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Sorry, Not Sorry
We are entrapped by the decisions (or lack of decisions) made by those who hold the reins, steering our society into what they want to see, but we are not powerless. For centuries art has initiated the turning point of emerging ideologies, of change. Through art we have a voice, we have the power not to succumb to political misgivings, lies and negligence (Negash, 2004).
We apologise. We say sorry. Two short phrases that were repetitively enforced in the 2007 ‘Sorry speech’, made by the then, newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. His speech focussed on reconciling the ‘hurt, humiliation, degradation and the sheer brutality the stolen generation’ [endured], and the need to progress ‘forward together with confidence to the future’ (Rudd, 2007). Yet, six years have come and gone and we are no more one than country is city; nothing has been reformed—Indigenous health systems still have not improved, people are still dying in custody (Ockenden, 2013). Aboriginal Australians are still excluded, but, through the recent birth of the voice of Indigenous art across Australia, they are no longer invisible; the beauty of their revealed creativity contradicts the once bigoted perception of their culture.
Sorry; it eases our consciences—but it does not assist the numerous Aborigines who die from HIV or continued alcohol abuse, nor does it save those who are murdered in custody. Words are not actions. This is the view I established on viewing the work Sorry (2008), composed by young Aboriginal artist Tony Albert, when attending Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art’s (QAGOMA’s) exhibition, ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’
(1 June – 7 October 2013).
In Sorry, a simply structured work of large size, whose subject matter completely deviates from stereotypical ideas of ‘Indigenous art’, Albert conveys a powerful political point. Each letter is covered in what Albert terms Aboriginalia (Albert, 2009)—imprinted copper, painted, wood carved and sketched portraits of labelled and kitsch Aboriginals—all fake Aboriginal art made by white people. The focus point, however, is not the fake art but the fake apology, the stark grey, strongly structured arrangement of the letters.
At Albert’s request, the work was installed backwards in this exhibition, to prompt audiences to question what has improved for Australia’s Indigenous community since the Apology (Albert, 2013). Engaging the viewer to question their superficial use of the word sorry, specifically through his meticulous attention to the selection and arrangement of Aboriginalia, he questions the motive of Rudd’s formal apology. The despondent facial expressions, poses and the medium of the portraits each interrogate infinitesimal details of the speech. Prompting the viewer, not through anger, but more effectively via sadness and guilt to ask the question; why did he bother, if amending actions were not to follow? Who really profited, as neither he, nor any succeeding political leader, has endeavoured to initiate any legislative effort to ‘close the gap’, to bring forth, as Rudd proposed in his speech, mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
As shown in many works in the exhibition My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, Aboriginal artists are using the beauty of their art to strike emotion, creating a platform to voice their concerns; to ultimately generate change. One very clear message engendered through many of the works is that Aboriginals are human beings, and deserve the right to be treated appropriately, a right that is still not guaranteed. This is what ‘Sorry’ exemplifies.
This same message of social derision, inequity and despondency is intensified through viewing the Tall Man (2010), by contemporary Aboriginal artist Vernon Ah Kee. It is pieced together footage of the day a tipping point arose subsequent to the public report, which defied the evidence, of Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee’s death in custody (Ah Kee, 2010). Through his meticulous attention to detail, Ah Kee is able to profoundly affect his audience, striking a nerve, from the stark emotions, the rage, the grief, the pain. However, Ah Kee further influences the viewers’ emotions through his deliberate variations in pace; chaotic footage of the incineration of the police headquarters and barracks and riots on the streets, to the message ‘no signal’, allowing emotions to sink in.
People act on emotion, and when emotional people act together as a majority, changes occur, reforms happen and referendums arise. Both Tony Albert’s and Vernon Ah Kee’s works, Sorry and Tall Man respectively, strike deliberate blows to viewers’ emotions. Instead of delving into historical events, the genocide and rape, they probe to where Australia’s Indigenous community will stand in the future. But how can it flourish as Mr Rudd proposed in his ‘Sorry, not sorry’ speech, if our politicians are not prepared to take a stance, to walk the walk? If it is action we want, then it is action we must initiate. Take the stance we want to see; walk and talk the truth, not lies and deceit, which our politicians seem to master. It is through art that we have the power to make a difference.
Tony Albert, Girramay people, Sorry, 2008. Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters, 99 objects: 200 x 510 x 10cm (installed). The James C Sourris, AM, Collection. Purchased 2008 with funds from James C Sourris through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.
Vernon Ah Kee, Kuku Yalanji/Waanyi/Yidinyji/Guugu Yimithirr people, Tall Man (still), 2010. Four-channel digital video installation from DVD: 4:3, 11:10 minutes, colour, sound, ed.2/3. Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.
Albert, T., ‘Curios of the contemporary’, The Australian, 17 March 2009. Retrieved 4 October 2013, from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/curios-of-the-contemporary/story-e6...
Albert, T., ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’, Media Kit, Queensland Art Gallery, 1 June 2013. Retrieved 4 October 4, 2013, from http://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/149386/MyCountr...
Ah Kee, V., ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’, Media Kit, Queensland Art Gallery, 1 June 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013, from http://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/149386/MyCountr...
Negash, G., ‘Art Invoked: A Mode of Understanding and Shaping the Political’, International Political Science Review, Vol.25, No.2, 2004, pp.185-201. Retrieved 4 October 2013, from JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1601676?uid=3737536&uid=2129&uid=2...
Ockenden, W., ‘Growing number of Indigenous deaths in custody alarms Aboriginal leaders’, ABC News, 24 May 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-24/death-in-custody-report-alarms-ind...
Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, GOMA To Host Major Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art Exhibition, 2 April 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013, from QAGOMA: http://www.visualarts.qld.gov.au/news/media/2013/issue043_release/index....
Rudd, K., ‘Kevin Rudd’s Sorry Speech’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2013, from http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/02/13/1202760379056.html?