Lately I’ve been having these visions. Glimpses. An outline, a figure — an icon.
A ‘black’ bearded man brandishing a pistol. No ill premonition, rather the assured revelation of Anthony Martin Fernando.
There’s not a lot we know about Fernando. He was a sailor, an engineer … a toymaker? He was Aboriginal, and also a lascar.1 I think of him as an early embodiment of, as well as a prescient icon for, the transcultural task of de–colonizing Australia.
In the late 1800s, Fernando witnessed the murder of an Aboriginal man at the hands of European settlers. He was denied the chance to give evidence at their trial, and the killers were let loose. Reasoning that his people would have no rights in their own land, he activated his double identity to embark on a remarkable journey that still resonates with the ongoing quest for indigenous justice.
Fernando arrived in Europe between the World Wars. He was arrested and ejected from Mussolini’s Italy for distributing paraphernalia that accused the British government of genocide.2 He emerged in Switzerland, where he published a carefully articulated assertion of Aboriginal grievances in the progressive newspaper, Der Bund.3 Eventually arriving in London, he worked various menial jobs, however earned a reputation for his soapbox tirades and a tinderbox temper that saw him twice through the Old Bailey.4 Later in life, having grown a respectfully long beard, he pinned toy skeletons to his thick greatcoat and maintained an infamous vigil in front of Australia House, urging to passersby:
‘Do you see this? Do you see these toy skeletons? This is all Australia has left of my people.’5
Historian Fiona Paisley is piecing together a biography of Fernando from the scant documents of his life, understandably little is known about his time at sea.
This gap — this undocumented history — provides a useful space for us to experiment, to fabulate. Here Fernando is a loaded but somewhat featureless figure. We can only imagine the encounters that must have occurred below deck on these colonial vessels and how they sharpened his character. In doing so, might we also project something of our own cultural ambitions?
Consider the gap between ‘The Colonial’ and ‘The Contemporary’. How do we account for this discrepancy in Australia 2010 — ‘Post–Apology’ yet still within the span of ‘The Intervention’? These accepted contradictory drives, to de-colonise and re-colonise, expose something very real about the pathology of living here.
Let’s shift our gaze abroad, across the canals of Venice and to the Olympics of the Artworld. La Biennale di Venezia retains the model of the world fair, geared as a -‘national showcase’ where nation states display their finest cultural achievements. It also has the potential to reveal and articulate national dissonance.6
Let’s look at two of the most talked about works that represented Australia last year — Shaun Gladwell’s MADDESTMAXIMVS: Planet & Stars Sequence at the Australian Pavilion, and Vernon Ah Kee’s Cant Chant (Wegrewhere) as part of Once Removed curated by Felicity Fenner.7
Both Gladwell and Ah Kee foreground an urban aesthetic and experience. Their works engage the landscape using performance and, curiously, the act of surfing — board and car. They both use the intervention of objects — vessels — in their videos and into the exhibition space to engage and activate the landscape. In undertaking these acts, they negotiate specifically Australian conditions, enlarging and expanding recognisable archetypes of the Australian male.
It’s no surprise that Ah Kee’s piece is an assertion of indigenous sovereignty. As the tightly kerned title suggests, there is no room to negotiate his appropriated statement ‘Wegrewhere’. Inserting his ‘Cultural Warriors’ into the metropolitan coast, they perform a pointed, and at times comedic, riposte to the territorial beach culture of ‘white’ settler society in the wake of the Cronulla race riots of 2005. His cousins comically negotiate the Gold Coast boardwalk in garish, branded surfwear. Their ‘colour’ exaggerated by the bold designs on the boards they carry — traditional shield patterns to be used in battle, rendered in the red, yellow and black of the Aboriginal flag. You’d expect military designs to camouflage, but these warriors are here to be seen. A sequence of ‘lynchings’, set in the Queensland hinterland, frames surfboards hanged with barbed wire and then pumped full of buckshot. Unflinching reminders of race hate crimes and colonial massacres … or are they? If you’d already heard the artist quip, ‘like a stingray barb to the heart of white Australia’ your irony indicators would be blinking.8
Finally, the redemptive surf sequence features Dale Richards skillfully gleaning the tube. He both enacts and embodies Aboriginal sovereignty and a spirited, free identity that can’t be bound by any imposed order. The underside of the board features a tight segment from Ah Kee’s portrait of his great grandfather, George Sibley. Cropped to an all–Seeing Eye, it is a silent reminder that here we are always within the gaze of Aboriginal history.
For his flagship piece, Gladwell has reworked the figure of Mad Max. His helmeted protagonist, like Fernando, is a culturally loaded yet featureless icon onto whom we might project.9 Into the dramatic desert expanse of the post–apocalyptic/colonial landscape enters the ‘Road Warrior’ — the last of the V8 Interceptors — a lone moral enforcer. Then, as with Ah Kee, the assumed cultural cues corrupt.
Gone are the familiar scenes of bordertown violence and fetishistic neo–primitivism. Instead, Max repeatedly dismounts his bike to tenderly cradle road kill.10 The cool vengeance of the original is replaced with a recurring motif of apology. In the car ‘surf’ sequence, Max ghost rides the whip with deadpan élan, a metaphorical rebirth that simultaneously recalls the camp buddy antics of ‘da Hoff’ and KITT.^11
Here in (our imaginary) Venice, the centrifugal forces of de-/re-colonisation are on display as the attendant notions of ‘apology’ and ‘assertion’. In this redefined contemporary Australian landscape, the obvious urge is to then move beyond. But how? And where? Suppose we employ another trope used by Gladwell; pataphysics — the science of imaginary solutions. Into this expanded landscape we can now insert another, or several other, cultural trajectories. What force do they exert?
I’ve made an ambitious leap through a hazy conceptual horizon, but let’s consider some current trends in thinking:
(1) In an irreversibly globalised world, it seems to be contemporary is to be cosmopolitan. This transcultural condition suggests that one’s aspirations are far more definitive, and ultimately more contentious, than skin colour, haircut or sexual predilection and, more significantly, ‘set national agendas’ become diffused.
(2) The polarizing racial assumptions about ‘black’ and ‘white’ not only divert our attention from the far more interesting complexities of pre– and post–colonial societies, but also perpetuate the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of the colonising will. With reference to history, the works above and the issues emerging around an encroaching federal election, we might do well to remember that borders — both mental and physical — function as much to keep people in as to keep people out.
And what of my recurring hallucinations, where did Fernando go?
I haven’t failed to notice another generation of artists now blasting its own way into the transcultural stratosphere. I am dazzled — and I’ll admit, aroused — by their frankness, their fearlessness and their scattershot significations.^12 I don’t doubt that Fernando goes there.