Tony Albert’s ‘Aboriginalia’ grapples with our troubling past depictions of Indigenous culture

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Tony Albert is busy experimenting with resin.

Famous artist Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku Yalanji moves between a pair of trestle tables with a skewer and a jet lighter, various small parts arranged in front of him: an Aboriginal-themed matchbook here, spent cigarette butts the. All are floating in their own pool of clear mud, still several hours from bedtime.

Albert slips the skewer into the resin and precisely repositions a piece, before delicately pressing the trigger of the lighter.

“That’s how you get rid of the bubbles,” he says.

Resin is Albert’s new obsession, a technique facilitated by his assistant Lyle Duncan, with whom he works through a program run by Gold Coast City Council. Previously, it was sandblasting (“I discovered sandblasting at [Canberra] Glassworks a few years ago, and now I seriously want to buy a sandblaster”).

Albert prepares the resin parts for one of his biggest glued works – maybe a giant chandelier, he says. Each represents a piece of “Aboriginalia”, a collective term designating the vintage fabrics, kitsch objects and images with racist representations of Aboriginal people that Albert has been accumulating since the age of six and which have fueled his work. Some are the objects themselves, encased in resin; others – the profile of a face, for example – have been recreated as a mold with another element inside. Almost everything will be used.

“There’s something ethical not just about having a collection, but also about using a collection,” he says. “So the scraps of fabric after you cut something will still be used somewhere else. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought about it as much, but in 2022 it’s absolutely sustainable and a good thing to do.

Albert’s home and studio are in Cashmere, far in the bucolic North West of Brisbane. It’s one of those idyllic, rambling areas where speed-controlled roads keep splitting into smaller and smaller lanes. Eventually you arrive at a vast modern house built in a rough Queenslander style. It sits alone on a north-facing ridge. There’s a pool with some giant toys to intimidate the local magpies, and what looks like a second house being built at the end of the property. It’s actually Albert’s new workshop, which should be finished at the end of the year, everything is fine; this will allow him to host other artists and compile large-scale works of art in his home. For the moment, the magic happens in his garage, on these trestle tables.

Albert was born in 1981 in Townsville, Queensland. Later he went to school in the western suburbs of Brisbane before studying a Bachelor of Art, specializing in Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art, at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art. During his studies, Albert worked under the tutelage of artists such as Jennifer Herd and Vernon Ah Kee (Albert’s cousin, with whom he later founded the proppaNOW collective alongside artist and activist Richard Bell).

“[The degree is] alongside a westernized idea of ​​a degree, but everything is tweaked slightly for cultural safety. All speakers are indigenous. The basis of all of this is the “origins”, so you know that as an Aboriginal person, if you practice a traditional type of art, it has to come from where you come from. All of this provided an incredibly safe environment.

Aboriginalia remained little more than a personal curiosity for Albert until he accumulated so much of it that by the mid-2000s he needed space in his then studio for storage. There it slowly began to creep into his work, first in the form of object-inspired imagery and iconography. The objects themselves first appeared in his groundbreaking 2007 play Head hunter. In Head hunterthe word “Hunter” is spelled out in all caps in a large wall installation, the letters populated with kitsch tourist memorabilia with “portraits” of Aboriginal people.

Other major works will follow, such as sorry (2008), commissioned by QAGOMA Brisbane in 2008 for the exhibition Contemporary Australia: Optimism, which coincided with the federal government’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The work was then presented backwards by Albert as a reflection on words not backed up by actual results. The 2013 Brothers series experimented with photos of young native men with painted targets on their chests; it was a response to the 2012 shooting of two teenagers by NSW Police. Yininmadyemi You dropped (2015) is a large-scale sculpture in Sydney’s Hyde Park of four standing bullets and three spent bullet cartridges: a memorial to the First Nations men and women who served in the Australian Armed Forces.

When Large format visits Albert, he is days away from the opening of Remark, his first solo exhibition in Melbourne, which will also mark the opening of a new gallery in Collingwood by Sullivan & Strumpf (representing Albert). The show is a sequel of sorts to Conversations With Margaret Preston, which was well-received last year, in which Albert tackled acclaimed non-Indigenous artist Preston’s use of Indigenous motifs in her work. Like Conversations, Remark will be textile-based and incorporate fabrics from its own extensive collection, but this time it engages with imagery in its own right.

“It’s a total evolution,” says Albert. “These works were replicas of the original work and it was important that they tell that story. Now that I’ve done this, [the works are] much more abstract and I’ve started to use fabric in a way that I want…it’s much more out of my head, not his.

Albert sits in his garage in shorts, flip flops and a Hermannsburg Potters t-shirt, surrounded by box upon box storage of his artifacts. In the corner, there’s a Bally Boomerang pinball machine from 1974. In the next room, he says, there’s still box upon box. It’s the first time since buying the house that his entire Aboriginal collection has been in one place, rather than scattered in different storage units.

The meaning of these objects has changed for Albert since he was a boy, when he thought of them as innocent curiosities. You wonder if he’ll ever get tired of collecting and looking at them.

“It’s like a tide – it comes and goes,” he says. “It’s not just cultural, it’s a collector’s mentality. But the difference between that and hoarding is that I have an outlet for the collection. So the answer is no, it won’t go away.

Albert says his work is optimistic. To a layman, this may not seem obvious. Inspired? Yes. Strident? Certainly. But optimistic?

“There’s a significant nuance to everything I do, which is really about being optimistic in the face of adversity,” he says. “When I did the pictures of the boys with the targets for Brothers …it was healing, it was an opportunity for them to engage. For young men then and young men now, that lens doesn’t go away, but it’s how you choose to wear it. Yes, you are a victim by your birthright, but that doesn’t have to dictate who you are.

Remark is presented at Sullivan & Strumpf Melbourne, until December 10.

@tonyalbert

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