Defiant gaze: Linda Adair reviews ‘Not an animal or a plant’ an exhibition by Vernon Ah Kee

NOT AN ANIMAL OR A PLANT an exhibition of work by Vernon Ah Kee at the National Art School Gallery, Forbes Street, Darlinghurst, from 7 January to 11 March 2017

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant , installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R George Sibley 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm Collection Catherine Elms and Richard Williamson, Bris bane; not an animal or a plant 2006/2016 vinyl text on wall 180 x 201.5 cm; Eddie Ah Kee 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm, co urtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane Photo: Peter Morgan

  Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R George Sibley 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm Collection Catherine Elms and Richard Williamson, Brisbane; not an animal or a plant 2006/2016 vinyl text on wall 180 x 201.5 cm; Eddie Ah Kee 2008 acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas 180 x 240 cm, courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photo: Peter Morgan

Rochford Street Review attended the media preview of Not an animal or a plant, conceptual artist Vernon Ah Kee’s solo exhibition that includes more than a decades’ work in various mediums, and which opened as part of the Sydney Festival on 7 January. Ah Kee’s first solo project in Sydney since 2008, the title declares the artist’s uncompromising critique of the often covert, or blatantly casual yet nonetheless caustic, racism that is part of the day-to-day lived experience for Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia.

Co-presented by the Nation Art School (NAS) in association with the Sydney Festival, and displayed in what was the former cell block of the infamous Darlinghurst Gaol, it is a stunning and provocative exhibition. At the time of the artist’s birth — just under 50 years ago — his parents were not counted as Australian citizens, hence the defiant text-based installation ‘not an animal or a plant’ in the ground floor gallery which showcases fine charcoal portraits on paper of members of his family who lived under that regime.  In an out-of-the-way alcove on the ground floor, one can also find the provocative ‘Born in the skin’, the found graffiti on doors from a Cockatoo Island toilet block that caused a stir around the Biennale of 2008; presumably because by presenting them, Ah Kee held up a mirror that mainstream Australia would prefer not to face  — articulated in ugly, racist, sexist, homophobic and functionally illiterate language.

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R Lynching II 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm; Authors of Devastation 2016 digital prints on custom-made surfboards (6 parts) 180 x 40 cm; Lynching I 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm. Photo: Peter Morgan

Vernon Ah Kee: not an animal or a plant, installation view at NAS Gallery, L to R Lynching II 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm; Authors of Devastation 2016 digital prints on custom-made surfboards (6 parts) 180 x 40 cm; Lynching I 2015 charcoal and crayon on linen 300 x 200 cm. Photo: Peter Morgan

The vast upper gallery of the former cell block has allowed NAS Gallery curator Judith Blackall and team to work with Ah Kee to present his recent large-scale works. These include paintings, portraits and text-based works inspired by the Palm Island Riot and the stunning 3D installation of competition surfboards, adorned with traditional combat shield designs from North Cairns on the face and excerpts from a James Baldwin’s article (‘Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes’, 1966 ) on the obverse,  through to two extraordinary and enormous drawings ‘Lynching I’ and ‘Lynching II’ which, placed either side of the large picture window, eloquently emphasise the dark side of Sydney’s pre-eminence as the starting point of colonisation in this country.

The view over the school’s grounds summons other layers of meaning over time, as this ridge-top site would have provided the Cadigal people, the traditional owners, a place to survey the harbour and the wetlands and witness ‘a world changing around them’ to quote Wesley Enoch who spoke at the launch as the first indigenous director of the Sydney Festival. Now the view also references the fact that, as it approaches its centenary on the site, NAS is struggling against forces which would resume the land for other purposes.

Leading up to the 50th anniversary in May of the 1967 referendum, this exhibition contributes to contemporary debate — among those willing to participate — about contemporary racism, our problematic history and the need for a way forward for rapprochement to occur.  Politically, it gives the lie to the mainstream pretense that Australia is not really a racist society whilst providing a masterful portrayal of individual Aboriginal subjects who gaze with defiance at the viewer, resilient in the face of a litany of structural oppression that has included, but is not limited to, the stolen generations, skyrocketing rates of incarceration and continuing paternalistic policies of successive governments. Aesthetically, the works provides a master-class in drawing and shift paradigms via exquisitely executed three-dimensional works that communicate at many levels. This is quite simply, a must-see exhibition.

 – Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Sydney based writer and critic and a founding editor of Rochford Street Review.

Not an Animal or a Plant runs from 7 January to 11 March 2017 at the NAS Gallery  https://www.nas.edu.au/place/gallery/current-exhibition/

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