TONY ALBERT: FAMILY
FAMILY at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney, marks Tony Albert's return to the Australian commercial gallery circuit after a three-year hiatus during which the young artist focused on large-scale international commissions and exhibitions abroad. Invading the entire ground floor of Sullivan+Strumpf's large Zetland premises, FAMILY premieres Albert's impressiveRearranging Our History (2002-11), the second in a trilogy of wall installations developed over the past decade, alongside works from his ongoing Be Deadly project and a series of new collages on aluminium. The exhibition also includes a monumental painting by the late Arthur Pambegan, Jr., created as part of a collaborative project between Albert and the senior artist from Aurukun, Cape York, before his passing in late 2010.
FAMILY's central theme is one that runs throughout Albert's practice: positivity in the face of adversity, the importance of family - both biological and extended - and an exploration of "difference" at a moment in human history when we are most globally connected.
Comprised of ninety-seven reclaimed oil-on-velvet paintings and stretching more than eleven meters long, Rearranging Our History's salon hang mimics domestic walls decorated by family portraits. The installation, however, shows images of Aboriginal representation, ranging from honourable "tribesmen", noble women and sad children to nature scenes of koalas, kangaroos, and kookaburras. Using red and white paint, Albert counters these original velvet paintings with symbols and text in an effort "to give voices back to the men, women, and children who have been dispossessed and disadvantaged." At the center of the piece is a passage lifted from Kofi Annan's 2001 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and dotted throughout the work are quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., former prime minister Kevin Rudd's 2008 apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia, and even lyrics from OutKast's ever popular 2003 song, Hey Ya!. Familial word s such as "father" and "mother" are also translated into Girramay, the language of Albert's family in Far North Queensland. It's clear that the voices Albert wishes to return to these stereotyped people are not only diverse but also deeply informed by and engaged with the world at large. For Albert, "Aboriginal issues have long been echoed throughout the world by people in similar positions, and we have shared in each other's struggles. The issues I make art about, including oppression in many forms, are global. Even when the source material is local, they are part of a connected global conversation."
FAMILY also features works from Albert's ongoing Be Deadly project. Initially exhibited at the 2011 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair under the auspices of Griffith University, subsequently included in Variable Truth at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, and later this year to appear in The Future's Not What It Used To Be at Chapter in Cardiff, Wales, Be Deadly is another instance where Albert deftly fuses the local and the global. The project began with the development of a poster in the political style of Redback Graphix (operating in Sydney between 1980 and 1994) with "BE DEADLY" emblazoned above the smiling faces of three children stylized from photographs of Albert's young cousins. The poster's black, red, and yellow message is simple: it encourages young Aboriginal people to stand together, be positive, and believe in themselves as "deadly", colloquially understood across Australia to mean "amazing", "great", and "the best". The poster is foremost an artwork for schools and children, as during his own childhood, Albert says, "it would have been great to have a poster likeBe Deadly in the classroom that spoke in our language and celebrated people that we recognized in ourselves. When my sister and I were growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane, we often felt invisible. At school we were taught that an Englishman named Captain Cook discovered Australia and that Aboriginal people lived in the desert. It was very confusing to us as our history lessons never agreed with what we learnt at home of who we were, where we came from, and what it really meant to be Aboriginal."
Alongside the posters, which are tiled to the walls of the Sullivan+Strumpf gallery, FAMILY also includes a unique collage that incorporates the Be Deadly design as well as the title statement translated into numerous other languages, including Tibetan, Maori, and Indonesian, which Albert garnered from his international artist friends, respectively, Gonkar Gyatso, Shane Cotton, and Eko Nugroho. The process of translation is an important strategy throughout Albert's practice, and demonstrates his commitment to communicating his ideas, concerns, and messages to a wide audience. Significantly, the reoccurrence of multiple languages also recognises Albert's firm belief that equality cannot be achieved by attempting to create "sameness", but rather through the recognition and understanding of "difference". For Albert, "difference" is central to our humanity.
The idea of the extended family also resonates throughout Albert's artistic practice, particularly with his collaborative projects such as Pay Attention(2009-10), the twenty-five-meter-long text piece that features twenty-six different artists' works and was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia as part of unDisclosed, the 2012 National Indigenous Art Triennial. In FAMILY, the collaborative aspect of Albert's practice is represented by the inclusion of an incredible six-meter-long masterpiece by the late Arthur Pambegan, Jr. The two artists first met in Brisbane in 2003 at the Queensland Art Gallery's Story Place: Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest. Over the years, they developed a strong relationship and were both welcomed into each other's families. Pambegan's work in FAMILY is titled Ngamp yotam ma kee antan (2010), which translates from Wik-Mungkan, one of the languages Pambegan spoke in his hometown of Aurukun in Far North Queensland's Cape York region, to mean "Working together to achieve a common goal". The work was created as part of Albert and Pambegan's Old Man, Young Man project (2009-ongoing) that set out to record their artistic and personal conversations and to explore how the ideas and art of a young man and an old man from two very different cultures could intersect and connect. Following Pambegan's sad passing in late 2010, the project was suspended for a period of mourning. In October 2011, Albert returned to Aurukun and, with the blessing of Pambegan's family, is continuing the project in honour of the late artist's legacy. Pambegan's inclusion in FAMILY is especially poignant as it highlights Albert's sincere hope that we may work together to pass on to the next generation the compassion, the ability, and the openness to acknowledge and to embrace difference. For an extended family to exist across borders, cultures, colours, and generations - such is the legacy Albert wishes to share and the future he seeks to create.