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Tony Albert

Thursday, 25 September, 2014

Aboriginal artist Tony Albert is one of 16 finalists to be selected for the $100,000 Basil Sellers Art Prize, to be exhibited at the Ian Potter Art Museum. In its fourth year of existence, the prize challenges Australia’s most talented artists to represent Australia’s favourite pastime – sport – in a creative light.

Tony Albert’s work has always referenced indigenous peoples and portrayed the concept of racism as a learned behaviour. Albert commonly combines a variety of different media, with his submission consisting of 26 framed objects and paintings arranged in front of a large red and white target painted on the wall. The target motif has poetic significance for Albert, as he had witnessed three Aboriginal youths remove their tops at a protest in Sydney, revealing red targets painted on their chests. The youths were protesting a police shooting that took place in Sydney’s Kings Cross, involving a carload of Indigenous men.

Aside from the appeal of a $100,000 prize, the Basil Sellers Art Prize promises artists invaluable international exposure. Tony Albert has vowed to make the most of such an artistic pedestal by challenging the way we think about racism in the context of sport. Sport and in this particular case AFL has always been a reliable litmus test for racial equality.

Albert’s work pays homage to artist and Indigenous rights campaigner Gordon Bennett whilst also referencing salient incidents of racial vilification levelled at AFL footballers. In the 1990s, Aboriginal footballer Nicky Winmar famously lifted his St Kilda jersey and pointed towards his skin in an act of defiance after continuous racial taunts from a crowd member. Albert re-created the moment in watercolour as part of his submission for Basil Sellers. Symbolically erasing the facial features of Winmar, Albert perhaps hinted at the big picture of widespread discrimination faced by many Aborigines.

Such a message is reinforced in an accompanying image of an AFL football decorated with a step-by-step diagram of man’s evolution from primate to footballer. The image is a direct reference to last year’s incident involving a 13year old Collingwood supporter labelling Adam Goodes an “ape”. Albert draws a connection between the two separate incidents, suggesting that there is an undercurrent of racism in Australian society that remains omnipresent albeit far less visible than it was in the past.

“Racism in sport is a hot topic right now”, said Albert, “and with the suggestion of changes to the constitution in order to allow racial vilification as part of the Freedom of Speech Act, there is even greater significance to the political nature of my work”.

Tony Albert comes across as a humble and thoughtful young man who is quietly determined to share his vision with anyone who cares to listen. Albert is especially articulate, having no problem speaking at length on the significance behind each of the 26 postcard-sized works that make up his installation. The works are a mixture of old and new paintings, photographs from past and present exhibitions, a racist postcard found in a newsagent, as well as a printed letter addressed to Albert’s idol Aboriginal artist Gordon Bennet. Despite each piece having individual meaning, by displaying them collectively Albert creates a sort of stained glass window representation of racism in sport.

“In the letter that I wrote to Gordon Bennett I look at education in regards to learned behaviour. Racism, in my opinion, is a learned behaviour no-one is born racist,” said Albert. “Sport has a larger following than art in Australia and as a result I hope that my involvement in this prize helps my message to reach a greater audience”.

Vince Alessi is the curatorial manager at Ian Potter, and will be in charge of curating the Basil Seller’s Art Prize for the first time. In its four years of existence, during his involvement at Ian Potter Alessi has watched the prize evolve and attract a new wave of gallery goers within Australia’s sporting capital. This year, he says, there seems to be many more artists who regularly engage in sport, which allows for a deeper artistic exploration of the broader issues surrounding sport.

Alessi is particularly impressed with Tony Albert’s submission.

“What I like about the work is that on one hand it is overtly political but it doesn’t hit you over the head. It is really quite subtle; it has a mesmerising, poetic nature to it”, said Alessi. “I like that Tony [is] approaching this issue in a more subtle and dialogue-based way[,] instead of using a megaphone to force the issue”.

The Basil Sellers Art Prize will be announced in July to be exhibited at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Parkville, Melbourne.