'Visible', Exhibition Catalogue Forward
by Chris Saines cnzm Director, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
Visible — the title of Tony Albert’s first major solo exhibition in an Australian state gallery — is a play on a quote often used by the artist, specifically in his text-based velvet painting works. Paradoxically, it counterpoises the absence of Aboriginal people from Australian public life by inserting them into a narrative of non-Aboriginal construction. Like all of Albert’s work, it considers how ownership of the representation of Indigenous Australians has rarely rested with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. How non-Indigenous Australians have historically depicted Indigenous Australians — chiefly in kitsch tourist collectibles known as ‘Aboriginalia’ — is indicative of a complex relationship.
Albert interrogates those representations through a provocative mix of humour, darkness and poignancy. A younger member of Queensland’s proppaNOW collective — comprising, amongst others, Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd and Gordon Hookey — Albert’s vision is identifiable for its intense content and its varied expression. All strands of his work — from found object-based collage, to painting, photography, video and installation — are direct in conception and, when taken together, provide a powerful and highly effective response to the all-but systemic misrepresentation of Australia’s First Peoples in popular and collectible imagery.
Tony Albert was born in Townsville and raised in Brisbane, where he graduated from Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art. He completed an internship here at the Gallery during the seminal exhibition Story Place: Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest before taking up the role of project officer and trainee coordinator, just as he was establishing his career as an artist.
His age belies a successful history of exhibitions, awards and commissions, and the past five years have been especially fruitful. In 2014, he received both the Basil Sellers Art Prize and the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. The following year he was awarded a prestigious residency in New York, and commissioned to complete a major monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park in memory of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served in the Australian military. His distinct take on the landscape, The Hand You’re Dealt won the 2016 Fleurieu Art Prize, and his work has been acquired by major national and international museums and private collectors.
We are proud to welcome Albert back to the Gallery, through an exhibition that traces major moments of his impressive career, including recent commissioned works. One of Albert’s private passions, his lifelong collecting of Aboriginalia, finds expression in large-scale works that create words from the arrangement of souvenir caricatures of Indigenous people. One of these, Sorry 2008 is a significant work in the Gallery’s contemporary collection. Described by curator Bruce Johnson McLean as repatriating the stolen souls of Aboriginal people depicted in its racist componentry, the work refers to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, a moment of great optimism for many Australians. Accordingly, the artwork was first installed in the Gallery’s 2008 exhibition Contemporary Australia: Optimism and reflected a hope that the wounds of the past might begin to heal. Ten years later, the work now appears with its letters reversed, a reminder of the gap between bold intentions and the concerted national action needed to create enduring change. Also featured in Visible is the award-winning Brothers a photographic series depicting Aboriginal men with targets painted on their chests — a visceral response to the idea of young black men as ‘walking targets’.
As the host of National Indigenous Television’s Colour Theory program, Albert displays his deep investment in the work of Indigenous artists across the country, and his eagerness for collaboration. For his major work Pay Attention 2009–10, he invited 25 artists to mirror each
of the letters in the titular phrase, itself a conceptual sampling of a 1973 lithograph by American artist Bruce Nauman.
For Visible Tony Albert has created a new work in his recent series of playing card towers, commissioned by QAGOMA Foundation’s Future Collective group of young benefactors. Other new works include an oversized playing card sculpture produced with local foundry UAP, and an immense new assemblage crafted from Albert’s collection of Aboriginalia, featuring a pinball machine manufactured in Germany with Indigenous motifs — a sign of the global and cultural reach of questionable representation, and of Albert’s ambition in reclaiming it.
In bringing Visible to the Gallery, I thank Bruce Johnson McLean, Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, whose long professional relationship with Tony Albert has helped shepherd the exhibition to fruition. Complementing works from QAGOMA’s holdings and the artist’s own collection are works from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Australia, and private lenders, and I thank them all for their involvement.
An exhibition of Albert’s work was proposed by Maura Reilly in 2014, setting the stage for what would become Visible. We have received great support over the course of the show’s development from the artist’s gallerist, Ursula Sullivan of Sullivan+Strumpf. I would also like to acknowledge our exhibition partners, Art Series Hotel Group and JCDecaux.
Most importantly, I thank Tony Albert for his consistent, vital and incisive work. As Australia continues to struggle with its black history, Indigenous voices like Tony’s — characterised by humour, ferocity and nuance — have become even more essential.