set of portraits with an air of menace. Together these three images form a secular triptych of an anonymous gangsta who remembers the emblems of past degradation and dehumanization. 

Menace and the hood play a big role in Destiny Deacon’s latest collection of photographs, artifacts, and photographs of artifacts, Whacked, which was on view in October and November of 2007. In many of the photographs, Deacon’s customary cast of characters, including the dolls, are masked with longjohns that are then painted with false faces in marker and lipstick.

The masks are obviously meant to make these characters look sinister; in combination with the Australian flag backdrop, the suitcase prop, and the references to fences and hoods in the titles of the photos, they remind us at one and the same time, as John Howard often did, of terrorists and immigrants. Deacon’s humor immediately deflates the threat, however, as these creatures seem ludicrous. Unlike the distorted and thus fear-provoking effect of the stocking mask, the masks in these photographs have the effect of reminding us–well, they remind us that these are people with underwear on their heads. The crudely drawn faces become comic when a nose pokes through a lipsticked mouth. They look more like comic strip rabbits than terrorists.

But some images in the series, the masks bring an air of poignancy to the comedy. The two light-skinned women in “Waiting for the bust” appear as ordinary and suburban as one can possibly imagine, with their Australia shopping bags, sandals, and painted nails. They seem unaware that they are masked and thus identified as dangerous. The people in “The goodie hoodie family,” though, seems all too well aware of the precariousness of their position: the masks are masks of fear and their dark skin and the black dolls also mark them as marginal people (does the beer can do that too, despite the Aussie flag stubbie-holder?) awaiting some terrible judgment.

Deacon’s work harks back to one of the earliest photographic genres, that of the tableau vivant, itself derived from a popular form of theatrical presentation dating back to Victorian England. In more modern times, the tableau vivant finds its commonest form of expression in fashion photography, where models are posed in “everyday” situations, except of course for the fact that they are wearing fabulous clothes.

Often overtly pedagogical in intent, the tableau vivant has become, I think, the premier mode of expression for Indigenous photographers, an argument I plan to take up and extend to other artists in a subsequent post here.

Christian Thompson, “Black Gum #2,” 2008 100 x 100 cm
Image courtesy of Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi

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2 Responses to Games in the Hood: Indigenous Photographers, Part 1

  1. Hi Will. With you blog having numerous posts from over the years, I was wondering if you could link me to the post you mention here in your last paragraph, if you got around to writing it. Thanks mate, Steve.

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