Throughout the history of colonisation the impact of sustained misrepresentation has systematically subjugated and degraded the cultures and identities of First Nations people the world over. Based on a system of constructed Otherness, the representation of Indigenous peoples in Western visual culture and literature has relied on satirical exaggeration of facial features, attire, and characterizations as savage, uncivilized, villainous and subservient,especially when compared to the ‘white heroes’ within the same narratives. These images have been repeatedly pushed, exploited and trivialized since colonisation and continue to perpetuate negative notions and misconceptions about First Nations communities. This framework of reductive representation has obscured the seriousness and urgency of issues that continue to plague First Nations communities and has led to the creation of warped stereotypes which facilitate discrimination and allow ongoing oppression to be ignored. Tony Albert’s Wonderland throws into question the history and framework of this repressive system.
A detournement of both Lewis Carroll’s ‘Wonderland’ and the now defunct Western Sydney amusement park of the same name, Albert’s Wonderland undoes the colonial notions of exoticism and Otherness denoted by the word ‘wonder’. Despite its titular reference to land and landscape, the exhibition achieves this not with depictions of country, but with reappropriated misrepresentations of First Nations people. Gathering source imagery from the likes of satirical cartoons and Sunday newspaper comics, Wonderland identifies and exposes the derisive stereotyping of Aboriginal people across popular visual culture. Regurgitating amalgamations of these cartoon images onto flat acrylic paintings illuminated by the original outdoor signage for ‘Australia’s Wonderland’, Albertreveals the post-colonial world as a dark satirical theme park in which First Nations subjects are reduced to symbols in a colonial discourse that ultimately denies them any form of agency.
This systematic deprivation of individuality and specificity justified colonial Australia’s status as terra nullius, an uninhabited fecund ‘Wonderland’, which allowed for the invasion and rapid colonisation of the country under international law. Reinforcing this myth, representations of First Nations people remained almost totally invisible in Australian colonial painting, an absence replaced in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century by oppressive degrading archetypes. In Wonderland Albert presents these en masse, producing a vast history of degredational images.
Wonderland is Albert’s contribution to the reclaiming of First Nations identity, positioning his art as an exemplar of postcolonial subjectivity. Through agency and reappropriation he brings new meaning to misrepresentations of First Nations people, transforming these degrading images into speaking subjects. Delving into an uncomfortable but urgent conversation, Wonderland is a window onto the historical representation of First Nations people in Western popular-culture, offering a new critical engagement with these images.