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Screen-printer, drawer, photographer, video and text-based artist, Vernon Ah Kee was born in Innisfail in far north Queensland in 1967. He is of the Kuku Yalandji, Yidindji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples of the Innisfail, Cairns, and rainforest regions of North Queensland, the Koko Berrin peoples of Kowanyama in the West Cape region of Queensland, and the Waanji peoples of the North-West Queensland region around Mt Isa.
Ah Kee’s artistic training began in 1986 when he enrolled in a screen-printing course at Cairns TAFE. After graduating from TAFE Ah Kee was employed as a screen-printer at Gum Tree Corner – a local printmaking firm where Ah Kee printed t-shirts. The closure of this business in 1990 was the driving force behind Ah Kee’s 1991 move to Brisbane where, in 1996, he enrolled in the previously mentioned Bachelor of Visual Arts at Griffith University, completing this degree in 1998. He continued with his academic study and in 2000 graduated from the same university with a Bachelor of Visual Art with Honours – Fine Art. At the time of writing Ah Kee is a candidate in Doctor of Visual Art (DVA) program at Griffith University.
In an interview with Bruce McLean for Artlines (2-2007), Ah Kee states, “I’ve always been able to draw. I noticed I had the ability to draw when I was very young.” As a drawer of oversized portraits of family members both past and present, he sees himself as largely self-taught and although having always been a keen drawer, it was not until the final year (1998) in his Bachelor of Visual Arts (Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art) at Queensland College of Art at Griffith University did Ah Kee begin to seriously view himself as “an artist”. Inspired by Gordon Bennett and Richard Bell's use of text in their works, Ah Kee began experimenting with text as an art medium. He investigated various fonts, layouts and approaches to kerning (the process of removing the space between letters), eventually settling on Universal font which is then printed onto vinyl. In the article “Whitefella Normal” for the Summer 2007 edition of Artist Profile, arts writer and curator, Glenn Barkley describes Ah Kee’s text works as creating “an often brutal frisson in the way they confront and impact upon the audience.” Ah Kee’s text works manipulate both the formal qualities and connotations of particular words to subvert the viewer’s habitual understanding of text and language.
Ah Kee’s first solo exhibition, “If I was White” in March 1999 was staged at Metro Arts Building in Brisbane and in 2003 he was invited to participate in Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition “Storyplace, Indigenous Art of Cape York and the Rainforest”. In November 2004 he showed “fantasies of the good”, his first solo exhibition at Bellas Malani’s new Wooloongabba gallery space (his first Bellas solo show, “non people” was in 2002 when the gallery was located in Fortitude Valley). 2004 also provided Ah Kee with another first when he produced his first video work for ArtTV/2004, which was a joint project between SBS and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and that shown at ACMI in Melbourne that same year.
Together with Richard Bell, Ah Kee came up with the idea of creating a Brisbane-based Aboriginal artists co-operative and in 2004 Ah Kee, Bell and Jennifer Herd co-founded ProppaNow and invited Gordon Hookey, Laurie Nilsen, Bianca Beetson, Andrea Fisher and Tony Albert into its membership.
In 2006, during the opening weekend of the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, ProppaNow presented the group show, “There goes the neighbourhood” at their studios in Brisbane’s West End. Ah Kee submitted his 2006 series of large charcoal portraits of male relatives for inclusion. In an interview with Daniel Browning for Artlines (2-2007) Ah Kee says that these portraits are “an attempt to revision the Aborigine as a beautiful and worthy subject full of depth and complexity.” Browning, in his article, describes Ah Kee as one of the country’s best contemporary draftsmen.
In 2007 Ah Kee participated in “Sunshine State, Smart State” at Campbelltown Arts Centre, a show curated by Djon Mundine that included Richard Bell, Fiona Foley, Thanakupi, Ken Thaiday Snr, Tracey Moffat, Judy Watson, Lindy Lee and William Yang.
Ah Kee’s work, including portraits and text work, was also included in “Culture Warriors”, the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennal held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2007/2008 curated by Brenda Croft.
Ah Kee’s profile has now attracted international attention with his 2008 series Gaze, which comprises of 12 charcoal drawn portraits on large scale canvasses, selected for inclusion in “Revolution – Forms That Turn”, the 2008 Biennale of Sydney.
References: Barkley, Glenn, (2007), Whitefella Normal, (Place: St. Leonards, NSW : Artist Profile)
Browning, Daniel, (2007), It’s a Black/White Thing: ProppaNow Artists’ Collective, (Place: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Qld : Artlines)
McLean, Bruce, (2007), Vernon Ah Kee: Family Portraits, (Place: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Qld : Artlines)