The Island (Part 2)

By Andrew Brooks

7 February, 2020

This is part two of an extended review considering Vernon Ah Kee’s The Island at Campbelltown Arts Centre. You can read part one here

At the centre of Vernon Ah Kee’s exhibition are two multiple channel video works—one old and one new—that bring into sharp relief how central policing and detention are to the preservation of Australia as a white possession. ‘tall man’ (2010), a remarkable four-channel video work depicting the 2004 Palm Island riots that occurred in the wake of Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death in custody, screens in a room adjacent to Ah Kee’s latest video work, ‘The Island’ (2018). ‘The Island’ is a three-channel video that juxtaposes long-shots and sweeping aerial footage of Palm Island against personal testimonials from refugees, who each describe their passage to Australia and subsequent imprisonment in the offshore detention centres on small Pacific states—Manus, Nauru, and Christmas Island. These are all territories that Australia, in neo-colonial fashion, has engaged as clients to outsource a population deemed surplus. Taken together, the two video works draw a direct line between the offshore imprisonment of First Nations people and the indefinite imprisonment of refugees.

If the founding of the Australian state is predicated on the transformation of whiteness into property, then its maintenance depends on the continued protection of this property value from both an internal threat (Indigenous sovereignty) and an external threat (the refugee and migrant Other). Ah Kee shows us that the ‘Pacific Solution’ (the alarmingly titled official Australian Government refugee policy that was in place from 2001 to 2008 and which continues by other names today) goes back to federation. Palm Island/Bwgcolman, a small island on the Great Barrier Reef some 65 kilometres north-west of Townsville, was established as an offshore prison camp for Aboriginal people in 1918. Under the paternalistic Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897, Aboriginal people could be removed from the mainland to Palm Island without reason or trial. As Deirdre Tedmanson writes in her study of Palm Island:

Thousands of Indigenous people were forcibly removed to these advanced penal “camps”…Without arrest or trial, Indigenous peoples were incarcerated at Hull Creek, Fraser and ultimately shipped to Palm Island…The Queensland coastal Islands became the destination for those Aboriginal people especially identified for “harsher treatment” for reasons including: “offences against discipline”; “acts subversive of good order”; “disobeying an order to stop dancing”; “having an insulting manner”; being “idle.” According to Merston, Chief Protector in 1901: the Islands were a “penal settlement in which the worst blacks are to be consigned indiscriminately.”1

Between 1918 and 1971, over 4,000 Indigenous people were forcibly removed to Palm Island and subjected to brutal conditions including slave labour, regular beatings, malnutrition, and arbitrary punishments such as isolated detention. 2 The prison camp functioned as a powerful tool of governmentality: a way to remove troublemakers and agitators from the mainland; an attempt to de-culture Indigenous people; and a state sanctioned form of brutality that resulted in countless premature deaths. Offshore imprisonment not only physically removed Indigenous people (and the sovereignty and sociality that their very presence asserts) from the white imaginary, but it can also be understood as an attempt to destroy connections to place, language, kinship, customs and traditions. By 1971, over 57 different First Nations groups were represented on the Island, including the Manbarra people, who are the traditional owners. Palm Island officially ceased to operate as a penal colony in the same year, and yet the autonomy of Palm Islanders remains circumscribed by the settler state, with the population still subject to intensive policing and state sanctioned forms of neglect. As Lex Wotton’s mother, Agnes, says toward the end of ‘tall man’, in an impassioned speech outside the Townsville Courthouse following the conviction of her son for inciting the riots:

They only destroyed the police station, and a bit of the [police] quarters, as I’ve seen it. They’ve only destroyed that because that’s the thing that took their manhood away in the firstplace!…Because there’s no jobs over there. People are distressed. We are oppressed people.

‘tall man’ responds to this history and continuation of neglect. The riots took place after the results of Doomadgee’s autopsy report were read (although the cause of death was withheld) at a public meeting of Palm Island residents. Doomadgee had died on November 19, 2004 while incarcerated in the Palm Island police station for allegedly causing a public nuisance. Police claimed that Doomadgee had sustained his injuries tripping on a concrete step outside, but reports circulated that his injuries—which included a cut above his right eye, four broken ribs, as well as a ruptured liver and portal vein (Queensland State Coroner 2010)—were the result of police brutality inflicted by a white police officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. At the meeting, Lex Wotton, who is Ah Kee’s cousin, takes the microphone, asking the visibly upset crowd: ‘Will we accept this as an accident?…I’m not gonna accept this and I know a lot of you other people don’t. So let’s do something.’

Vernon Ah Kee, tall man, (2010)
Installation view, Vernon Ah Kee: The Island, Campbelltown Arts Centre, (2020)
Four channel digital video, colour, stereo sound, 11:07 min
Image Credit: Document Photography

In the riot that follows, the police station, the police barracks, and the courthouse are all burnt down. This act of destruction can be read as a strike against the legitimacy of the settler state and its preservation of the logic of white possession at all costs. Ah Kee’s video is a work of resistant media making, harnessing the footage—mostly comprised of CCTV feeds, hand-held video cameras, and early camera phones—that was used to convict Lex Wotton (and sent anonymously to Ah Kee in the wake of the trial) to produce a counter-narrative of the riot as an expression of resistance and refusal.

The resonance between the history of Palm Island and the contemporary imprisonment of refugees on Manus Island is irrefutable. The maintenance of both sites relies on a bending or suspension of Australian law, sanctioning indefinite imprisonment without trial. Both sites are expressions of a desire to preserve the integrity of the white nation by excising the racialised Other to a spatial and temporal periphery.

‘The Island’ overlays the testimony of refugees with images of: Palm Island and its oceans, skies, and beaches; chain link fences and barbed wire; Afghan war rugs. The testimonies are both voiced and subtitled, and they fragment and echo across the three-channels of the projection, haunting the natural landscape. ‘you know, when you’re thinking about survival you have to find a safer place.’ ‘you wished you were dead before seeing this sort of undignified treatment.’ These scraps come together to reveal a narrative about how the state’s deployment of racial violence in the name of self-preservation is predicated on the construction of a political subject who can only be understood when pitted against a racialised figure (Ferreira da Silva’s ‘affectable I’). This racialised figure exists as a non-being who ‘stands before the horizon of death.’3 In the contemporary settler state, the refugee is also made to occupy this position. They become a non-being against which the white nation can be defined and which the white nation must be preemptively protected from. Justin Clemens and Dominic Pettman elaborate:

That refugees can be locked up indefinitely without trial, by the very states that proclaim their support for human rights (indeed, can go to war on the back of such proclamations), suggests that refugees are a special case of those “sacred beings” which states produce and maintain on their own territories as unassimilable to the category of “citizen.”4 

•   •   •

I’m writing this piece with an intense feeling of exhaustion, a feeling that seems to have no end. I’m writing this in the week before Invasion Day, as the leaders of our major political parties double down on the white possessive claim to celebrate a day that marks, for First Nations people, and to quote another of Ah Kee’s works not included in this exhibition, ‘theendoflivingandthebeginningofsurvival’. I’m writing this in the midst of the catastrophic and devastating fires that are ravaging the country, taking the lives of people, animals, and entire habitats; fires that are the culmination of an unfettered extractivism endemic to colonial capital; fires that might have been minimised if the political leaders of this country recognised the depth and value of Indigenous knowledge in relation to fire and land management practices. I’m writing in the wake of calls by the Federal Minister for Home Affairs to establish an Aboriginal identity register. I’m writing in a time when white supremacists openly gather on beaches and in the houses of parliament. I’m writing amidst the ongoingness of institutional racism, the most recent example of which has been the groundless termination of the contract of my friend and much-loved colleague, a proud First Nations woman, at the university that I have been working at as a sessional academic. I’m writing as the Federal Government continues to advance a program of offshore detention for refugees, and as that same government pushes ahead with plans to send a Tamil family of refugees back into the danger of an ethno-nationalist state. I’m writing as a Brown settler living on Black land within a white imaginary.

The causes of exhaustion are endless and cumulative.

Vernon Ah Kee, if I was white, (2002)
Installation view, Vernon Ah Kee: The Island, Campbelltown Arts Centre, (2020)
Inkjet prints, Series of 30 prints, 132cm x 315cm
Image Credit: Document Photography

•   •   •

In a series of thirty inkjet prints tacked to the wall of the gallery, Ah Kee reflects on the exhaustion that exclusion from the national imaginary produces. ‘if i was white’ (2002) is an essay on the possessive logics of whiteness, typed in small print on crisp white sheets. The essay is worth quoting from at length:

Of the general populace, not many people in Australia understand Whiteness. White people in particular have little understanding of Whiteness even though every White person in this country is an experienced practitioner. Black people however, do have some understanding of Whiteness but only in a passive sense. But while Black people can attempt to participate in Whiteness, they can never be true exponents of the art. For people who are not White, the fundamental skills and traits of Whiteness are beyond their cultural and social grasp. Although a rudimentary understanding may be gained by simply existing benignly alongside of Whiteness, as active participants in the White cycle, people who are not born into Whiteness and raised in it’s many subtleties, can only hope to attain mediocrity at best. Whiteness is a peculiar phenomenon that in some countries sprouts obstinately in the midst of an already existing native culture…

The text goes on, developing a recursive argument on the nature of whiteness as property, the value it accrues, and the exclusions that the maintenance of this value depends upon. Superimposed over the essay are a series of statements that almost all begin with the construction ‘If I was White …’: ‘If I was White I would not have to live in a country that hates me.’ ‘If I was White I would have a country.’ ‘If I was White I could walk down the street and people would pay no particular attention to me. It may not seem like much but if you’ve ever had a shopkeeper tell you to Buy something or move on, or simply follow you around the shop, it’s significant.’ The work is an index of what is often referred to as micro-aggressive racism, those ‘everyday’ expressions of racism that often pass unnoticed except by those who are subjected to it, and the deep, psychic exhaustion that these moments produce when taken en masse. At the centre of the work, Ah Kee changes the formula, superimposing the following over the essay: ‘But I am Black and I am as misunderstood as the next Blackfella but I am beginning to understand the White Man.’

An artwork is not a riot or a strike or a blockade or a commune. And we must be careful not to forget that the future we desire will not be won in the gallery but in the streets and through collective struggle. But art is one of the primary means in which the structural conditions and inequalities that are produced by the infrastructures of the settler state can be revealed, analysed, and critiqued. The Island is a powerful body of work that does just this, showing us with the clarity of a sharpened shank that the foundations of the settler colony lie in the formulation of whiteness as property and that the state’s deployment of racial violence is invariably in the service of preserving this property relation. Ah Kee’s work remains crucial for those invested in the arduous project of abolishing the settler state.

  1. Deirdre Tedmanson, ‘Isle of exception: sovereign power and Palm Island,’ Critical Perspectives on International Business, 4.2/3, (2008),  p. 150
  2. p. 150
  3. Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‘No-Bodies: Law, Raciality and Violence,’ Griffith Law Review, 18.2, (2009), p. 232
  4. Justin Clemens and Dominic Pettman, Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), p. 125