Tony Albert, a Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku Yalanji descendent, is the youngest artist to have a major solo exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery. ‘Visible’ includes a range of work that illustrates the breadth and rigour of his practice, from object-based assemblages to photography, painting, installation and video.
Across Albert’s work there is an assertive engagement with the aesthetics of recollection, representation, and imaginative future rendering. The depth of his practice extends beyond the confines of individual experience (career or personal). It isn’t merely about correcting misrepresentations or returning the gaze; it comprehends the falsity of the entire representational structure operationalised in service of settler-colonialism and poses questions to the settler-grammar that restricts how Aboriginal art is read and written about.
For many, his most readily identifiable works are those that encompass compositions of Aboriginal kitsch objects like ashtrays, decorative boomerangs, tea towels, cutlery and other banal objects decorated with caricatures – often racist invocations of ‘noble savages’, ‘pickaninnies’ and so on.
Many of the kitsch objects used by Albert are from the 1940s-1970s, the decades of peak production for this form of Aboriginal kitsch. Albert has been collecting these objects since childhood, developing the term Aboriginalia to describe them, which bears similarity to ‘Australiania’. This use of parody is a current through much of Albert’s work. Here the naming of objects indicates the purpose of their existence – they are not misrepresentations of Aboriginal peoples, rather they are erasures – these objects are phantasms of the settler subject. The Other represented in Aboriginal kitsch objects is merely the settler parading as an Other in order to control the grammar of representation and cast Aborginal peoples as absence – outside of representation.
Invisibility and visibility are central to ‘Visible’. Albert’s use of kitsch objects in works such as Pay Attention (2009-2010) and another large text-based wall work titled Sorry (2018), announce that hyper-visibility in the form of Aboriginal kitsch is more about making Indigenous peoples invisible. Originally conceived in 2008, the year of the national apology to the Stolen Generations, Sorry is composed of stereotypical representations of Aboriginal faces and bodies adorning crockery, trays and garish carvings – fixed on black block letters that read ‘YRROS’. Pay Attention reveals Albert’s multimodal aesthetic approach. The large block lettering is composed of an Aboriginal flag painted ‘A’, while other letters are variously composed of collected Aboriginalia, comic-like paintings of Cook, collage and text. The text references Bruce Nauman’s Pay attention motherfuckers (1973), demonstrating that the scope of Albert’s work involves an engagement with art history. While showing that his own work is always about more than just ‘politics’, via the reference to Nauman, Albert enunciates the farcical idea that art produced by the supposedly neutral white male artist is a-political.
Also included in ‘Visible’ is Albert’s ballad-like collaborative photographic series made with Aboriginal children artists from Warakurna, titled Warakurna Superheroes (2017). The filmic photographs allude to Tracey Moffat’s seminal Up in the Sky (1997). The photographs are all set against a background of an expansive azure sky, sparsely etched with cloud wisps, rusted-out car bodies and the greens, browns and reds of the grass, trees and earth. Boldly occupying the fore- and mid-grounds of the photographs are children dressed in different action hero and Star Wars costumes and in the deliberate poses of subjects who are in command of the space they inhabit.
Part of the series is Warakurna – The Force is with us #5 (2017), made in collaboration with Kieran Smythe-Jackson. In this image an expressive low camera angle figures Smythe-Jackson as a stormtrooper in mid-action, his face obscured by a store bought Star Wars stormtrooper mask, while his body is adorned in a whimsical white outfit fashioned from what looks like a flour or rice bag and cinched at the waist with a black rubber belt. His outfit draws attention to practices of body adornment as sources of meaning that draw on and transcend individuals’ immediate environments.
With ‘Visible’, Albert offers a body of work that is attentive to aesthetics, politics, history and possibility. Never merely corrective representations or assertions of visibility, the decentering of the settler grammars in his work is a provisional disruption of the binary categories that constitute different subjects and viewing positions. The work offers itself to multiple readings and to a viewer who must comprehend the work self-reflexively. When political, his work poses specific and broad questions addressing precise moments in history and the circuits, through which these politics are reproduced, in discourse, in language, in art.
Tristen Harwood is a freelance writer and cultural producer.
Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)
Until 7 October, 2018