I use imagery and source material gathered from across the globe to interrogate the human condition. I also draw upon personal and collective histories to question how we understand and imagine difference. Weaving together text appropriated from popular music, film, fiction and art history along with clichéd images of extraterrestrials, photographs of my family in Lucha Libre and an immense collection of ‘Aboriginalia’ (a term I use to describe objects such as ash trays, drink coasters, velvet paintings, tea-towels and playing cards which include naïve images of Australian Aboriginal people and their culture). I present a tapestry of ideas. Throughout my practice, I attempt to enact both good and bad cop, confrontational and unapologetic but with a dash of humour and a good serving of hope.

Humanity comes into being through language. Language gives us a sense of self, defining who we are, and maintains the parameters of our cultural understandings of ourselves and others. Languages create differences, they create otherness—and miscommunication between language groups has often been both the impetus for and rapid catalyst of countless conflicts and wars.

Throughout international colonial history, the removal of language and voice has been instrumental in abolishing the custodial practice and ritual of Indigenous cultures. In addition, removal of language is an attempt at the removal of selfhood. With this, the imposition of new languages and ways of communicating has been instrumental in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their cultures and their lands.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that many artists (from Barbara Kruger to Australian artists Vernon Ah Kee and Gordon Bennett) have taken the exploration of language as their subject. Tony Albert’s recent works are an invaluable contribution to this field from his particular Indigenous perspective. His most recent text-based works assert and declare the power of the written word and the relationship between word, thought and emotion, and ask viewers to question their own responses to the works.

Pay Attention 2009–10 is a large work that utilises both text and imagery. The image makes reference to American artist Bruce Nauman, whose Pay Attention 1973 is in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. Both Albert and Nauman make the same direct statement—‘pay attention mother fuckers’—and, in similar ilk to the masking playfulness of Nauman’s text works, Albert too is making a statement of gravity.

Unlike Nauman, Albert delivers his text not only in the reverse, but also in its non-mirrored state, conveying a statement that is confronting, demanding and unapologetic. In this work the artist has engaged with contemporary artists from all corners of Indigenous Australia, who have contributed the 25 mirrored characters comprising one half of this courageous work of art. These artists include Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Daniel Boyd, Megan Cope, Dale Harding, Gordon Hookey, Craig Koomeeta, Archie Moore, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan Jr, Rahel Ungwanaka, Judy Watson and Jason Wing. Individually, each letter reflects the aesthetic and content of each artist’s practice; but in each other’s company, the components resonate with a commanding collective voice of contemporary Australian artists who proudly represent their individual identities, their communities, their Country and their culture.

This work interrogates a largely established assumption regarding the ‘Indigenous brand’—what it is to be an artist who is Indigenous, and the context in which such artists’ work is interpreted.[1] The integrity and authenticity of works of art produced by Indigenous artists working outside traditional custodial making is often questioned, as is the colour of their skin, and their claim to indigeneity. In response to this, Pay Attention is a declaration of a changing environment, asserting the breadth, diversity and unpredictability of cultural material, a changing environment in which some artists create works which reflect upon and reinvigorate tradition, while others forge new ways of communicating such material, as well as referencing the impact of the post-modern world in all its ideological and physical complexities. It is this complex and heterogeneous mix of artists who sit at the forefront of conversations regarding contemporary Australian race politics.

Accordingly, Pay Attention makes a statement so bold that no one could deny this collective voice’s overwhelming declaration of an artist’s right to produce works of art without restrictions engendered in ethnographic prescription, thus redefining the parameters in which this work is contextualised.

The considerable sophistication seen within Albert’s practice discloses an artistic maturity that draws inventively and confidently upon satire, subversive representation and directly expressed political opinion. This blend continues to engage diverse audiences while interrogating the many individual, institutional and systematic methods by which Indigenous artists and peoples are classified and represented within contemporary Australian society.

Glenn Iseger-Pilkington

[1] The term ‘Indigenous brand’ refers to a publicly accepted understanding of Indigenous Australian art, which has been developed over time and is associated with a group of particular aesthetics. This understanding has become restrictive for contemporary Indigenous Australian artists making work outside of these particular aesthetics.