Vernon Ah Kee

The Palm Island riot and its aftermath are the focus of Indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee’s latest exhibition Tall Man, held in conjunction with the Melbourne International Arts Festival and Gertrude Contemporary. Comprising three segments – a video installation, a portrait and text – the series is an examination of the ongoing cruelty and official indifference toward the Aboriginal Community in Australia.

In 2004, indigenous Australian Cameron Doomadgee was brutally murdered at the hands of a white officer while in police custody, sparking riots on Palm Island in North Queensland. Doomadgee was first arrested for public drunkenness and reported dead an hour later, having suffered from four broken ribs which had ruptured his liver and spleen. His death was recorded as “an accidental fall” in the coroner’s report and all charges on the officer were later dropped in 2007.

“Tall Man”, Four-channel video installation, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

In his four-channel video installation, Tall Man (a reference to Aboriginal Shire Councillor Lex Wotton’s commitment to the rights of Palm Islanders), Ah Kee appropriates footages from mobile phones and camcorders, edited together with archival news footages to reconstruct the unfolding of events – footages that were ironically used in court as evidence to convict Wotton of inciting the Palm Island riot. But in the hands of Ah Kee, they tell a different story of the injustices faced by the Aboriginal community in Australia. In contrast to the video installation where Wotton is seen enraged and devastated in public, Ah Kee depicts Wotton with subtle and gentle lines – a non-threatening, calm and warm-hearted figure.

"Tall Man”, Charcoal, crayon and acrylic on linen, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

The final component of the exhibition is a large text-based work that fills the entire front display windows of Gertrude Contemporary. Appropriated from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and reproduced as a run-on sentence, Ah Kee situates the relevance of the seventeenth-century allegory of man’s endless cruelty to man in the brutality faced by Aboriginal people on Australian soil.

“Fill Me”, Vinyl lettering, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

As a whole, the exhibition exposes the superficial attitudes toward multiculturalism and the constructed representations of Australian history. If it is commonly accepted that history has only ever been written by the victors, why have we still stuck to this story? How is the Aboriginal community to exercise their freewill when they are ceaselessly prevented from demonstrating such rights? Just when it seems that Australia has been making some progress, this illusion is shattered once again with the recent major policy shift by the Baillieu government to dump the compulsory protocol of acknowledging the traditional Aboriginal landowners for being too politically correct. The resurfacing narrative of the Palm Island riot is an important reminder of the continuing lack of respect of indigenous culture.