Tony Albert’s artwork Once upon a time… (2013-14) is my favourite instalment in Play On: The art of sport, exhibited at the UQ Art Museum to celebrate 10 years of the Basil Sellers Art Prize.
Like the title’s verbal reference to the opening line of a fairytale, this 2014 prize-winner visually introduces a fantasy sportscape. The kaleidoscopic structure of colourful segments – 24 framed works plus other objects – contains storybook covers, plastic apes, a doll, a Disney cartoon, fluffy baby swans and other childhood imagery. The effect amuses me.
But contained in that title is a dotted ellipsis, an ominous portent matched by other elements of the imagery. A red-ringed target backgrounds the framed pictures, which are hung asymmetrically, just off-centre to the bullseye. Target roundels are transposed onto the bare chests of young Indigenous men in three framed portraits. A human face morphs into a fang-jawed ape. The effect disconcerts me.
Albert introduces his motivation and subject matter in one of the framed pieces, a letter addressed to fellow Aboriginal artist Gordon Bennett. In this, Albert describes being ‘gutted’ by racist incidents in Australian rules football and contextualises his work as a commentary on racial issues in Australian sport.
I am familiar with these issues through my work on racism in the Australian Football League (AFL) with fellow sport historian, Matthew Klugman.
Matthew and I wrote a book about the iconic photographs of Nicky Winmar, the St Kilda player and Noongar man from Pingelly in WA who famously raised his jersey and pointed to his chest while proclaiming “I’m proud to be black” to snarling spectators who’d hurled racist insults throughout a game against Collingwood in 1993.
The photos triggered a series of events that culminated in the introduction of Rule 30, the AFL’s code on racial discrimination, in 1995. They also inspired a series of artworks, from cartoons to graffiti to murals that featured Winmar in this striking pose.
Albert continues the artistic tradition, depicting Winmar’s stance in a watercolour painting and as one of three AFL footballers superimposed on the original campfire cover-image of Victor Barnes’ 1972 Three Aboriginal Legends storybook in the Little Golden Book series.
Albert extends the analysis. Once upon a time… might conjure a long-gone world, a distant place that exists now only in stories, but he shows us that this world has continued beyond the land of fantasy.
Despite Rule 30, racism continues. He includes a painted postcard from early last century of ‘King Billy’, an Aboriginal leader caricatured grinning and simian-savage. Albert masterfully tackles the racist “ape insult”, positioning this image not as a relic of the distant past, where it belongs, but in the world of contemporary Aussie rules football, a domain where the ape image lives on.
The ape is central to his letter to Bennett and the individual artworks. Many of these reference Adam Goodes, a star player for the Sydney Swans who in 2013 called out an abuser during a game – a teenage girl who called him an ape. In the hullabaloo that followed, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire suggested that Goodes audition for King Kong. The girl was evicted. McGuire was castigated. Ultimately though, it was Goodes who suffered: repeated on-field booing led him to resign from the game in 2015. Matthew and I wrote about this too, and as a historian I am fascinated by how powerfully Albert has rendered the same story here. While we assembled details and analysed them in words, he created and curated images to represent those episodes and offers a stunning visual analysis.
The ape imagery is complex. A painting of an AFL football renders the 1965 Life Nature Library illustration The March of Progress into one of five stages of evolution from crouched ape to kicking footballer. This image perhaps references the controversial Faulkner ‘Native Brand’ footballs that depict a boomerang-wielding Aboriginal man, critiqued by Indigenous sport historian Barry Judd. A string of primates from the children’s game, Barrel of Monkeys, drapes across a running Goodes on the cover of a football magazine, seemingly blocking his progress. A gorilla perches atop the Sydney Opera House, the blood-red background pocked with bullet holes.
Albert reminds me that the mythical fairytale world of dragons and dungeons is with us still. As apes and arenas. Simians and swans. Racism abounds. Players are targeted. Albert invites us into this world, where the evil and ugly are juxtaposed against the innocent and beautiful. And where, to extend the metaphor, the snarling ape becomes not the targeted players, but the menacing racists.
Play On: The art of sport
University of Queensland Art Museum
until 9 February 2019
About the author
Associate Professor Gary Osmond is an ARC Future Fellow with the UQ Faculty of Health and Behavioural Science and an affiliate with the UQ Poche Centre for Indigenous Health. He has a range of research interests in the historical and contemporary dimensions of sport. These include Australian and Pacific aquatic sport, racial stereotyping, sport myth, social memory and sporting histories beyond the written word.
Tony Albert, Once upon a time... 2013-14. Watercolour, gouache, printed book covers, collage, paper, wooden blocks, plastic figurines, vinyl, 200 x 300 cm. Collection of Basil Sellers AM. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.
Tony Albert, Once upon a time... (detail) 2013-14. Watercolour, gouache, printed book covers, collage, paper, wooden blocks, plastic figurines, vinyl, 200 x 300 cm. Collection of Basil Sellers AM. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.