The core of Vernon Ah Kee’s work in photography, text, drawing and more recently video is the cutting exploration of conceptual misinterpretation–characteristic and longstanding–of indigenous experience, including misinterpretations resulting from benevolent efforts at making indigenous experience public through various language and media practices.
In this work selected for Video Ground, Whitefellanormal 2002, Ah Kee interrogates the exposure of his Palm Island ancestors to the damaging formalism of colonial photography: the problems of representation that connect portraits to maps. I have written about Whitefellanormal previously as part of my work with the Pacific Rim New Media Summit 2006. What I guess is important to note when viewing in the context of this curated program are the work’s links to Vernon’s work in other media, particularly the 2004 exhbiition, Fantasies of the Good, in which Ah Kee created intricate portraits in pencil from photographs of his relatives taken on Palm Island in North Queensland.
Palm Island was, essentially, a penal colony for Pacific Islanders and Indigenous people from various tribes all over Queensland who resisted being compulsorily moved on to ‘reserves’. Anthropologist Norman Tindale travelled to Palm Island in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s as part of his project to map the boundaries of Australian indigenous tribal lands and language groups. The map which resulted from this was the first to present a continent-wide cartographic representation of Indigenous nations and language groups to a white Australian public. In their contentious allocation of fixed territories to diverse tribal groups, the maps presented key evidence in countering the doctrine of terra nullius.
The convincing formal argument that the drawings in Fantasies of the Good made, is that the photographs in Tindale’s archive betray a clinical distance in the gaze through which this project of turning grounded histories into mapped data is achieved. Ah Kee’s relatives (Mick Miller and George Sibley), dressed smartly for their picture, held just a catalogue card with only a number on it to represent and distinguish themselves from every other numbered Indigenous identity. Subsequent copies of these troubling images were ‘formally’ censored by the government of Queensland in so far as they were heavily cropped: only the heads and shoulders of his relatives remained, neatly centered, as if to overcompensate for their original exposure of Palm Island as an outpost of strategic dispossession.
For Fantasies of the Good (2004) Ah Kee isolated and re-routed this notion of a photographic compensation. He re-drew the Tindale portraits by hand, but purposefully off-centre—as a protest against the ways in which the clippings, and the formal qualities of portraiture more generally, framed subjects outside of history. Whitefellanormal can be seen to continue with this work of destabilizing this photographic style that also contributed to strategic dispossion. In front of a white background, similarly removed from contextual references to (that very specific) place, Ah Kee reenacts the moment of ethnographic documentation, but ensures his forehead, one side of his face or his shoulder is always outside the shot, defying full representation.