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Ah Kee, Vernon - 2016.44

Vernon Ah Kee

notananimaloraplant 2007
acrylic on linen
180 x 180 cm
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2016

Vernon Ah Kee is an acclaimed Brisbane-based Waanyi, Kuku Yalanji, Yidinji and Guugu Yumithirr artist, born in Innisfail, Far North Queensland. He is one of the founding members of the Brisbane Aboriginal artists collective ProppaNOW, the work of which has profoundly influenced the development of a politicised Aboriginal Australian artistic consciousness.

Ah Kee is widely known for his portraiture and his text-based works. The monochrome, block-lettered Helvetica print in notananimaloraplant exemplifies a staple component of his practice. Text works by Ah Kee often appear alongside his portraits and installations, narrating the works around them. When encountered in the gallery, the visually overwhelming density of the typeface recalls the waves of racist discourse about Aboriginal people in Australia. Ah Kee’s text works are also worn on T-shirts distributed by the artist (including the works iseedeadlypeople and aboriginalallthetime). They have become embedded in the fabric of the community through their appearance as streetwear, leaving the gallery wall and appearing at inner-city protests and civic gatherings. Wherever you see them, a clear and sovereign voice of Aboriginal subjectivity runs through the text. The direct address recalls the style of activist poets, such as Kevin Gilbert, who is often credited as an influence on Ah Kee, alongside artists such as Gordon Bennett and Trevor Nickolls.

notananimaloraplant has was exhibited as a large-scale wall work in Ah Kee’s solo exhibition Not an Animal or a Plant 2017, part of the Sydney Festival. There, the piece was hung alongside charcoal portraits of his family and community. The title of the show drew attention to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the success of which gave the Commonwealth, rather than states, power to legislate for Aboriginal people and signalled the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the Australian census, effectively  formalising Aboriginal citizenship. The referendum’s influence on Aboriginal inclusion in the nation’s humanity is at the centre of discussion here. The placement of wall text alongside the visual glossary of Aboriginal portraits recalls colonial anthropological fascination with gathering data and visual matter, using Aboriginal bodies as specimens. As Ah Kee has noted, his birth prior to the referendum meant that he was not included in the census at the beginning of his life, so not, like the rest of the Aboriginal population at the time, formally acknowledged as human.

The ongoing denial of basic humanity is at the heart of the work. The reference point of notananimaloraplant is Aboriginal people’s historical designation (by exclusion) as flora and fauna, the corollary of which positions whiteness as human. As in much of Ah Kee’s practice, the concern here is with firmly and undeniably centring the humanity and complexity of Aboriginal people in the artwork. Ah Kee’s works, which are often described in terms of their politicised anger, perceived confrontational tone and references to decolonial black political consciousness, also express quiet dignity, grace and beauty on the part of their Aboriginal subjects.

Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh essayist, curator and editor living in Birrarung-ga Melbourne.