Vernon Ah Kee – Local Artist

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The exhibition, titled Cant Chant, features surfboards decorated with North Queensland rainforest shields, a surfing video and addresses the subject of our beaches. The viewer is left to ponder how these beaches have played a part in shaping our identity as Australians.

When did you first discover your artistic talent?

I’ve always been a drawer – and that’s how I describe and introduce myself to audiences. My mother and grandmother tell me I used to draw when I was very young. Over the years, I’ve just become more and more interested. I went to art school, thinking I would do something that I like and get a job that would allow me to afford to make whatever art I felt like. I suppose like a lot of artists, I didn’t really believe I’d be able to make a living out of my artwork – I never thought any of my artwork would be collectible.

I used to teach at the College of Art, and I was getting too busy with my family, my job and my art practice (which was increasing and taking off a little bit in Brisbane). So, one of them had to go – the family, my job, or my art practice. I had to leave my job! So when push came to shove, I guess I could now be considered an artist.

I had my first show with a commercial gallery in 2002, and that’s when you have to start to think of yourself as an artist – but I was still working then and wasn’t sure if I could do art full time. I left my job about 6 years ago.

You certainly use a wide range of media to work with …

I do now. It’s a leftover of my undergrad and my honours year, when I was working with a lot of conceptual text and fiddling around on the computer creating design exercises. I started getting a bit of attention locally and getting into some exhibitions as a student.

I had a couple of post graduate shows – very low budget and getting things printed very cheaply and exhibiting them as artworks. That still carries on into what I do now. Plus, I was still drawing and teaching drawing – so drawing is really who I am.

As a conceptual artist, I basically just have ideas and I think about what kind of platform – whether it’s a video, painting, a 3D sculpture, something digital created on the computer, photographic, whatever it is – I consider what’s at my disposal, what can I afford, whether I can develop these skills in myself, to see whether I can achieve the idea. I enjoy working in collaborative projects with other people.

Where does your inspiration to create come from?

Hopefully the inspiration is clear … most of what inspires me is my family. My parents, grandparents, cousins I grew up with. I have a big family. I think of my family as a fairly ordinary family, and I think of myself as being a fairly ordinary black fella. And I like being that – just ordinary, because I fit in with other Aboriginal families and other Aboriginal communities, and it’s easy for me to gain entry and access to the different kinds of context where Aboriginal people live.

How long has the exhibition Cant Chant been in development?

I was approached by the director of IMA [Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane] in 2007. He basically said they’d been looking at my work and wanted to offer me a show – and did I have any ideas?

I’d had an idea to produce a classically made surf film with an Aboriginal surfer riding a surfboard with an Aboriginal shield on it. It had been in my head for a long time; and it was basically about the power of Aboriginal athleticism … combat … and I was also getting a little bit tired of seeing Aboriginal shields being displayed passively in galleries. Shields are meant to be articles of war, and they’re about combat and action.

These shields [used in the exhibition] are rainforest shields from my own country in North Queensland – my father’s country, actually.

In 2004 there was the Palm Island riot, and almost a year later, in 2005, there was the Cronulla Riot. I was thinking about the beach, and these riots at two beach communities and the different reactions by different parties: the police, local government, state and federal government, reacted very differently to both cases. I was left to wonder what was wrong with this picture.

So when in 2007 I was offered a show, I said I’d do it. At the time I knew there would be painted surfboards … but it grew from there.

The chant at the Cronulla riots, “We grew here; you flew here” … that’s what the We Grew Here text piece is – it’s the title piece for the show, and it’s called Cant Chant.

It sounds like the exhibition is not only a way for you to explore ideas, but a way to encourage viewers to ask themselves some pertinent questions too?

The show was an opportunity to ask several questions. It’s asking, “Surely Australians’ view of the beach can’t be so narrow? Surely the idea of how surfing forms that idea can’t be so narrow, because surfing must have come to black fellas at the same time it came to white fellas – yet surfing is such a white pursuit?”

Cronulla demonstrated that emphatically. And surfing makes up such a part of the Australian psyche and experience. I wanted to expand the idea of surfing itself – and maybe that it means more culturally in terms of identity and natural culture than this really super narrow idea of the white people’s preserve.

On the other side, I wanted to expand the idea of the beach. The beach is one of the most exclusive domains we have in society … maybe the idea of the beach we think of is wrong.

Hopefully people will walk out asking themselves and each other, “What do you think about this? Do you think Aboriginal people’s place in society is the right one?” And the idea that the beach should be more expansive … the fact that women were excluded from the beach 60 years ago is crazy!

Thanks Vernon

Interview by Jo Atkins.




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