It has been ten years since Vernon Ah Kee first exhibited (a solo show, no less), at Brisbane’s Metro Arts Gallery. The Innisfail, Qld native has been active since then in the potent Brisbane Aboriginal art scene, along with fellow activist artists like Richard Bell and Gordon Hookey. Like Bell and Hookey, Ah Kee laces his work with political outrage and often relies on the power of text to generate its message. Unlike his fellow Queenslanders, though, Ah Kee rarely indulges in strident, over-the-top rhetoric, even when his texts seem to be almost shouting at the viewer in their wall-sized installations. For all his directness, Ah Kee is an artist of considerable subtlety whose message gains strength from its ambiguous positioning.

All of these insights are brilliantly explored in the new monograph, borninthisskin (Institute of Modern Art, 2009), which is one of the more insightful collections of art criticism I’ve had the pleasure to encounter lately. In addition to four short but punchy essays, and an interview with the uncommonly articulate artist himself, borninthisskin offers a superb retrospective look at Ah Kee’s decade-long career to date. It even manages to do justice to his video work, especially the recent CantChant, which premiered in Brisbane in 2007 before being taken to the Venice Biennale in 2009.

In 2008, Ah Kee had two installations at the Sydney Biennale, although I was aware of only one of them before visiting Cockatoo Island. In fact, even after seeing them both, I came away unsure of what I’d witnessed.

In the advance press for the Biennale, I had read about the stunning new set of portrait drawings, What is an Aborigine? Executed in acrylic, charcoal, and crayon on six-by-eight foot canvases, these knockout compositions had drawn significant critical attention, and were hailed as a breakthrough for the artist. I suspect that much of the attention was generated by the surprise at seeing such exquisite formal drawings produced by an artist whose reputation had until then rested largely on more mechanically generated media of photography, video, and commercial lettering. And despite their size, they seemed far more intimate and personal that Ah Kee’s political polemics; indeed, as portraits of his family, these were indeed both personal and intimate encounters.

But they were also inescapably political as well. One of the few works that was not a portrait, “I AM,” ironically echoed Gordon Bennett’s declaration in his 1990 “Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys).” Ah Kee’s work depicts a cluster of placards attached to long poles. On each is printed the name of a Queensland Aboriginal language group (Waanji, Yidindji) or a phrase (“Aboriginal all the time”) that is partially obscured by a blank insert. (I suspect that these placards were inspired by the numbered “dog tags” that identified subjects in the photographs of Aboriginal people, including some of Ah Kee’s own Queensland ancestors, taken by Norman Tindale in the early decades of the 20th century. Ah Kee performs a double erasure by leaving the number plates blank and then using them to partially obscure the language names as well.)

The installation gained another degree of power from its very location in the disused shipyard building on Cockatoo: these ghostly faces seemed somehow at home in this abandoned structure, and infinitely sad for being so. Some critics saw reproach in these oversized gazes, others determination, others gentleness. 

Detail of the installation What is an Aborigine? at the Sydney Biennale, 2008
And finally, in what may or may not have been sheer serendipity, Ah Kee’s drawings were placed in a room in Turbine Hall next to another installation by the Scottish-born artist Susan Phillipsz. Phillipsz’s The Internationale, sung by the artist in a plaintive a capella style and broadcast from a single speaker mounted in the adjacent space, filtered in through the broken windows and open rafters to permeate the air around Ah Kee’s portraits with melancholy and disappointment.

Ah Kee’s other contribution to the Sydney Biennale was infinitely more perplexing. Acting on the principle that any large exhibition will ultimately prove exhausting, we set out to see what we most wanted to see first, and armed with the Biennale’s guide map, we headed for the spot with Ah Kee’s name inscribed. The vast, industrial site was confusing to navigate, and overwhelming with its rusted machinery dominating the skyline. Often I wondered if I were looking at an installation or a remnant of previous use. Eventually we came to an old, low building with a small sign, sitting aslant on a wooden stake and bearing Ah Kee’s name. We stepped inside what turned out to be a toilet block: stinking, decrepit, battered. The walls were covered with repulsive graffiti and paeans to the metal band AC/DC. Ranks of disassembled toilet partitions leaned against the walls and signs instructed visitors “DO NOT USE.” The room smelled like many visitors had ignored the injunction. We were puzzled: this wasn’t the show of portraits we were looking for. We left, turned next door and encountered Mike Parr’s equally repulsive video installation, then consulted our maps to see if we could correct our mistake.

What I didn’t realize until I read the essays in borninthisskin was that the toilet block was indeed correctly identified as an installation by Ah Kee. He was not responsible for creating the graffiti, for the warning signs, for the broken plumbing. He had simply claimed the toilet block, as it was, as his own. In a bravura gesture that drew a line from Captain Cook through Marcel Duchamp, he re-inserted an Aboriginal presence and asserted an Aboriginal ownership to a small piece of geography that had been off limits, trespassed, forbidden to everyone for years. And I missed it: I saw it, and I didn’t see it. Now, thanks to Blair French’s perceptive essay, I understand what a brilliant conceptual move Ah Kee accomplished with this work, which he called “Born in this Skin.”

These are the latest chapters in Ah Kee’s fascinating history, and although I have begun at the end, borninthisskin offers in its essays an excellent overview of how Ah Kee’s styles and preoccupations have emerged since 1999. In the best sense of art history, it surveys the artist’s development and places it in both a personal and a social context. The authors, and indeed the artist, do not shy away from exploring influences as diverse as the fellow members of the proppaNOW collective to which Ah Kee belongs or the American type-text-and-image artist Barbara Kruger.

Robert Leonard offers a superb overview of Ah Kee’s career; Anthony Gardner takes an in-depth look at Ah Kee’s 30-second video work, whitefellanormal. Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s impressionistic assessment of the urban heroism of CantChant gives just enough context to allow the eighteen pages of stills from the seven-minute video to speak eloquently for themselves.

It is the interplay of text and images in this book, as in Ah Kee’s work, that makes it so thought-provoking and successful. The largely chronological presentation of the drawings allows the reader to follow the evolution of the artist’s style as he moves from the sketchy realism of the works from 2004-2005 to the impressionistic and spooky images of the first unwritten series (2007), to the heroic portraiture of What is an Aborigine? and on to a more refined and more unsettling second series of unwritten drawings (both executed in 2008). Selections from the wall-text pieces are interspersed throughout the book and act both as illustrations of Ah Kee’s oeuvre and as a kind of critical commentary in their own right.

Speakeasy (below), curated by Vernon Ah Kee and Aaron Seeto at the Asia-Australia Arts Centre in Sydney’s Hay Street, is on until October 31. Featured artists include Ah Kee, Daniel Boyd, Fiona Foley, Gordon Hookey, and Ginger Riley. The photograph on the left below appears to be a manipulation of Tindale’s portrait of Annie Ah Sam, Ah Kee’s maternal great-grandmother.

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