Vernon AH KEE

The installation tall man asks questions, questions that compel. What of Lex Wotton? And why don’t we talk about Palm Island?

Anyone who knows Vernon Ah Kee knows he is a quiet man. He is a man whose contained anger at the historical and continual injustices that Indigenous people have been subjected to is almost tangible. Indeed, I have sometimes heard it said that his quiet anger is confronting and disturbing. In September 2010, Ah Kee arrived in my office at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, to prepare himself for a lecture he was to present to my class of art history students later that day. Among the many topics we discussed over a cup of tea was his video installation tall man 2010. He spoke gently of his anger and his frustration at the November 2004 ‘Palm Island Riots’ and about how Australia did not seem to understand or even care about what really happened on the island on the day of the riots or about the events that led to the riots occurring in the first place.

Almost six years later, Ah Kee, the quiet man, has produced a body of work that in concept, content, application and emotion screams so loudly that it leaves you reeling from the experience.

Ah Kee’s four-channel video installation comprises footage of the events on the day of the riots and of the subsequent court hearings in nearby mainland Townsville. The imagery documented in this work has been sourced from television newsreels, from private footage and, in a courageous and surprising move, from mobile-phone footage and CCTV of events unfolding inside the Palm Island police station and compound.

The work is one of subtle and glaring contrasts. In one scene in the video, Palm Island’s exasperated and softly spoken mayor, Erykah Kyle, stands in the island’s town square reading to a gathering of island residents the preliminary findings from the autopsy performed on the body of Mulrunji (Cameron) Doomadgee. Among those assembled to listen is Lex Wotton, who soon takes command of Kyle’s microphone and stands tall, frustrated and undefeated as he expresses his anger at what he has just heard.

In another scene, Wotton strides with determined purpose into the police station yard, wielding a large garden spade, which is contrasted with a scene from inside the police station where we hear a police officer reporting on what is happening around him. He has fear in his voice as he ‘kits up’ and cocks his gun in preparation for a violent confrontation.

Then, on a veranda in the police compound among the chaos and panic of the police mobilising themselves for battle, a ripened bunch of bananas swings gently in the breeze, as if to tell us that life goes on—someone will return to consume the tropical fruit when the madness of the day is over.

Ah Kee’s installation also shows us how surreal life can be. While Palm Island burns, children continue to dance and laugh at the local lookout as the person filming the home video comments on the goings-on down in the township—without forgetting to acknowledge the beauty of the view across to the mainland. A disconcerting moment, to be sure.

The work is a departure for Ah Kee, who can now add video documentation to his oeuvre of original film, drawings and text panels (the last two of which are included alongside the film installation). He has carefully sliced and spliced the imagery to compose a work of such beautiful trauma that, to some, it will be challenging and confronting. Nonetheless, it is a work that needs to be seen beyond the confines of the gallery walls. It is a work that should be prescribed as essential viewing for all Australians.

Tess Allas