Tony Albert: Duty of Care

Tony Albert is celebrated for his incisive, witty and personal practice, working in assemblage, collage, painting, video, found materials, photography and now glass, he addresses the contemporary legacies of colonialism and interrogates representations of Aboriginal people from an Indigenous perspective. His work has been collected and exhibited by Australia’s leading galleries and internationally; in addition he’s received major awards and a public commission to commemorate Indigenous soldiers in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

In late 2019, Albert spent six weeks as an artist in residence at the Canberra Glassworks where he produced a new body of work, on view now as ‘Duty of Care’. In past works he has subverted objects, images and language, and in this show continues this with sand-etched glass text works and re-cast items of ‘Aboriginalia’ (a term the artist coined to describe kitschy objects and images that feature naive portrayals of Aboriginality) from his own collection in glass, including ‘invisible lamps’ and a nest of boomerang tables.

Tony Albert, Brother (The invisible prodigal son) II, 2020, glass, digital print glass decal, lead, painted steel. Photograph: Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Canberra Glassworks, Australian Capital Territory

On our cover we highlight the evolving and exceptional work Brothers (the prodigal son) (2020). ‘Brothers’ was a series that began in 2013 after an incident occurred, a car full of young Aboriginal teenage boys lost control and drove onto the footpath, hitting a pedestrian. In the police response, the driver was shot, a passenger wounded and another passenger pulled onto the street – witnesses documented this on mobile phones and a rally followed at Parliament House in Sydney. There Albert observed a group of teenage friends remove their shirts to reveal targets painted on their chests, inspiring this body of work, which has ongoing relevance at a local and global level.

Albert has said ‘for such young people how incredibly profound a statement that was, how incredibly brave it was and how we metaphorically as Aboriginal men are looked at.’ At the time Albert discussed this constant metaphorical and real target (also a reference to the use of the target as a symbol by artist Richard Bell) with his subjects to create the portrait images in ‘Brothers’, one of which now takes form as a stained glass window in ‘Duty of Care’. Another version of this work is on display as part of the Biennale of Sydney, where Albert is participating for the first time and where the artists create ‘optimism from chaos’ a fitting mandate for Albert whose work is made in protest, but seeks positivity.

Tony Albert, Duty of care, 2020, fused, coldworked and constructed glass, ink. Photograph: Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Canberra Glassworks, Australian Capital Territory

Art Almanac spoke with Albert about ‘Duty of Care’. The artist was excited by the material and conceptual potential of the medium. It looks fragile but is strong, has connotations of what is visible and invisible, is neither solid nor liquid, and holds cultural associations from religion to the hierarchy of the art world. These nuances must be alluring when you are seeking truth by disrupting the narrative.

There are many tangents and tensions in this body of work; between past and present and the nature of glass. The coloured piece is on display at the National Art School as part of BoS, and the clear version is at Canberra Glassworks. Can you talk a little about how you are working with colour?

My very first thought when Canberra Glassworks approached me was, ‘What is Tony going to do with glass?’ I thought wouldn’t it be amazing to look into a gallery and you couldn’t actually see anything! So my first thought was a show that was completely invisible. The concept continued to grow from here. Then I was invited to be in the Biennale and visit all the sites, at NAS there’s an amazing stained glass window that then informed the work.

Selecting the best medium for your concept is a critical element of your practice. What meaning has glass taken on for you?

For me, the opportunity to work with glass came as an invitation. It was a residency that I really considered. The more I thought about what would my work be in glass, or inform my practice, the more connections I feel there were. Then I started to think conceptually about my work and how the elements of glass, from multiples and casting to stained glass, continues the conceptual nature thereof fragility, transparency or invisibility. There is such an incredible team at Glassworks, really technically skilled people within the arts. I really feel it’s a media which is a little bit misunderstood, maybe in the vein of what ceramics was a decade ago to what it is now. It’s contemporary art.

Tony Albert, Piracy (detail), 2020. Sandblasted commemorative plates. Photograph: Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Canberra Glassworks, Australian Capital Territory

A negative connotation ‘decorative’ comes to mind, which ironically loops back to your use of memorabilia and objects.

Yes and also within the glass word itself there is a set of parameters and working through this engagement there were some works where we thought ‘oh, we’re going to get bubbles in it’ or ‘the glass will seem more smoky than clear’ but that doesn’t matter at all, the concept is the thing that is really important. So it’s juggling the two. For me, it’s about bringing the conceptual nature to the glass world and then the glass world unleashing or being willing to go, ‘well clear can be foggy, or there can be scratches in the glass’ and it doesn’t matter. Some of the objects in my collection are glass. There was a crossover and link already with a few of the objects and being able to push them a little further rather than the ways I had in the past of either painting on them or using them within installations. I got a chance to re-cast and re-create these objects, which is a new intervention in the kind of work I’m doing.

The nature of telling the truth, which I think you do in your practice, is that the other side of the coin is dismantling lies and assumptions. How do you go about choosing the iconography, objects and techniques to do this in your work and what motivates you to do so?

Yes, that idea and search for historical truth is so important and it’s a realisation of not only what is written in history but also what is written out and why. So in my work there is an attachment to the more academic, reading or re-telling stories, or the opportunity to finally tell oral stories from an Indigenous perspective that have been passed on through family and things that have not necessarily been written down in books, or specifically not written down. That informs my practice quite a bit. But with the objects themselves I quite often sit with the objects for a period of time, I sometimes sit them beside my bed before I go to sleep and then I usually have a solution in my head. I don’t know if it comes to me in dreams or the object actually is finding a voice with me. It’s a bit of a weird process I go through. Other times through the expression or imagery that comes through quite clearly I find a voice within the object. It’s something I find quite personal, yet an opportunity to create a dialogue or a conversation.

Tony Albert, Uncodified (I want to beLIEve), 2020, sandblasted recycled glass. Photograph: Brenton McGeachie. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Canberra Glassworks, Australian Capital Territory

Even though you created these works in 2019 there’s such a powerful synchronicity with a global revolution. Does it make you reflect on the show differently, or does it inspire new work?

I’m watching on with a great sense of pride, within that sense of fear. It is tumultuous and people really want to be heard at this moment in time. Our history has taught us, our grandparents and our parents asked for things in a much different way, so the evolution of activism that is coming out is quite incredible and I think we are at a point of real significant change. It does make you readdress, but these are the conversations we have been having as Indigenous people for decades. These are not new conversations at all. What is interesting for me is people thinking I am responding to this moment in time, which is not true. There is and has always been global synergies, because of media or the way in which things are viewed or seen or happening within marginalised communities or people of low socio-economic status, or people of colour within that. That’s why I’m not surprised that these things are happening all at once. It’s a feeling, it’s emotive and everything that’s going on in our minds, and it’s only natural that it is happening in multiple places at the same time.

In ‘Duty of Care’ it’s been suggested by the exhibition curator Sally Brand that there is a connection to reconciliation, can you unpack that idea?

As I have grown as an artist, language and titles become more and more important for me. I feel a title can add to the artwork or to inform people more about the work. ‘Duty of Care’ is two-fold – there’s fragility and way of looking at glass, and it’s the connectedness of us as humans. ‘Duty of Care’ is like this invisible but binding document that we have as two people or a group of people in the way that we look after each other and there is a sense of community or obligations for us as humans in the way we treat other people. But it’s unwritten; it’s in our conscious. It’s within a part of us that is not necessarily even taught; it’s an innate human sensibility. In that way there’s a link to reconciliation, it’s not necessarily the word or language itself it’s our actions that become really important.

Tony Albert is represented by Sullivan+Strumpf. Support for this exhibition was provided by project funding from the Australia Council for the Arts.

Canberra Glassworks
13 June to 27 September 2020
Australian Capital Territory