Thursday, September 3, 2009

About Vernon Ah Kee ...

Vernon Ah Kee was born in Innisfail, Queensland in Australia in 1967. He was always interested in art and he received a Bachelor of Visual Arts at the Queensland College of Art and he is currently working on his Doctorate degree. He lives in Brisbane, and it is there he works as an artist

I would be away for Vernon's art exhibit at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, titled "Blow Your House In", opening on September 12th. We did have the opportunity to discuss his upcoming work during his tenure as artist-in-residence. His large-scale portraits are representations of his family members and it is his method of describing the circumstance of the Aboriginal person in Australia today. He said the extreme racism and contempt that has been historically exhibited toward his people still exists today.

I watched Vernon work at his drawings - portraitures in a series - of persons whose eyes, or mouth, or whole person is omitted from the drawing which suggests that they are denied the opportunity to see, speak or exert much personal power into the world they are born. One large-scale portrait of his grandfather provides the viewer with a sense of his wisdom and stoicism. His grandfather was photographed in 1938 at Palm Island which was effectively a holding place for segregating Aboriginal people. It was this photograph among others taken during this time that inspired his work with portrait drawing.

Vernon told me that he used the analogy of the traditional children's story "The Three Little Pigs" to explain both the name of his upcoming exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and the obvious analogy embedded in the version told in the dominant white society. The Wolf is cast as the villain and the three little pigs as the victims, although one more prudent than the other two. The obvious message of the story is that you should build solid brick houses which would be the ones that the white population in Australia own. The traditional huts or other living accommodations of the Australian Aboriginal were judged to be inferior dictated in part by the outcome of the story.

Vernon questioned whether the Wolf might really have been warning the three pigs about a great storm and that they should seek safety. He also pointed out that the black color of the Wolf is assumed to be the color of the villain, while the Three Little Pigs was assumed to be good. This sort of cultural color bias is then extended to persons of color, such as the Aboriginal, by the dominant white population. It is a word-meaning association that contributes to further meaning association that contributes to further racial stereotypes.

But he raised other questions like whether the wolf was really a villain or were the pigs more destructive, or are both being used to create a myth - a myth that is loaded with cultural and racial bias. I think it is a great concept - "blowing in the stereotypes" that are created by popular children's stories.

These same myths are transferable to the Aboriginal people in Canada, and North America and are part of their history and modern circumstance. Vernon's art and experience in Regina continues to open up the debate for a clearer understanding of myths that surround modern Aboriginal life and art in all its complexity.

Studio Images

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

meeting an artist

As my partner Mariel and I were getting ready to embark on a camping trip in northern Saskatchewan, I received a phone call from my supervisor at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. I was asked if I would be interested in documenting the Australian indigenous artist, Vernon Ah Kee, while he was engaged in creating work in his studio during his 6 week residency in Regina. I had heard of Vernon Ah Kee, but I was not immediately familiar with his work. The project sounded interesting and I agreed to participate with the hopes of gaining some insight and experience from engaging with another artist from another country. Later that night I did some research on Vernon Ah Kee and I was fascinated with his work, in particular his text pieces.

I recall walking into the studio at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and witnessing Vernon working away on a large scale charcoal drawing of a man with a very intense frontward gaze. Later on I would come to learn that it is a portrait of his great-grandfather. I guess he might have been expecting me because he knew my name and he greeted me right away. In the beginning stages of documenting his work, I tried to remain unobtrusive so I would not distract Vernon from his artistic process. I was simply acting as a lens to capture his studio work. It wasn't long before the silence was broken and he started to chat with me. At the time he was listening to "The Talking Heads" through his Ipod and since I too am a fan of their music, it gave us good grounds for a conversation. As the day progressed, we had several conversations about the subjects of travel, music, art and food. It was all very casual, but at the same time I was blown away by the extraordinary piece of work that was emerging in front of me. The drawing was so intense with character and expression. What really caught my attention was Vernon's own fascination with his process and his perception of the piece as more lines were added and the drawing continued to develop. He let me view his snaps shots of the piece in progress over from the previous day to the present. I was able to gage that even in its most minimal beginning stages, Vernon's drawing looked aesthetically appealing and could stand as a finished piece even as an outline of things to come. His approach to line seemed to have a certain methodical spontaneity; in that I mean he was so quick to place the lines on the paper with such a lose and free energy which progressively manifested into a very life-like portrait. He was working from a photocopied picture of his great-grandfather. After I commented on his use of line he explained to me that it is very important for an artist to avoid over-working a drawing.
Process seemed to be very key for Vernon. He told me a sotry about a past studio space of his that was located right accross form the lcoal pub. Monday to Sunday he had to endure the loud noise and drunken ambience form accross the street while he was busy preparing simialr large scale drawings for the Sidney Binelle. Before each large scale drawnig he would get himself psyched up and focused before jumping into the process.
I spent the day video-taping layers upon layers of charcoal that Vernon was applying to his canvas. He would stand back ever now and again to examine the depth and volume of the piece. I really enjoyed and admired Vernon's open-studio approach. We talked about how reserved and closed off people can be about their art as if they had some big secret they were trying to keep. We then joked about how is big secret was chorcoal. My first impressions of Vernn Ah Kee were plesant and casual and I immediatley sensed that he was an artist comitted to his working process.

As the week past I continued to meet with Vernon Ah Kee to document him working on a series of drawings in the basement of the home he was staying at. I remember walking downstairs into his temporary studio and seeing several sheets of arches paper hanging in succession on the wall. Each sheet of paper showed a charocal sketch of an emerging face with some human characteristics; they were so haunting and intriguing upon firt glance. As the day passed we discussed science fiction and I came to understand Verrnon in his own words "a science fiction nut". We spent the entire afternoon talking about films and popular culture. Some of the most interesting conversations we had were around desgin. Vernon Ah Kee belives that there is no excuse for bad design in a tea cup, an instrument or any functional object in modern times. Nothing pisses him off more than a tea cup that is hard to pour with or akward in propotion. He thinks about his physical space quite thoroughly. He spoke in detail about car design, for example where the most convenient and optimal placement for functions should be in according to the driver's needs. These were some of our most memorable conversations.