Artist Vernon Ah-Kee’s large-scale charcoal portraits of his family confront you with raw emotion. They’re the faces of pain and struggle, of heartache and sorrow, of anger and warmth. They’re also the faces of Aboriginal people who were not considered fully human, people who didn’t count.
Mr Ah Kee is a Kuku-Yalanji, Waanji, Yidindji and Gugu Yimithirr man hailing from North Queensland.
He was born the same year as the 1967 Referendum. The historic vote saw over ninety per cent of Australians vote yes to count Aboriginal people as part of the population.
"We weren't citizens, we had no status as people. We were more considered literally property of the government," he told NITV.
“When you’re born with dark skin, and dark hair, curly hair, you’re reminded every day that you’re a blackfella and in North Queensland that is probably a little more extreme. That’s an everyday experience."
"I was aware that growing up all the Aboriginal families were all the same. We were all very poor, and when we saw each other at school, we were aware that we were the same. It’s only when you are able to set yourself aside from that context, later on as a young adult or as an adult, that you realize the inequity of the existence of an Aborigine in this country.”
His latest exhibition speaks directly to this moment in time, a time before Aboriginal people were counted as citizens and included in the census. 'Not an Animal or a Plant'explores the themes surrounding the 1967 Referendum, and the varying degrees of underlying racism in contemporary Australian society.
It is one of Mr Ah Kee's largest solo exhibitions to date. It includes large-scale charcoal drawings, text-based works and custom surfboards.
Many of the haunting images are meant to be confronting. He hopes they humanize Indigenous Australians and their struggles to the wider society.
"It really rams home the idea that we're not talking about history here, we talking about the lives of Aborigines,” he says.
His show also explores specific events in recent Australian history, most notably the 2004 Palm Island riots and the scale of injustice this brought to the community.
He says there has been a dramatic shift in the way the Australia sees Aboriginal people and the way it sees itself.
"That’s happened in the Palm Island riots in 2004 and the Cronulla Riots in 2005. So those two things together, that happened almost exactly a year apart, shifted this country’s sense of itself,” he says.
“Palm Island was clearly an exercise of putting blackfellas in their place. And, the fact that Lex Wotton was locked up for it and the policeman involved in the death in custody on Palm Island was found to have no case to answer for, that was clearly an exercise of putting blackfellas in their place, as much as Cronulla was an exercise of putting people of difference in their place."
While his images project a stark reminder of racism and politics in Australia, Mr Ah Kee hopes a humanity is seen behind the haunting faces.
"These are blackfellas and not just blackfellas... Some of them are my heroes, but you strip that away and they are ordinary blackfellas. I am like them and they are like me. Hopefully, that’s the appreciation that people get on their first encounter.”
Not an Animal or a Plant is at the National Art School until March 11.