Aboriginal artist Vernon Ah Kee wants people to see him “proppa”*

Modern artist Vernon Ah Kee sees through black and white in his stark, candid work on exhibit through May 10. 

Vernon Ah Kee, an Australian Aboriginal artist, can’t remember not drawing. “I think of myself as a drawer. I’m an artist, but if you ask me what kind of artist I am, I will first say that I’m a drawer.” Ah Kee just wrapped up a ten-day residency at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, where his individual show, “ill-like,” combines a series of impressionistic graphite figure drawings with typographic installations.

“Ill-like” falls into a body of work Ah Kee calls “unwrittens.” “These are faces with no eyes and no mouth and no nose and no ears. There’s no features in them at all. But these are ordinary aboriginal people…these are me, they are us, this is just how white people see us. In this kind of unformed, barely human visage, and we’re always having to become what the white expectations are.”

Born into an Aboriginal community in the small town of Innisfail, near the resort town of Cairns in North Queensland, Ah Kee’s father’s family comes from the Yidindji people, a rainforest tribe linked by a common language group. The political, social, cultural, and historical tensions inherent in being an Aboriginal person with an ancient identity living in a contemporary and urban world underly Ah Kee’s work.

“I make all of my work from the context of my being Aboriginal. Being a native person. And the politics that informs that identity and the family connections and the international native connections that inform that identity.”

Ah Kee could “draw very well” even before he went to art school, but he describes himself as obsessive in his pursuit of the technique. He has a doctorate of visual arts from Queensland College of Art and has enjoyed 13 solo exhibitions in the past 13 years, in addition to countless group shows.

In 2006, he and nine other Aboriginal artists started Proppa Now, an artist’s’ collective based in Brisbane, Australia, that shares an artistic ideology and explores the identity roles of indigenous artists in contemporary society. Loosely translated, the group’s name means “doing the right thing in the right way right now.”

Ah Kee sees his exhibition at Kluge-Ruhe as a chance to make an impression in a new place and “ill-like” ranks among his most challenging works, which have included surfboards painted with Yidindji shield designs and video documentaries chronicling racially motivated violence. “I advise people that their practice should be split into two areas. A critical practice and a commercial practice so they can make a living. The critical practice is where you make your art, where you make your name for yourself. When you have your solo exhibition, you shouldn’t be trying to make them commercial successes. You should already be having your commercial successes with your commercial work.”

Ah Kee’s “ill-like” is on display at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection through May 10, and his text-based installations are on display in Brooks Hall at UVA through the end of May.

Vernon Ah Kee, Unwritten, 2011.  Photo: Tom Cogill

C-VILLE: Do you see commonalities between the struggles of Aboriginal people in Australia and Native American communities in the U.S. and Canada?
Vernon Ah Kee: “When I talk to native people in the U.S. and Canada, there are commonalities that we see eye to eye on—politically, socially, culturally, and historically. Even in a contemporary sense, the way we engage society as a minority. Those are the international themes that I know are incorporated in my work. As much as my family sees themselves in my work I know that most native people do as well.”

In “ill-like,” you describe the challenge native people face in being defined by the dominant society. What’s the message?
“We have to be these people who are always in touch with nature, always in touch with the spiritual, always in touch with the primitive, always in touch with the folklore, and the magic and the song and the dance and the ceremony and the paint and the ancient weapons and the ancient ways. And all that is true. But we shouldn’t have to declare that every time we describe ourselves, especially when white people aren’t encouraged to describe themselves that way.”

“The majority of Aboriginal people in Australia live in cities. But we are not encouraged to describe ourselves in a fully modern sense without attaching these kind of ideas of the noble savage, or the exotic, or the primitive to our identity. It’s kind of like we have to anchor ourselves in the past, in the stone age in fact, when we don’t live our lives like that. We live contemporary and technological and sophisticated lives.”

How did you get into using text and typography to communicate your message?
“I love design theory, so I like incorporating design into text works. I developed an immediate affinity for text and signage and slogans and the kind of design that informs that and I love it and I can’t move away from it. Not for long anyhow. They stack up in my head and then they stack up on my computer.”

When do you know a drawing is finished?
“You never do. This is what I’ve been talking to the drawing classes about. It’s O.K. to just say, ‘Well, I’m not going to finish this.’ It’s O.K. to say that it’s not finished but you’re not going to do any more to it. Anyone who draws a lot will tell you that they’ve never finished any drawings. They’ve only just said I’m not drawing anymore. Because there’s always more you can do to a drawing.”

What advice do you have for young artists?
“My message is the same to any young person wanting to make art, regardless of their background: You should make art to please yourself. Always. You can stretch yourself out of what you know, and what you know is true, but that should always be your fall back position. If you’re really stretching yourself to acquire something new, then at the end of every day you should be making something to please yourself.”

* An earlier version of this story said Vernon Ah Kee had completed a three-month residency at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Ah Kee’s work "ill-like" runs January 24 to May 10. He was in residence for 10 days in April.

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