Though he works across photography, video, painting, sculpture, and collage, it might be said that Tony Albert’s main mediums are graphics and language, employing a contemporary Pop sensibility in which popular iconography and discourse are amplified and repurposed, writes Chris Fite-Wassilak in Phaidon’s new book Prime: Art’s Next Generation.
"As in his photography series Warakurna Superheroes (2017)—in which the artist worked with children and local artists in the Aboriginal community of Warakurna to create homemade superhero costumes—much of his work is collaborative, while being highly attuned to how popular culture shapes and reflects us. From the romanticized retellings of Aboriginal history in the found objects that shape many of his installations to the might and bravado of the superheroes and cartoon characters referenced throughout his work, Albert recognizes icons and imagery as sources of power— of both self-recognition as well as stereotyping, oppression, and denial.
Tony Albert - Exotic Other, 2018
Albert’s graphic installation Exotic Other (2018) has a dark irony, writing large the commodification and othering of those native to the continent. The work - made up of paintings, trays, plates, plaques, busts, coasters, and ashtrays, all depicting Australian Aboriginal peoples - is part of a series in which loaded words are filled in with what Albert refers to as Aboriginalia,” kitsch representations of Aboriginal Australians, on everything from playing cards to tea towels. “It’s not until you see Aboriginalia on this mass scale,” the artist stated in a 2018 Smith Journal interview, “that you start to understand how pollinated Australia was by these images, how they were used to sell a country.”
Another work, Sorry (2008), was made the year that then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous population for the decades-long practice of forcibly taking Aboriginal children from their families. Albert has since requested that each time the work is installed, it is done so with the word spelled backwards, to reflect on what such an apology might mean in the face of continued oppression.
TONY ALBERT - Interior Composition (with Appropriated Aboriginal Design Vase) XVIII, 2022
Meanwhile, the circular painting Confetti culture (fancy dress) (2019) is a patchwork void from which a cast of cartoon characters emerges: Mickey Mouse about to throw a boomerang; Scrooge McDuck wearing a large, golden headdress; a boy rowing a canoe; a monkey dancing in a grass skirt. All are examples of cultural and racial stereotypes that have casually spread through cuddly imagery and childhood fantasy, their feigned innocence here crisscrossed by bright red laser-like lines, as if attempting to imprison or hold them back.
History’s lies still circulate in the cultural flotsam of the present, Albert suggests, but they can be gathered and remade to break paths toward new, more equitable fantasies for the future but they can be gathered and remade to break paths toward new, more equitable fantasies for the future." - Chris Fite-Wassilak.
Tony Albert is one of over a hundred contemporary artists to be featured in Prime: Art's Next Generation, Phaidon's new survey of contemporary artists. We asked him a few questions about his life and art. When you've read the story take a look at his artist page on Artspace.
Interior Composition (with Appropriated Aboriginal Design Vase) XXI, 2022
How would you describe what you do? As a multimedia artist that is very drawn to the conceptual within my practice, a really important part of the process for me is the research and theoretical journey. Once all that ground work is laid, I then look at the best possible medium to convey the message.
What’s the most exciting thing about where you are in your career right now? The most exciting thing for me within my career right now, is that I have a lot more confidence about the work that I do. I am less worried about external voices and thoughts. I have been a collector for so many decades, and the opportunity to utilise objects from the collection within the studio is a really good point to be at. I am artist that always believes that their best works is always their next.
What’s on your mind right now?Holistically and ethically looking at how art can be sustainable is something that is always at the forefront of my mind. It is so important that we all continue on a journey that is making the world a better place.
TONY ALBERT - Interior Composition (with Appropriated Aboriginal Design Vase) XIX, 2022
What do you think of when you think of the word prime? Prime is a really interesting word for me. It has an element of youth attached to it, yet my understanding of that is age within journey. To be at your prime doesn’t necessarily relate to ‘age’ but it can mean experience, wellness and the ability to be creative, to step outside a box or framework. I think Prime is a very loaded and dynamic word.
What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ and what are your unique challenges? The hardest thing for me to get right is the willingness to accept things that are wrong. To make mistakes and to learn from them.
To see more of Tony Albert's work, and that of the art world's most gifted next generation, order a copy of Prime: Art's Next Generation here.