On Display: QAG, Gallery 10
In Unwritten I, II, III 2007, Vernon Ah Kee composes faces where most recognisable features remain undisclosed, giving the subjects a disturbing alien-like quality. Like the semi-formed clones seen in popular films, these careful and elegant drawings are haunting in the way they resemble a human not yet properly formed. Each drawing shows the marks of human-ness — depressions at the eyes, a ridge at the nose. The mouth, however, is not seen, implying that the voice is not heard.
Although this series differs from Ah Kee’s other portrait works, they nonetheless follow a common theme. Drawing on ethnographic records for his inspiration, Ah Kee often draws his subjects — including members of his own family, both living and deceased — as historical documents themselves, removed from any humanising quality.
The Unwritten series is distinguished by the faces having distinctly European characteristics, as opposed to the human-like figures in Ah Kee’s ‘non-people’ series, which were more Indigenous or ambiguous. This is an act of transferral, momentarily disempowering the dominant culture. We can picture ourselves as the disempowered figure within the portrait.
Vernon Ah Kee is a Brisbane-based artist at the forefront of conceptual art practice in Australia. He was born in Innisfail and is a descendant of the Kuku Yalanji, Yidinyji and Guugu Yimithirr people of north Queensland. He also has kinship connections to the Waanyi people of north-west Queensland.
Ah Kee developed an interest in art when his family moved to Cairns during his high school years. He studied at the Cairns College of TAFE (now the Tropical North Queensland TAFE) before moving to Brisbane in 1990. He completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts (with Honours) in 2000 and a Doctorate of Visual Arts in 2007 at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art. He is a founding member of the Aboriginal Artist collective proppaNOW, and in 2009 he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale.
Vernon Ah Kee is attuned to the politics of representation, and the social and economic implications of unequal cultural exchange in Australia. He often draws on ethnographic archives to challenge colonial legacies and to engage audiences with the strong and continuing presence of Aboriginal Australians, their histories and their cultures.