I have done work around the beach, trying to think of the psychology of the beach and in the context of Australia. The psychology of what it is to be Australian is very much about the beach. Wherever you are in Australia, everybody knows how far they are from the coast.
Even people from the central deserts, who have not seen saltwater, know how far from the coast they are. I think it is part of the Australian psyche. I find it really interesting that everybody thinks of themselves in relation to their proximity to the coast, to the beach. So in that way, we are all saltwater people.
cantchant(1) is a critique of beach culture and beach psychology and how that informs Australian national culture. It also critiques the so–called ‘riot, clash or uprising’ on Palm Island in 2004. And it critiques the Cronulla riot (2005) as well(2).
When you live in Brisbane, it is in close proximity to the coast – Coolangatta, Kirra and Surfers Paradise. When I made the cantchant project in 2007, I wanted to utilise these ideal locations. When I say ‘ideal’, in the psyche of what we think about as the beach and surfing and surf culture, these are classic beaches – talking about Main Beach, Kirra, Duranbah and Coolangatta. These are the beaches that when you look at surf brochures of people dressed up in surf gear, that’s where they take the photos. You go down there and those beaches are beautiful. They are amazing really. I come from north Queensland and I’d seen beaches like that on TV and in advertising, but I had never actually walked on them. I thought they were amazing, and no wonder whitefellas want to own them.
The two artworks for Saltwater Country are large–format portraits of my son Gavin, directly referencing the Tindale images of my grandfather and great–grandparents.(3) One is forward looking and the other is a profile; talking about the same things that my other Tindale portraits have referenced – archival photography, museology, inaccurate representations of Aboriginal people through science, through anthropology – instead of how people would want to see themselves in contemporary society.
A lot of what I do is about my family. I usually stick to themes and issues that still inform the ways that my family is affected and the way my family think about themselves and think about their histories. Our histories are very much disparate now, but we are still very much informed by the history of our family and the way this country has treated us historically.
I think of my family as rainforest people, but the rainforest where I am from is literally the coast. I don’t actually think of myself as a saltwater person, but I could not imagine myself living far away from the coast.
My mother’s mother, my grandmother, was Kuku–Yalandji and Koko–Berrin; my mother’s father, my grandfather, was Waanji. Koko–Berrin is west Cape York; Kuku–Yalandji is east Cape, rainforest, on the coast; and Waanji is dry country, west Queensland. My father was Yidindji and Gugu Yimithirr, on the coast and very much Rainforest. So while I don’t specifically identify myself as Freshwater, I do identify as Rainforest, coast Rainforest.
The idea is to present a stripped–down version of what Aboriginal people are. Stripping away the romantic and the ideal and the noble savage idea of blackfellas. That is what I am wanting to do. I have been doing these portraits for a while, but what is consistent is the gaze that I want to capture. That will always be a feature of these portraits.
Vernon Ah Kee
Brisbane, 7 May 2014
(1) Two works in the exhibition, wegrewhere #2 and wegrewhere #3, are from Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant project.
(2) Palm Island is just north of Townsville, off the Queensland coast. Cronulla is a beachside suburb in southern Sydney, New South Wales.
(3) Dr Norman Tindale, in his role as anthropologist with the South Australian Museum, recorded these images during extensive field trips throughout Australia from the 1920s to the 1950s.