I have been following the work of Vernon Ah Kee for several years without really knowing that I was. The first of his works I recall coming across was ‘Born in this skin’ 2008 which I first saw at an exhibition in Cairns. I’m really grateful that I saw this series of graffitied toilet doors which were ‘found’ and re-purposed by Ah Kee from a Cockatoo Island toilet block, whilst I was in the company of a friend who gravitated to them in much the same spirit as I did. We were both familiar with toilet door bullshit, both annoyed and offended by the stupid thoughts people think they can get away with, when they are protected by toilet-door anonymity. We were also both young(ish), idealistic psychologists, both working far away from home and comfort-zone, and we both wanted to hear; wanted to know and wanted to confront. I’m glad I first saw this work at a time in my life that my heart was so open and raw and courageous.
And I am glad to find Ah Kee’s work again. These days I work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, having exhausted my sense of contribution to the world of social work and psychology. In the MCA collection at present, Ah Kee’s ‘Tall Man’ has pride of place in one of the finest rooms of the collection. I stand guard beside the room that plays the short video-installation, based on events at Palm Island in 2004, in which the community rose up to highlight the injustice and violence leading to and implicated in the death of Cameron Doomadgee. The work is edited from footage gathered from mobile phones, news footage and rough, hand held cameras. Every day I stand outside the room I can hear the tone of voice in the protagonists of the events and my heart punctures at the plea of one of the women, asking the media to bare witness to the outside world: “Now are you… are you… ready… to put this on air…”. This work was not represented in ‘Not an Animal or Plant’, but my familiarity with his use of video and found-objects/images helped me navigate this exhibition, reminding me as it did of Ah Kee’s breadth of artistic reference. There is never a moment lost, in company of Ah Kee’s work, wondering what constitutes art and what defines an artist.
I have also seen Vernon Ah Kee’s ‘Brutalities’, 2014, before. As a student of Art Curating, I referenced this work in an imagined exhibition. I studied it as best I could online, but could never have prepared myself to see the series for myself – the final images on the second floor of the National Art School’s upstairs gallery.
I liked this exhibition immensely. Familiarity with the blatant activism and vitality of the works I had seen before left me ill prepared for the confrontation with Ah Kee’s drawings. Rows and rows of portraits of charcoal, crayon and acrylic on paper declaring shared humanity, resilience, vulnerability, history, presence, strength, loss, community and tenderness to a world that somehow needs this reminder.
In 1967 there was a referendum in Australia, determined by the Holt government, which asked the Australian population this question:
“Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled— ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the People of the Aboriginal Race in any State and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the Population’?”. In other words, it was a referendum which asked the recognised population of Australia whether they consented to Aboriginal people, the people who inhabited Australia and the Torres Strait Islands before settlement and colonisation, being recognised as members of the (human) population of the nation, rather than as fauna and flora.
1967. I was one year old. Not a long time ago; not ancient history. 50 years ago.
Every drawing here is of a person who lived through that, or who parents lived through the indignity of being voted human.
Vernon Ah Kee’s every charcoal-stroke shudders with the memory. Not memory; memory is a past thing. Each charcoal mark is another breath in an unfathomable, un-liveable environment in which such marks are still necessary.
Every image here is a declaration of sublime humanity and a renewal of vision from the outside in and the inside out. Except for ‘Brutalities’ – a graphic depiction of what it is to lose your humanity. The Art Gallery of NSW’s website, in describing this work, notes: “Ah Kee examines the face of this cruelty itself, giving visual form to the person one becomes when they subject others to such acts. This menacing assailant is identifiable in the violence, intimidation and aggression it presents. However, the abstract depiction of facial forms alludes identification – this could be anyone.”
Looking to Australia but also beyond, to violence occurring and continuing on a universal level.
‘Not an Animal or a Plant’ is a solid, emotional and expansive walk through the work of an artist whose art seems such an intrinsic part of his own being.
Vernon Ah Kee’s ‘Not an Animal Or a Plant’ is showing at the NAS Gallery until 11 March.