Holding the mirror up to racism

“CITYNEWS” recently paid a visit to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House for an event associated with its latest exhibition, “Insurgence,” which  features the work of Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Hookey, Jennifer Herd, Laurie Nilsen, Megan Cope, Tony Albert and Richard Bell from the ‘proppaNOW’ collective, and of former proppaNOW member Andrea Fisher.

Richard Bell's work, far left,  ‘We Own This’, 2012. Acrylic on canvas

Richard Bell’s work, far left, ‘We Own This’, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, photo Rob Little

It was as well that MOAD director Daryl Karp reminded us that the museum “builds on the long tradition of exploring difficult and important issues in Old Parliament House,” as things got pretty lively in the debate of the afternoon.

The exhibition is the final part in the museum’s Centenary program called “Art of Influence.”

“Insurgence” is a new exhibition of works by members of Brisbane collective ‘proppaNOW’, but the specific occasion was a symposium for which MOAD had gathered together some of the finest contemporary revolutionary minds in Aboriginal Australia and they weren’t about to let any of us go home for a good night’s sleep.

Chaired by Margo Neale, the National Museum’s seasoned Indigenous curatorial fellow, the symposium, “Art and Politics,” saw Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey, Vernon Ah Kee and Jennifer Herd, joined by Canberra textile and glass artist, Lyndy Delian, taking on the biggest issues for our nation.

Preceding the discussion was the screening of the film, “The Dinner Party”.

It will surprise nobody familiar with artist Richard Bell’s work to learn that, for a white Australian watching, it was like having a bucket of cold water tipped over you. The film was holding the mirror up to the very middle-class people who imagine they/we have surmounted the shackles of racism.

Explained simply, the film is set in a future where China has bought Australia and decides, on the strength of an old agreement, to give it back to its original inhabitants.

Activist Gary Foley plays “the first Aboriginal president of the People’s Republic of Australia,” exulting from the podium while quoting from figures like Malcolm X (Foley wrote most of his own lines).

While a rollicking barbecue is enjoyed outside by Aboriginal Australians, inside, a group of elite Australians consider their likely future status as they sip white wine from long stemmed glasses. It’s not long before their fears and prejudices come to the surface, especially when they discover that one of their numbers, a beautiful girl, is a light-skinned Aboriginal Australian. “You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal,” says one of the guests. “Genocide? A couple of people got killed,” opines another.

Symposium guests view "The Dinner Party".

Symposium guests view “The Dinner Party”.

At another level altogether a pair of “nutty puppets” analyse the developing situation.

With little time for the predominantly white audience at the symposium to squirm, a lively discussion ensued.

Neale diplomatically steered her way through the introductions with a touch of humour too. While Bell was delineating the ideas behind the film, Vernon Ah Kee elaborated on his view that if you scratch an Aussie you’ll find a racist, arguing that Australia was the most colour-based racist country in the world and that Indigenous Australians had to go overseas to gain respect.

He pointed to the hypocrisy evident at the dinner table – “these people all think they are good people…but they commit bad deeds.. this is not a good country.”

Ah Kee is also a wry humorist, recently inventing a new word called “Austracism” which presently appears on the exterior windows of old Parliament House along with a quotation from “Julius Caesar”.

While the panellists agreed that Aboriginal Australians shared an ability to laugh at themselves, it became clear by the end of the discussion that the question under discussion was no laughing matter.

Vernon Ah Kee inside  Old Parliament House windows inscribed with the word "Austracism"

Vernon Ah Kee inside Old Parliament House windows inscribed with the word “Austracism”,
Photo Rob Little

The film had delivered a bucket of cold water, but the exhibition inside MOAD’s main gallery spaces goes even further in exploring the history of mistreatment, ostracism, cruelty and bad faith to which our original habitants have been subjected.

I must say that while it was riveting and stimulating, I found both the exhibition and the symposium very disturbing for, like many others, I had convinced myself that many of the issues raised by Bell, Ah Kee, Hookey and the members of proppaNOW, were well on the way to being solved.

That’s not what the artists are saying.

“Insurgence,” at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, until March 11, 2014, open daily 9am–5pm (closed Christmas Day). MOAD warns some artworks contain explicit images, language and ideas that may offend some viewers.

Ellie Gilbert, wife of the late artist and Aboriginal activist Kevin Gilbert, will give a talk in the House of Representatives Chamber, 12.30 Saturday, November 16, all welcome.

l. Margo Neale, centre Vernon Ah Kee, r. Richard Bell, photo Rob Little

l. Margo Neale, centre Vernon Ah Kee, r. Richard Bell, photo Rob Little


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