Shifting the difference: Aboriginal artist Tony Albert breaks through silence in ‘Brothers’

Tony Albert describes his provocative, conceptual art as intentionally political and a seed for thought. “I wanted to overturn this negative stereotype, and depict defiant, strong, young Aboriginal men, proudly standing in the face of racism,” he says. Photo: Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection Tony Albert describes his provocative, conceptual art as intentionally political and a seed for thought. “I wanted to overturn this negative stereotype, and depict defiant, strong, young Aboriginal men, proudly standing in the face of racism,” he says. Photo: Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

Ever notice how many artists call attention to negative space?

The white of the canvas unobscured by paint. The breath on all sides of a published poem, each word a drop in the frame of the page. What goes unsaid. What goes unseen. The elevation of objects flying under the radar to the forefront of imagination.

In this way, artists act as the shepherds of our collective unconscious, cajoling liminal ideas into the arena of global visibility.

Tony Albert, a Girramay artist from Townsville, Queensland, Australia, uses his talent to call our attention to the questionable construction of difference—the shifting line against which we judge the insider and outsider.

It’s a subject we can’t afford to ignore, as Albert’s success testifies. Well-represented in exhibitions and collections throughout his native Australia, he won both the $100,000 Basil Sellers Art Prize and the prestigious $50,000 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2014.

C-VILLE Weekly caught up with Albert by e-mail prior to the opening of his exhibition, “Brothers,” at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection through August 9.

C-VILLE Weekly: Please tell us a bit about your work.

Tony Albert: As an artist I am very interested in the retelling of history and in giving a voice to those whom history has, and continues, to silence. I consider my work to be conceptually based, meaning I pick the best media to express my ideas. I work across photography, installation video, and “Aboriginalia”—a term I coined to describe kitsch Australiana with representations of Aboriginal people.

How did you come to be making political art?

I’m often asked about the politics in my work, particularly in relation to my cultural identity and how I define my art and life practice. I am undeniably political. Unfortunately, political art has a bad reputation for being overly didactic. Sometimes, also, by labeling the artwork “political,” it negates the fact that you have to talk deeply about the “political” content because its message is so clearly evident. I always try to balance the undoubted political nature of my message with an aesthetic to which contemporary art audiences can respond. I don’t wish to tell the viewer exactly how to think; rather, I want to engage him or her in a conversation, or plant a seed for thought.

What is “Brothers,” and what inspired you to create it?

“Brothers” is a series of photographic works that respond to the ongoing violence and brutality inflicted upon people of color. Shortly after relocating to Sydney in 2012 an incident occurred where police officers shot and wounded two Aboriginal teenagers who were joyriding in the city. Given our very strict gun control laws, incidents involving firearms in Australia are quite rare, even when police are involved. Whilst it was argued that the teenagers were doing the wrong thing, the excessive use of force by the police officers was never called into question. The local community was deeply angered by the situation and protests broke out spontaneously. At one of them, a number of young Aboriginal men had drawn targets over their chests. It reinforced my thoughts that as a black man, I am, we are, walking targets.

How did you choose the subjects?

The young men depicted in the photographs are all from the Kirinari Hostel—a suburban boarding facility that houses teenagers from regional communities while they attend high school in the city. The hostel is in Cronulla, a suburb in Sydney’s south. What’s interesting about the location of this hostel is that Cronulla is widely considered to be the heartland of racist, white, middle class Australia. So much so that in 2005 massive race riots broke out in the area after being instigated by the white community.

What are some of the symbols of power that you’ve layered onto these images, and why did you choose them?

I remember the Australian Prime Minister recently talking publicly about Aboriginal children cleaning up the sidewalks as a means of employment. I thought “Wow. He’s really encouraging us to reach for the stars.” I wish he had said that he believes an Aboriginal person should be the next leader of this country or that Aboriginal people should be encouraged to pursue their dreams —be superheroes, make a change. Whilst Superman can fly, a super power can also be as simple as helping other people or being kind to one another. The images and symbols I use in this work are indeed symbols of power. I want our people to feel empowered and to be portrayed as they truly are—strong, resilient, capable and proud people.

Why is “Brothers” important now?

I think the conversation “Brothers” raises has always been important, however what I would say is that right now it is urgent. Not only in Australia, but all over the world, and particularly here in the U.S., where we are witnessing horrific acts of violence being committed against African-Americans.

How do these ideas stem, more broadly, from the human condition itself?

I make art about my life and my family’s life, and the experience I touch on in “Brothers” stems from personal experience. That said, I think it is interesting that a lot of my work speaks to a universal human condition; to me racism and suffering is very much a shared experience. Despite the fact that a lot of my work addresses rather uncomfortable issues, it is always underpinned by a sense of positivity, hope and resilience.