Beyond Surf Culture in Australia: Vernon Ah Kee’s cantchant

Vernon Ah Kee, cantchant (detail), 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

When you step into Vernon Ah Kee’s installation, cantchant (2009), expect to see much more than an expression of Australia’s surf culture.

The work, from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) collection and currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), uses a series of suspended surfboards and a three-channel video to tell a powerful and compelling story of conflict, racism and contested territory along Australia’s beaches. “It’s a heavily loaded work,” Ah Kee has said of cantchant. “There’s a lot to look at.”

Born in Australia in 1967, Ah Kee is a member of the Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples. His work is often overtly political, and ranges from installation to drawing. Fusing history with contemporary issues, he explores race, colour and politics, often through clever plays on words. Currently based in Brisbane, Ah Kee has had solo and group exhibitions around the world, and his work can be found in public and private collections across Australia and abroad.

In the installation at the WAG, visitors enter a room filled with hanging surfboards. The boards are covered with bold patterns evoking traditional Indigenous designs, in the bright colours of the Australian Indigenous flag. From this colourful display, visitors enter a second room, featuring a video in which surfing culture takes on a darker aspect, reflecting historical and contemporary cruelty and conflict in relation to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The multi-disciplinary work also incorporates portraits of family members and text.

Vernon Ah Kee, Wegrewhere #3, 2009, digital print on Fujiflex, 76 x 136 cm. Photo courtesy of WAG

Greg Hill, Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the NGC, first saw cantchant at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and knew he wanted to acquire it for the National Gallery. “I fell in love with it,” he said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Viewers come to this work first through pop culture, through surf culture, and then you realize that the issues raised in the work come from this long history of colonialism in Australia.”

The title of the installation refers to racial taunts made during the Cronulla Riots of 2005 in which tensions escalated on Cronulla Beach, south of Sydney, between a group of white Australians and a group of Lebanese Muslim Australians. The white Australians chanted, “we grew here, you flew here,” not acknowledging the prior claims of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. In cantchant, Ah Kee has taken phrases such as “we grew here” and “hang ten” and blown them up into large block letters peppering the walls.

As visitors leave the video room, they exit back through the gallery, where they are faced with the backs of the painted surfboards, on which Ah Kee has transferred large-scale yet intimate portrait drawings of family members and others. It’s a shocking revelation.

Vernon Ah Kee, cantchant (detail), 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

“The shield designs on the surfboards and the large text works are experienced first, then visitors witness the film,” said Jaimie Isaac, Curator of Indigenous and Contemporary Art at the WAG. “As you walk out again, you see the portraits on the backside of the surfboards looking at you. By doing this, the artist has shifted the gaze. The viewer is being viewed. He’s done that in a beautiful, insightful way.”

Isaac wanted to present cantchant because of its reference to surfing culture. Originally, she was looking for works by Indigenous artists related to skateboarding, surfboarding or snowboarding to include in the group exhibition, Boarder X.

“Aboriginal artists from across Canada have these boarding practices,” said Isaac, “and I was intrigued and thinking about our relationship with the land and different landscapes: mountains for snowboarding, seascapes for surfing, and the urban sub-culture for skateboarding. These artists also look at the territories they occupy, and how they relate to the land and boarding.”

Ultimately, cantchant was so large that Isaac decided to keep the installation separate from Boarder X. “Visitors will be stimulated,” added Isaac. “They’ll be affected with a certain energy and compelled to self-inquiry when they experience this exhibition.”

Vernon Ah Kee: cantchant and Boarder X are on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until April 23, 2017.

Share this article: 

About the Author