Like the fabric of Australian society, the appropriated Indigenous imagery printed on souvenir tea towels intertwines in a complicated web of national identity. These are not images by Aboriginal people and our voices and autonomy continued to be silenced through the object’s inauthenticity. As a country we must reconcile with these objects’ very existence. They are painful reiterations of a violent and oppressive history, but we also cannot hide or destroy them because they are an important societal record that should not be forgotten. As an artist this juxtaposition and tension fascinates me.
-Tony Albert, 2022
Tony Albert’s 2022 solo exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf, Remark, continued the artist’s investigation into the imagery and identification of appropriated Indigenous Australian iconography in domestic decoration and design.
Incorporating fabric from his extensive collection of ‘Aboriginalia’, Remark saw Albert expand on his acclaimed 2021 Conversations with Margaret Preston series dimensionality, critically engaging with the fabric in his own right. The series was a metaphorical collaboration with one of the country’s leading early 20th century modernists, Margaret Preston.
Born in 1875, Margaret Preston was progressive for her beliefs that the richness and sophistication of Indigenous Australian iconography should be incorporated into a national visual language, that would set Australia apart. In her quest to foster an Australian identify she was one of the first non-Indigenous Australian artists to use the unique designs, motifs and natural-pigment colour schemes of Aboriginal art in her work. Whilst Albert perceives that her intentions were meaningful her success unintentionally opening the door to an onslaught of cultural pillaging.This movement was the gateway to increasing numbers of Aboriginal designs and motifs openly appropriated as adornment for domestic homewares and décor over decades to come.
Conversations with Margaret Preston looked at the ideas, philosophies behind Preston’s push to create a visual national identity, her artistic influence in the branding of a nation, and the resulting spawning and saturation of a mass market industry of kitsch objects that naively and stereotypically depict Aboriginal people and their culture, termed by Albert as “Aboriginalia”.
Using vintage fabrics from his own vast collection, Albert turns the tables on history, cheekily yet assertively reclaiming the designs and motifs from Preston’s Aboriginal woodblock prints, to honour the subjects and voices of the work’s original creators.