TextaQueen: Between You and Me

It is a rarity for an artist of colour in Australia to be invited to show a 15-year retrospective. This is something of a coup by TextaQueen for her upcoming survey exhibition ‘Between You and Me’ at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.

Using fibre tipped markers or “textas” (hence the name), one would assume TextaQueen’s work would be rendered childlike, or restrict her ability to attain great detail, but this is not the case at all. Even with super saturated colours, specific prop use and set creations, her work avoids appearing overtly contrived or garish. It purposefully teeters on the edge, but because it never takes itself too seriously, the work instead pulls you in. Rich in symbolism, her pieces take time to deconstruct.

Due in part to this level of skill, TextaQueen’s CV reads as the sort that modern artists dream of with exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, commissions for the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, animations for SBS and her compositions plastered across billboards, posters and street murals. Additionally, her work is held in galleries and museums across the continents.

Talking of this success she says, “I am super grateful for the career that I have… and though many times I’ve been told how unattractive and undesirable I am… I actually do fit some of the constructs of beauty… you have to tick some boxes of convention to be seen at all and I’m aware of that privilege.”

This is a typical answer from TextaQueen where every question comes back to ideas of colonisation, privilege, power structures, misogyny and sexuality. For those who don’t have to consistently battle the existing power structures, this might seem unfamiliar, but as a woman of colour myself, a lot of what TextaQueen says rings true of my own experiences.

“I was related to every other brown kid in the school, well the only other three in the entire school, so that was the context I grew up in.”

TextaQueen, ‘Attack of the Under Water Woman’ starring Fez Fa’anana, 2011, from the series We don’t need another hero, fibre-tipped markers on paper, 127 x 97cm (image and sheet). Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2012

Her series We don’t need another Hero (2011), some of which will be shown in ‘Between You and Me’ places people of colour in fictional movie poster portraits as outlaws of their own post-apocalyptic worlds due to colonialism. A comment on the violence of historical and contemporary imperialism, the images challenge Western preconceptions about people of colour as ‘only’ victims of colonial invasions. TextaQueen is the antithesis of a fence sitter, but it’s not necessarily something she’s comfortable with.

She speaks about the emotional toll of having to speak out loud about the experience of being brown, of being seen as angry and political.

“But I don’t believe I should be considered… an activist at this point in my life… Let’s look at people’s actions, but not put people on pedestals. I don’t want to be on any pedestal, please!”

TextQueen, Save Yourself (self-love self-portrait), 2013, from the series Unknown Artist fibre-tipped markers, acrylic paint and coloured pencil on paper, 127 x 96.5cm. Corrigan Collection

The beauty of TextaQueen’s approach is that it’s often cheeky in the way it challenges, unafraid to make fun of the world as she sees it. Additionally, there are often sensual overtones making it evident that sexuality plays a large role in her vision of herself and others.

The sexuality displayed never appears passive or submissive. Her piece Save yourself – a self-love self-portrait (2013), is particularly powerful: two TextaQueens embrace – one completely naked, the other dressed in her vibrant red Super-Shero’s outfit. They stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, bodies pressed together.

We rarely see sexual images of women of colour, painted by women of colour, it is a refreshing counter to the usual exotification expressed by white artists, which is what makes her latest photographic series as part of her residency at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, so powerful. Eve of Incarnation (2016) is a new collection of photographic self-portraits, taken in landscape settings and using pieces from the land and sea as props. The risk of the work appearing affected is mitigated by the evident vulnerability of TextaQueen’s nudity. She doesn’t look so much defiant in these images as exposed. Additionally there is no risk of the noble savage here because this is not an imagining of the brown woman in the jungle for the white male gaze.

TextaQueen, Guardian, 2016, pigment ink on archival cotton rag, 59.4 x 42cm. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

TextaQueen’s art is a reflection of an alternative yet absolute reality rarely given the same space white artists are afforded. Born to Indian parents and growing up on Perth’s west coast on Noongar land, she allows women of colour to reimagine a world where our super heros look like us, where our beauty is equal to white constructs of beauty, where our sexuality can be our own.

TextaQueen, Serenader, 2016, pigment ink on archival cotton rag, 59.4 x 42cm. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

This is the great power of much of TextaQueen’s work – it subverts the colonial gaze. Though I didn’t ask her why she chose textas, I feel it might be because the marks are an immediate commitment, an unrelenting medium. The permanency of those marks, of her consistent examination, is something to be lauded and supported as part of the genius of her wonderfully unique work.

Candy Royalle is an award winning performing writer, educator and activist based in Australia.

Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery
Until 30 April, 2017
Melbourne