UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex An aspect of art over the last thirty years – proppaNOW

For this Research Point the course notes ask me to “find out more about some aspect of British art over the last thirty years”. Suggestions are to look at a gallery space such as Tate Modern, recent developments in British art as shown by Turner Prize competition shortlists, or a particular artist or movement such as the Britart movement of the 1990s. This is a UK-based course, but I am an Australian based in Australia. I have chosen to find out more about proppaNOW, an Australian group of artists. (Later addition – this choice has been approved by my tutor and the OCA.)

ProppaNOW was set up in Brisbane in 2004. It is a small collective of urban Aboriginal artists. Their art is “about lives that we actually live, the people that we actually know and issues that concern us as modern peoples” (Ah Kee, 2012, 10:00). Their art is not dots and images of Dreamtime – in fact they see that style of painting as a white construct, controlled by and for the benefit of white people, giving a utopian image that allows daily realities to be ignored. Instead proppaNOW engages with the issues and politics and particularly racism that they face every day. Vernon Ah Kee (2009, 3:05) states “Art asks questions. That’s the whole point of it”, while Richard Bell (2010) declares “There is no better platform for politics than art … this way I don’t get arrested”. The name itself refers to an Indigenous colloquial expression, the ‘proper way’, meaning the correct, respectful way – the correct way for Aboriginal people today.

Aspects of the collective which have contributed to its longevity include clear purpose:

  • “To give blackfellas from Brisbane the focus nationally and internationally” (Bell, 2012, 7:36)
  • Exhibit as a group. Information on proppaNOW’s blog shows the group has exhibited at least once a year since 2005, and often more (see
  • “An accelerator for our solo practices and so when you join proppaNOW you must exhibit as a solo artist if not every year every second year” (Ah Kee, 2011, 28:25)
  • To provide mentorship to less experienced members.

    and have structured the group to support this:

  • limited membership – around seven, with only a couple of changes over the group’s life to date;
  • focused membership – Queensland urban aboriginal people
  • foundation of friendship
  • a wide range of skills and backgrounds – “we have to be everything to each other” (Ah Kee, 2012, 38:35)
  • In their drive for professionalism, seeing themselves at an elite level of artmaking, as well as providing support group members “fiercely” critique and question each other. “It’s not easy to be in this group. It’s hard. It’s meant to be. We’re meant to keep each other honest, we’re meant to maintain the quality of our ideas and the quality of our skills.” (Ah Kee, 2011, 10:36).

    The group and individual members have achieved success, for example:

  • The current Insurgence exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (located in the Old Parliament House). (Some notes on my visit to the exhibition are below).
  • Group member Tony Albert has recently been commissioned to create an artwork to honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women. See and
  • Vernon Ah Kee represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale. See
  • Richard Bell hosted an eight part TV art series Colour Theory in 2013. See
  • Gordon Hookey has developed Kangaroo Crew, including interactive multimedia and a published story book at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane (QAGOMA) (open to 27 January 2014). See
  • Megan Cope participated in the exhibition A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story at the Para Site Gallery in Hong Kong in 2013. See and
  • I saw the Insurgence exhibition when I was in Canberra late last year. It is in the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
    The photo above shows part of the building, with a fragment of Vernon Ah Kee’s textual work visible across the windows. The artists themselves note the irony in the location (Ah Kee, 2013). For many visitors the venue must give an additional emphasis and weight to the exhibition and to its importance at the heart of Australian democracy. Another site of great significance is just across the road.

    The Aboriginal Tent Embassy ( celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012.

    It was important to Vernon Ah Kee to have his work visible from the Embassy. Ah Kee’s textual works use a bold sans serif font with spacing used to emphasise thoughts rather than individual words. The actual words are difficult to decifer and the message contained even harder for one from a different background to read. The large work on the wall in the first room of the exhibition states the viewer’s “duty is to accept truth” and served as notice to the effort these artists demand of viewers. Indeed the Museum’s signage and website include the warning “some artworks contain explicit images, language and ideas that may offend some viewers”.

    Inside the exhibition Ah Kee’s text appears directly placed on the walls. While this tactic is used by many artists here it seemed to add extra layers of meaning – as he took possession of this place, the headquarters of the colonial powers who took his home; or perhaps as graffiti, that guerrilla form of protest and resistance.

    I was reminded of Ruth Hadlow’s work, mentioned in my post 20-Sept-2013. She also uses text on walls and examines the experience of being other and the loss of identity living in a different world. Of course a most significant difference is power – Hadlow chose to live in a different country and to negotiate her place as an artist in a different culture. The artists’ of proppaNOW have had their country stolen, their culture sidelined. However Hadlow’s comments about the arrogance of familiarity and about response ability seem relevant here where the artists are disrupting the familiar and challenging the arrogance of their audience.

    insurgence03Returning to the significance of the location of the exhibition, in the photograph to the right Old Parliament House can be seen with the Aboriginal flag of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front and directly behind the huge flagmast of the new (1988) Parliament House. Gordon Hookey’s animation Terraist (2012), also shown in Insurgence, seems to occupy the same space. The animation can be seen at and a video where Hookey speaks about the work at – both are shown in the exhibition.

    There are layers and contrasts of meaning – the tents of invading colonisers spread across the land, but also the Tent Embassy. The animation is like a child’s flip-book, but the figures hold guns. Hookey sees colonialism as terrorism and has “coined a term ‘Terraism’ (taken from terra nullius) to push an Aboriginal agenda in the debate in regards to our continual fight for our lands” (Hookey, 2006) as used in the animation. The two words play against each other, witty but with the ugly underlying terr-or of the colonists against the spiritual connection to the terr-a of the Aboriginal people. Hookey has taken the kangaroo, an iconic symbol of Australia seen on the national coat of arms and in the logo of Qantas, the flag carrier airline of Australia, and made it “a figure of resistance and strength and also a metaphor and symbol of Aboriginal people” (Hookey, [n.d.], 1:31). What has been taken from him he reclaims as his own.

    Walls of Resistance (2013) by Jennifer Herd is the continuation of a project that began in 2005. A distant view of the installation can be seen at and a detail of the related 2005 work Cruciform from Walls of Resistance is on page 34 of Edmundsun and Neale (2007). The detail of this work is exquisite, delicate, fragile. Small box frames contain lozenge shapes, made of cane and cotton and pearl buttons. Lines of small holes pierce the backing, adding texture and pattern. There is a jolt of recognition and understanding when one finds the lozenges are warriors’ shields, the holes the punctures of bullets, the pearls “reference so many tears shed during the wars of resistance” (Herd, 2013). The work is a memorial, beautiful and fierce, vibrating with pain and loss and pride. The beauty engages her audience, then the emotion and understanding hits.

    Herd began the project “in response to a proposed memorial to Aboriginal soldiers who had fought and died in the World Wars” (Herd, 2013). She wanted to honour those others who fought and died for their country – against the invading Europeans. An interesting parallel is the Aboriginal Memorial (1988) at the National Gallery of Australia (see, an installation of hollow log coffins which commemorates all the indigenous people who have fought and died for their country – but this is in the desert style of white constructed and controlled ‘Aboriginal art’. There is also a parallel in the research I did on The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 (see post 24-Oct-2013), where I found a memorial to the Zulu warriors victorious at Isandlwana wasn’t erected until 1999. In that instance the belated memorial to those who died for their land was created by a non-Zulu artist and the artist’s “attempt to fuse a Western, Eurocentric concept with local imagery and Afrocentric references” (Marschall, 2008) becomes even more uncomfortable upon review.

    The recent selection of Tony Albert to create an artwork to honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women (see links above) highlights the complexity of modern Aboriginal existence. For Albert, his family history makes creation of the memorial personal and meaningful. For Herd such a work was the impetus for a whole body of work. Layers of pain and mistreatment.

    The final work I want to mention is not in the Insurgence exhibition. Richard Bell’s Big brush stroke (2005) is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia (see This is a witty appropriation of the work of Roy Lichtenstein, using the colours of the Aboriginal flag, and the ben-day dots a nod to ‘acceptable’ Aboriginal art. It takes on the games of the Western art world and wins. There is a raw edge in Bell’s license to mimic the ben-day dots contrasted to his exclusion from the style of other Aboriginal artists. I wonder about the work’s display in NGA’s Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Urban gallery. On the website the Gallery’s collections are divided: Indigenous; Australia; Asia; Europe+America; Pacific… Does that tell us something? I went to look in the “Australia” collection and the first image I saw was Portrait of Nannultera, a young Poonindie cricketer [Native of South Australia, pupil of the Missionary Institution of Poonindie] (1854) by J.M. Crossland ( It made my skin crawl.

    ProppaNOW could be regarded as an example of the post-modern multiculturalism described by Honour and Fleming, artists who “not only resisted acculturation but found new ways of expressing themselves without severing links with their own traditions or ignoring global developments in Modernism and Post-Modernism” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p. 888). Edmundson and Neale (2007, p. 29) suggest that experiencing “discriminatory abandonment” the individual artists in proppaNOW “had reached the limit of their tolerance and the collective became a strategy for cultural survival and a site for activating Indigenous agency”. While I find their material challenging, showing a side of Australia I would like to but cannot deny, the various artworks show a vigour and an integrity and a relevance in both art-making and content that is engaging and thought-provoking.


    Ah Kee, V. (2009) Australia at the Venice Biennale 2009: Cant Chant (wegrewhere), Once Removed – Australian Group Show, The Ludoteca, Castello, La Biennale Di Venezia 2009: An interview with Venon Ah Kee Artist for the Australian Council of the Arts 2009. [online] Available from Fine Eye Productions (Accessed 4-Jan-2014)

    Ah Kee, V. (2011) The Black See Artists Panel, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, KickArts Contemporary Arts, 20-August-2011. [online] Available from (Accessed 1-Jan-2014)

    Ah Kee, V. (2012) proppaNOW Artists: Melbourne Conversations at the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival, 2012 Artists Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Tony Albert and Laurie Nielson; Host Kim Kruger; 12-February-2012 [online] Available from (Accessed 1-Jan-2014)

    Ah Kee, V. (2013) Insurgence at Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House proppaNOW Artist Group blog [online] Available from (Accessed 3-Jan-2014)
    Bell, R. (2010) Quoted in publicity material for Insurgence exhibition, Museum of Australian Democracy, 22-Oct-2013 to 11-Mar-2014.

    Bell, R. (2012) proppaNOW Artists: Melbourne Conversations at the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival, 2012 Artists Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Tony Albert and Laurie Nielson; Host Kim Kruger; 12-February-2012 [online] Available from (Accessed 1-Jan-2014)

    Edmundson and Neale (2007) “Learning to be Proppa: Aboriginal Artists’ Collective, proppaNOW” in Turner and Williams (2007) Thresholds of Tolerance, Canberra: Research School of Humanities and School of Art Gallery, Australian National University pp. 29 – 38 [online] Available from (Accessed 4-Jan-2014)

    Herd, J. (2013) From information supplied at Insurgence exhibition

    Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

    Hookey, G. (2006) “Terrorism and Terraism” In borderlands e-journal 5 (1) [online] Available from (Accessed 5-Jan-2014)

    Hookey, G. ([n.d.]) Gordon Hookey: Terraist (video). Carbon Media [online] Available from (Accessed 5-Jan-2014)

    Marschall, S (2008) “Zulu Heritage between Institutionalized Commemoration and Tourist Attraction” (Abstract) In Visual Anthropology (21, 3), 2008 (Abstract only online) Available from (Accessed 20-Oct-2013)

    Additional resources

    Transcript of proppaNOW on ABC’s Message Stick Friday 10 June 2011 –

    Bruce McLean, curator of Indigenous Art at Qagoma, Brisbane, discusses Neither Pride nor Courage, a triptych by Vernon Ah Kee –

    UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex An aspect of art over the last thirty years
    Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
    Part three: Modern art and still life
    Project two: From 1945 to the present
    Research point: An aspect of art over the last thirty years

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