SPIRIT & VISION
Vernon Ah Kee - - -
When someone has a deadly point to make, it’s nice to have it delivered with style. A slap on the back while sliding in the stiletto. Preferably with a laugh to spice up the encounter. Vernon Ah Kee has been exhibiting for about five years, was raised in North Queensland, has been based in Brisbane since the early nineteen nineties, and studied at the Queensland College of Art, where he also currently lectures.
Ah Kee’s no-nonsense, confrontational text pieces about being Indigenous in contemporary Australia are built around a use of common understandings, jokes and phrases that are taken, twisted and handed back with a grin (sometimes) and a stiletto between the ribs. Depending on who you are.
Ah Kee’s most successful works depend on the self-evident, obvious truth of their texts. “I can’t even buy Bandaids the same colour as my skin.” Part slogan, part rumination, the words convey the casual sense of someone in a dialogue, almost literally talking to the viewer – us – as we wander through the work, at least in an exhibition setting. This is the kind of conversation you have at a barbie, in the kitchen at a party or at the pub. There’s a belligerent current running through the event, although the belligerence seems to be framed around getting us to engage – what do you think about this? Let’s hear what you have to say.
This insistent voice is disconcerting in the white cube setting, not because we aren’t used to art demanding our attention, but because much of our experience of art is, to borrow a theatre analogy, known through a proscenium with us as the invisible audience. We look at a painting or video, we listen to sound, we pick our way through an installation, watch a performance. We are seeing into the artists’ mind or soul, watching from out there, sitting in the theatre. The experience of Ah Kee’s art is more akin to a one-on-one debate. The whole tone is aimed at provoking a response. He’s there, in your ear, jabbing you in the chest with his forefinger – all the while keeping you laughing.
Ah Kee speaks directly to a white audience, with a black voice . In the work If I was White, made up of thirty A3 text panels, we read observations such as “If I was White I could say This land has been in my family for three generations.” Or "If I was White I could walk down the street and people would pay no particular attention to me." He delivers these messages with a blunt familiarity – which he subtly accentuates by the form of delivery – black Helvetica type on white background, the most common font, for decades, in the Western world .
This man is... This Woman