Tony Albert: Duty of Care

Extract from Sally Brand’s essay for Canberra Glassworks, June 2020

Duty of care is a social contract, an obligation of individuals to ensure the safety of others. In a country of multiple languages and cultures, such as Australia, duty of care is also an act of reconciliation. To care and ensure the safety of others we must see, accept and respect difference as well as be able to see through it. Care is a visible and invisible force. In material form care may well be represented by the clear glass we use in windows to protect us from the rain and wind, in the cups that help us quench our thirst, and on the surface of a mirror that reflects our own image. Clear glass dominates Tony Albert’s latest exhibition Duty of Care at Canberra Glassworks. Glass is a new medium for Albert, who regularly works with collage, painting, found materials and photography to explore Australia’s contentious history and fraught race relations. During a six-week residency in late 2019, Albert collaborated with a team of highly skilled local artists to produce stained-glass windows, sand-etched glass text works, and glass casts of Aboriginalia: domestic and tourist artefacts that include images of Aboriginal people, their cultural objects and designs. The results are both stunning and stinging, ubiquitous and other worldly, familiar and provocative, characteristics common to Albert’s practice whatever medium he deploys.

Installed at the heart of the exhibition, Brother (The invisible prodigal son) II is a leadlight window that features a defiant, proud, and strong young Aboriginal man with a red target through his chest. This piece is one of a series that premiered on the grounds of the National Art School for NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney curated by First Nations artist Brook Andrew. In preparation for NIRIN, Albert visited the school that has occupied the site of the former Darlinghurst Gaol since 1922. The central chapel, built in 1873, features a stained-glass window with its central subject the prodigal son, a parable of Jesus that reminds us of the power of acceptance and the importance of family. For Albert, the connection with his Brothers series, created almost a decade ago in response to police violence against a group of Aboriginal teenage boys in Sydney’s Kings Cross, was immediate.[1] The Brothers series ‘allude to the holy trinity – strong yet powerful, bathed in light, yet still innocent and vulnerable. I wanted to immortalise our people who are all too often written out of history.’[2] In early 2019, Albert also projected images from his Brothersseries onto the epic brutalist façade of the National Gallery of Australia. Images from The Brothers series also won Albert the prestigious Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in 2014. Albert regularly reuses images and materials in his practice and one might expect this could dilute their power. For the Brothers series, this repetition has the opposite effect. This series continues to be potent and relevant because institutional and systemic violence experienced by Aboriginal people, and particularly men, is unchanging. While Albert was resident at Glassworks news of Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker shot dead by Northern Territory police sparked protests and fund-raising initiatives across the county.[3] This month, America is burning after the death of African American man George Floyd at the hands of white police officers. Another brother with his life cut short, another too many. We see him now, but do we see the system that perpetuates such violence? Albert’s clear glass works provide a visual form that like systemic racism can be shattered if you apply the right force.