Sydney Festival 2017: Aboriginal artist Vernon Ah Kee’s exhibition

‘When I was born in 1967 I wasn’t counted in the census. We were the property of the Government. Wards of the State… I felt like I wasn’t considered a person.’
– Vernon Ah Kee

The exhibition Vernon Ah Kee — Not An Animal or A Plant is a ‘sobering realization’ of ‘what is incredibly provocative, but incredibly important to see’, says Michael Lynch, CBE AM Interim Director.

On the stark white walls inside the National Art School hang the portraits of the Aboriginal people who once inhabited these grounds not so long ago.


In their eyes, penciled so intricately that you can see even the reflection of Vernon’s image drawing them, you are able to notice — and almost even understand — the caution they have undoubtedly taken when agreeing to be drawn. The same caution they have had to take their entire lives around ‘other’ humans. A trait and habit surely ingrained into the very core of their being — for they, their entire lives, have been led to believe they are not human.

How fitting then that on the day that kicked off the start to another fabulous Sydney Festival season was a gloomy, and dark rainy day in the middle of an otherwise beautiful Sydney summer.


On the second floor of the Gallery your attention is immediately drawn to the surfboards hanging in the middle of the room — painted to replicate the shields once used by Aboriginal people.

Past those boards, your eyes navigate you to the portraits hanging on the two far walls. Drawn on the roughest of linen and hanging completely alone — without a face or a name or a voice — are the portraits of two lynched bodies, one burned and one bound. The remnants of charcoal which were used to create them fall to the floor like ashes.

Feeling overwhelmed, you turn around to see three single canvases, almost reminiscent of your kindergarten art class work. Until you notice something slightly vague — an outline reflective of the portraiture downstairs.

You take a step forward and can’t help but be overwhelmed by the metaphor of these canvases which are strewn with white, black, and red paint. What chaos and blood that the war between white and black has caused and shed.


Vernon Ah Kee’s breathtaking exhibition shows the portrait of not just his family and heritage, but also of this nation. The history of which started in this very city, in this very neighborhood, and on these very grounds.

‘This [exhibit] is not just history, this is my life. [This exhibit] is my voice — proclaiming I am a person — a strong one.’
-Vernon Ah Kee

– Justine
Justine Stratton is California native into travelling, exploring, and appreciating all things Australian. Follow her on @jstrat_.

‘Vernon Ah Kee — Not An Animal Or A Plant’ runs 7 January-11 March 2017, at the National Art School in Darlinghurst. Free admission.
The venue is accessible.

Read our guide to the top events at the 2017 Sydney Festival, and read all our reviews.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Articulate PR.
Image credit: Sydney Festival and Justine Stratton.