Scenes from Vernon Ah Kee’s exhibition profiling the death in custody on Palm Island in 2004 of Mulrunji Doomadgee. Pictured is a sketch of the leader of the uprising, Lex Wotton, and video footage from the moments before the uprising.
NATIONAL: KATE MUNRO* visits the new Vernon Ah Kee exhibition, that centres around the Palm Island uprising.
A strong and impenetrable sadness spread across Aboriginal Australia when Palm Island man Mulrunji Doomadgee died in police custody in 2004.
This tragedy has always struck a deep, sorrowful chord within me, and although I didn’t know Doomadgee, tears have flowed for the senseless loss of a spirited individual.
Queensland-based Vernon Ah Kee, a celebrated Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr artist whose works often ‘speak up’ and represent the truths within the deeper issues of Aboriginal Australia, has more closely been effected by this tragedy and the uprising that followed.
In response he has created a 12 minute video installation based on the 2004 uprising titled ‘Tall Man.’
Ah Kee’s mother was born on Palm Island, 70 kilometres north-west of Townsville.
His grandmother was sent there when she was a young child. To this day he has family members that still live there.
Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley aka the ‘Tall Man,’ arrested Doomadgee on a warm Queensland morning in November of 2004.
Doomadgee’s crime? He had been drinking beer, but was not deemed ‘drunk’ when he swore at Hurley, who was in the process of arresting another Aboriginal man.
Not long after being arrested by Snr Sgt Hurley, Doomadgee was dead.
An autopsy report, read out at a community meeting some days later, stated that Doomadgee had died with injuries including bruising to the head, four broken ribs and a ‘completely ruptured’ liver that was practically ‘cleaved in two.’
What followed was the product of a devastated community and an intense backlash of anger and frustration that resulted in the 2004 Palm Island uprisings.
A mob of Palm Island residents, apparently led by Ah Kee’s cousin Lex Wotton, set fire to the police station and courthouse.
Ah Kee’s ‘Tall Man,’ showing at the Gertrude Contemporary Gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival, explores happenings during the uprising captured on video through hand-held cameras and mobile phones; footage used to convict Wotton of the charge of ‘inciting a uprising.’
It’s a four channel moving image installation, that encapsulates a time in history that will never be forgotten; a time in history marking an up-rising of a community that had had enough.
Although the work’s title is closely related to journalist Chloe Hooper’s award winning book, ‘The Tall Man,’ based on the circumstances surrounding Mulrunji’s death, Ah Kee’s ‘Tall Man’ seems more of an idea of Wotton as the ‘Tall Man,’ the man that rose up in protest and anger.
Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man,’ is a reference to Hurley, but also to a revered spirit of the Island, that locals are aware of as a type of mix between Big Foot and the Bogey Man.
Vernon Ah Kee, born in North Queensland in 1967 and now based in Brisbane has been described as a “provocative and overtly political” artist who tells it like it is.
The strengths of his works are in confronting issues and perceptions head on with a raw approach that generally leaves a viewer with no false assumptions as to the message he is sending.
His works are often a depiction and analysis of the Black/White dichotomy.
‘Tall Man,’ is no exception as a vivid representation of events that took place in the aftermath of an unbearable injustice.
Ah Kee’s artist statement reads; ‘While Tall Man is an idea of Lex Wotton’s involvement in the uprising, it is also about the people of Palm Island and the circumstances in which they live their lives.’
‘As a people, the Aborigine in Australia exists in a world where our place is always prescribed for us and we are always in jeopardy.’
There’s something haunting by telling this story, through video installation. Whether it is a stream- lined narrative, or snap shots and snippets edited together in chaotic order, like Ah Kee’s piece it’s striking when placed in a dark gallery where sound bites resonate.
The haunting expression of an uprising that epitomised the intense heights of Aboriginal Australia’s discontent and anger, could also be perceived as a fitting and spiritual representation of the essence of Palm Island’s troubled history.
“When we think of Palm Island, as a place, as a construct of Queensland government presumption and sensibility, it evokes notions, and indeed memories, of the ‘Aborigine’s Act,’ and words like ‘Protectionism’ and ‘Assimilation,” he says.
“When we think of the Palm Island uprising we think images coloured by racism, injustice and a death in custody.”
Palm Island became a place of forced Aboriginal settlement in 1918, and was one of the last to be established under the paternalistic government.
A stunning setting of crystal clear blue waters and tropical bush land, its surroundings are in stark contrast to the injustices that have occurred in such a place.
A mismatch of Aboriginal people from many different nations were forced together on a settlement that was seen as a “last resort” for “problematic Aborigines”.
According to an article on Palm Island’s history written by Dave Riley in the Green Left Weekly in 2004 the mob sent to Palm Island in 1918 also included single mothers of mixed race children, Aboriginals deemed ‘trouble makers’ and criminals recently released from prison.
Riley states that over the next two decades approximately “1,600 people from 40 different Aboriginal groups across Queensland were removed by the state government and dumped on the island”.
Here, not surprisingly, we had our government of the day hellishly interfering with an age-old Indigenous understanding of blood lines, family kinships, culture and community.
The dark shadow it cast over Palm Island, is evident today.
Yet Aboriginal activism prevails on the island. A strong resilience to oppressive policies and institutionalised racism also breeds hope of a better tomorrow, not just for Palm Islanders, but for Aboriginal Australia generally.
Ah Kee’s piece, ‘Tall Man,’ may prove to be a vitally important work in establishing a certain truth within the complexity, or as some may see it, the simplicity of what caused the series tragic events of 2004 in Palm Island.
Projected from the perspective of a strong, intelligent and culturally aware Aboriginal Australian artist, with obvious links to the island and its residents, Ah Kee portrays a different story from the court case that convicted Wotton, although essentially using the same ‘evidence.’
“How then do we make sense of the contradictions that present themselves in conflicts as this when ‘conflict’ for a group of people has differing resonance in two communities when only one of those communities is Aboriginal,” Ah Kee asks.
Ah Kee, a member of the ground breaking arts collective ProppaNOW, along with other well-known Queensland-based artists Richard Bell and Gordon Hookey, has completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts through the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University.
He is also a lecturer and currently in the process of completing a Doctorate of Visual Arts. A seasoned professional artist with numerous group and some major solo shows under his belt, Ah Kee was selected, in 2009, to represent Australia at the prestigious Venice Biennale, Italy in an exhibition titled ‘Once Removed.’
Continually questioning this nation’s western societal constructs and thinking, Ah Kee’s artist statement for ‘Tall Man,’ expresses a mounting frustration with our government and nation, yet is a logical and constructive line of questioning.
“When Aboriginal communities can be ascribed notions of autonomy and freewill but are prevented from demonstrating such rights, how do we exercise our distinctiveness?
“When Aboriginal people are described as innovative and valued but are continually hampered by paternalist policies, how do we say who we are, voice our desires?’ “We design a language and an articulation that serves us. “And we ask questions that come hard to those whom are asking. We ask questions that make us difficult to dismiss.”
*Kate Munro is a Gamilaroi journalist with a long history in Aboriginal media.
** For further information on Vernon Ah Kee’s video installation ‘Tall Man,’ please visit these sites:
‘The Tall Man,’ a documentary film about the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee, will be released by Hopscotch films on 17 November nation-wide.
The documentary is directed by Tony Krawitz and produced by Darren Dale; the film is based on the award winning novel by Chloe Hooper.
To view the ‘The Tall Man’ documentary trailer go to: http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/the-tall-man-documentary/trailer