24 Feb 21

DESTINY: the art of Destiny Deacon



Ordinarily I would insist on referring to any artist — woman, man or other — by their last name: Picasso, Monet, Warhol, Kngwarray and so on. It is a mark of respect. But when it comes to Destiny Deacon, the normal rules of the art world just don’t apply. DESTINY is the title of her solo show at the National Gallery of Victoria, and true to her name, Destiny has forged a path as an international artist with a distinct brand of artistic humour. Her work sits halfway between comedy and tragedy: there is a duality that lies at the heart of everything she does. Nuanced, thoughtful and at times intensely funny, the signature backhanders she creates represent the very best of what Australia has to offer the international and contemporary art scenes. But amid the laughs, there is another side — a darker side. Destiny’s disturbing visual language marries two worlds: she contrasts seemingly innocuous childhood imagery with scenes taken from the darkest reaches of adulthood.

Through her often outrageous cast of characters, Destiny explores and examines dichotomies — childhood and adulthood, comedy and tragedy, theft and reclamation, the mask and the face. Whether she is making work inside or outside her home in Melbourne’s Brunswick, Destiny transports people into an uncanny valley: 1In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is a hypothesised relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. a chaotic world where disgraced dollies — decapitated, limbs amputated, pants down, tied up, trapped in a blizzard or flying through the air — play out sinister scenes for audience amusement. Destiny’s world both reflects and parodies the one in which we live.

Trying to understand Destiny’s work can be difficult. It resists interpretation by presenting the viewer with a deceptively simple narrative, usually explained through a comical title. But to take this lighthearted approach at face value would be a mistake. In only reading her images on the surface level, as amusing standalone narratives, one fails to capture the grander ideas and relationships in Destiny’s oeuvre.

These deeper contexts are filtered through Destiny’s idiosyncratic worldview. But it must be said that Destiny’s personal vision is not the only one that drives her work. Over the years Destiny has had a number of important collaborative relationships that have been central to her practice. Of these partnerships, none has been more significant and enduring than that with artist Virginia Fraser, her close friend. The pair met in the 1980s at a Yothu Yindi concert at the Old Greek Theatre on Bridge Road in Richmond, and since then they have produced many works together. Fraser plays a central role in Destiny’s practice, not only as a frequent collaborator, but also through managing her printing and archive.

In the lead-up to putting together this show, Destiny shared with me a story about when she was a little girl growing up by the wharf in Port Melbourne. The housing she lived in was filled with British migrants, and the kids would play old English folk games. Destiny described one game called ‘arrow chasey’. The game, which could go on for days, would start with somebody finding a piece of chalk and drawing an arrow on the ground. Mobs of street kids would follow these arrows in search of the mark maker. ‘Kids didn’t stay home then. You’d play all day; we didn’t have money. It cost you nothing, but you’d be amused all day. Come home when it was dark.’ Compelled by the promise of an explanation, following signs left by a mysterious messenger, Destiny and friends would make their way across the suburbs, with nothing but the chalk tracks to guide them. But not every arrow told the truth. Some kids would leave arrows to deliberately throw you off course, but sooner or later, you would find an arrow that led
you back.

Arrow chasey seems a perfect metaphor for Destiny’s work. So much of what she does centres on gently shifting audience perceptions through hidden, sometimes unexplained and seemingly inexplicable messages. This dense web of references creates direction on top of misdirection, and just when you think you understand what she is saying, you lose her again. She is a self-proclaimed hater of ‘art speak’, preferring to let her work speak for itself. Just as the Port Melbourne kids followed those chalk arrows, to understand Destiny’s vision is to embark on a journey. You follow a cast of characters down a rabbit hole, unaware of where you will end up, or of how the journey will end.

At the time of her 2004 exhibition Walk & Don’t Look Blak, held at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Destiny said about her photography:

‘I like to think there is a laugh and a tear in each picture’2Destiny Deacon, quoted in Virginia Fraser & Destiny Deacon, ‘Not much of a soul to bare’, in Destiny Deacon: Walk & Don’t Look Blak, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2004, p. 110.

One of the things I love most about Destiny’s work is that you can stand in front of an image, in the serious white cube that is the gallery, and take it in, look at it for ages, before you suddenly remember: art can be funny. In blurring the line between the sad and the humorous, she shows audiences how the truth is often absurd.

One of the techniques Destiny uses to do this is to appropriate familiar song titles, twisting them to mean something new. In her 2006 photograph Hear come the judge, Destiny references the 1968 comedy-funk track ‘Here Come the Judge’ by Dewey ‘Pigmeat’ Markham. Her photo shows a brown soft toy with white and red stitching on its arms and legs, representing ceremonial body paint. It lies with its arms in a Christ-like pose on top of a boy’s doona cover that is decorated with green dinosaurs.

The song that the photo is referencing is regarded by many to be the first ever recorded hip-hop track. It begins with the judge calling the court to attention: ‘Hear ye, hear ye, this court is now in session. His Honour, Judge “Pigmeat” Markham, presidin’’. It is a comedy routine that ridicules the formalities of the courtroom. One woman yells out, ‘Judge, your Honourship, hi sir, did I hear you say “Order in the court?”’ To which Judge ‘Pigmeat’ replies, ‘Yes I said order’. The woman yells back, ‘Well, I’ll take two cans of beer, please’. The joke is that the courtroom has been taken over by black people, and that’s ‘funny’ because it’s unlikely. The judge keeps singing over and over, ‘I am the judge, I am the judge, everybody knows that I am the judge’.

Next to the central soft toy are two smaller plastic dolls: one is a black doll, the other a white doll with a red blindfold. The blindfold is a reference to the notion, originating in the sixteenth century, that justice is blind, and therefore unbiased. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2017 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented just over a quarter of the total prison population, despite being only approximately 2 per cent of the Australian adult population.3Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘4517.20 – Prisoners in Australia, 2017’, 8 Dec. 2017, ABS, Australian Government, accessed 23 Sep. 2019. In the United States black people are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongly convicted of murder.4Alicia Maule, ‘#BlackBehindBars: sparking a conversation on the black wrongful conviction experience in the US’, 4 Feb. 2019, The Innocence Project, accessed 23 Sep. 2019. Just about every year those gaps grow wider. Destiny is mocking the statistics, suggesting that justice is only blind if you’re white.

In 1987 the Australian Government announced the formation of a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. After the final report was released, Destiny’s dear friend Lisa Bellear, the distinguished writer, radio broadcaster and political activist, produced a poem called ‘Justice?’ In it she wrote, ‘The Royal Commission into Aboriginal / Deaths in Custody, 339 Recommendations / The deaths don’t stop, / The mourning; the grieving is / there, all around, for 205 years / There is / no justice’. 5Lisa Bellear, Dreaming in Urban Areas, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1996, pp. 9, 71. Bellear wrote that because it’s true. And that truth is not funny. But Destiny flipped the courtroom, making it ‘absurd’. The way Aboriginal people use humour to disarm and interrogate something that is inherently un-funny is a coping strategy. But in Destiny’s case, it is a way of getting through to an audience that otherwise might not pay attention. The black judge is only comical because it is unbelievable, but the fact that it is unbelievable is actually deeply sad.

Another work in which Destiny subverts her audience through an appropriated song title is her 2003 photo My boomerang did come back. This image is a reference to British comedian Charlie Drake’s 1961 cult song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’. In the song Drake sings in a halting and staccato manner, wildly grunting ‘Ho’ and ‘Ugh’ while narrating the story of an effeminate young Aboriginal boy named Mac. Mac is banished from his tribe because he is ‘a big disgrace to the Aborigine [sic] race’, because his ‘boomerang won’t come back’. Eventually Mac meets a ‘witchdoctor’ who shows him how to throw his boomerang, but then Mac accidentally hits and kills a royal flying doctor.

In her work, Destiny flips the script. A single hand reaches upward, grasping a bloody boomerang in front of black background. Drake, whose song is at best a kind of vaudevillian blackface, has assassinated himself. There is a dual meaning: not only has Destiny killed off the racist singer, but the boomerang itself is a double metaphor. It is a cultural property that physically ‘returns’ or ‘comes back’, and it is also something that in this instance is reclaimed by Aboriginal hands as a weapon.

This idea of reclamation comes into much of Destiny’s work, as seen in the triptych Blak lik mi, 1991. In this work Destiny reclaims three images. The first is a bamboo plate, painted with an Aboriginal girl’s face; the second is a blurry close-up of a smiling Aboriginal girl on black velvet; and the third is a picture of a little girl crying. The two images on the right are taken from a 1960s reproduction of a 1957 Axel Poignant photograph from a photo essay originally titled Piccaninny Walkabout, and later renamed Bush Walkabout. The original book by Poignant was not created as kitsch, nor was it intended to demean. It told the story of how two kids from Arnhem Land made their way after wandering off from their grandmother and becoming lost in the bush. The Poignant photographs were widely reproduced (without his permission or knowledge), printed on black velvet and signed ‘Martinus’.

Destiny calls these types of objects ‘Koori kitsch’ — abject knick-knacks that at best portray Aboriginal people as decoration and at worst perpetuate overtly racist stereotypes. Destiny has a massive collection of Koori kitsch, which she says she has been accumulating ‘since forever’. ‘In the beginning I wanted to rescue them, because otherwise they’d end up in a white home or something, somewhere no-one would appreciate them.’

At first glance, the triptych appears simple. But in actuality, through the basic act of photographing the reproduction, Destiny reclaims a genre. As always, the hidden meaning or meanings behind the work are first introduced through the title. Just like in arrow chasey, Destiny quietly points her audience to the cultural phenomenon that she is engaging with and subverting. It’s deliberately indirect. In this instance, Destiny wants the audience to reconsider the very nature of her own identity.

Blak lik mi, which appeared in the exhibition of the same name, is widely accepted as the first time an Aboriginal person used the spelling ‘blak’. Destiny’s defining of blakness, as opposed to blackness, was a way of distinguishing Aboriginality from skin colour. More than that, however, it was Destiny’s way of self-determining her identity and originating a blakness/blackness that came entirely from within. The legacy of this work has been massive. Countless Aboriginal people now self-determine as blak, so much so that a Google search of ‘blak’ returns a nearly all-Australian Indigenous search result. It is a helpful word because it distinguishes the experiences Aboriginal people have within an Australian colonial structure from the experiences other First Nations people and people of colour (POC) have within other colonial structures. People often conflate the two, lumping together the experiences of Aboriginal people with the experiences of black, POC and colonised First Nations people. But the distinction is so important. Grouping together the experiences of non-white people homogenises them and ignores countless tribal, cultural and linguistic differences.

By reproducing and redefining her perceived blackness, Destiny stared back, switching her position from subject to photographer and rewriting the relationship between contemporary Aboriginal people and the Koori kitsch that betrays them. The experiences that Aboriginal people have when encountering objects representing society’s views of them and their culture are complex to say the least.

A provocative and powerful work by Destiny and Virginia Fraser that deals with the same ideas is Abi see da classroom, 2006. To celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of Australian television, Destiny and Fraser were given unrestricted access to the ABC’s archive, possibly the most significant collection of film and television materials held in Australia. They were able to uncover an assortment of videos by searching for any keywords that started with ‘Aborigin-’ from the beginning of the ABC until the referendum year of 1967. In their installation, two TV screens play alongside each other, creating a mashup of noise and black-and-white moving images. The TV on the right shows Aboriginal kids attending school, reading, and playing musical instruments. The TV on left shows a series of clips featuring white people in various stages of blackface.

Though difficult to isolate, the audio for the screen on the right begins with a man singing, ‘Don’t you wish that you can be a little Aborigine? The boomerang he learns to throw, that is all he needs to know’. The screen on the left (the blackface mashup) starts with a clip from 5 November 1956 showing Julitha Walsh, a blonde woman with fair skin, blue eyes and a pearl necklace. There is nothing overtly racist about either clip. After speaking for a while to the host of the program — a middle-aged white guy in a suit holding a Siamese kitten — Walsh explains how she grew up with Aboriginal people in Western Australia. Suddenly she starts singing in Aboriginal language, switching between two cultural and linguistic vocal registers. Progressively the videos become more and more confronting:
a clip from a performance of Corroboree, the ballet composed by John Antill, shows a white man dancing in darkened body paint grasping a boomerang, set against a confronting montage of American minstrel blackfaces.

Encompassing the uncomfortable, the distasteful and the overtly racist, the images present extreme versions of how Aboriginal people have historically been depicted on TV, with a supercut showing the corruptibility of youth. The low-res black-and-white videos provide a dose of nostalgic racism that audiences accept from a safe distance. Problematic, offensive, overtly racist or, as some might say, ‘but it was a different time’. By placing the screens atemporally, Destiny and Fraser provoke audiences to consider the legacy that comes with seeing yourself grotesquely impersonated on TV.

Abi see da classroom is disturbingly cynical and stands in marked contrast with earlier works by Destiny in which she interrogated some of the same issues. In 1995, for her exhibition Welcome to Never Never, Destiny created a series of video-cassette jackets for made-up films in which blak actors are the stars. One of the wittiest posters is for a film ‘from the makers of I Spit on Your War Medals’, Peach Blossom’s Revenge. The poster (held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) shows a blak femme fatale (Peach Blossom) who, dressed in a peach-coloured satin cheongsam, drapes herself over an American flag while grasping a machine gun. By reimagining how Hollywood sees Aboriginal people, Destiny draws attention to the absence of positive Aboriginal representation on television, challenging audiences to question what it feels like to live in a world where the only depictions of yourself you see on television are offensive ones.

Destiny and Fraser took this idea to its natural conclusion in their installation Colour Blinded, 2005. Here, they produced six black-and-white photographs taken on orthochromatic film — a type of film that is sensitive to all visible light, except red. The photos, which feature various dolls in different social situations, are displayed in a room with two perspex cubes stuffed to the brim with golliwogs and white styrofoam balls. The perspex cubes, each titled Snow storm, make the golliwogs look as though they are suffocating. The work draws a connection between the white cube of the gallery and the way Aboriginal art is presented in this clinical, museological environment. Together, the photographs and perspex boxes form an installation that is lit with low-pressure sodium lamps, like the ones once used to light roads and freeways. The result is that the room pulsates with an intense yellow glow. The white cube is contaminated; the artists’ presence in the gallery subverts it in every sense. The audience’s skin takes on the same saturated hue as the walls and the photographs. We are literally ‘colour blinded’.

Two videos play inside the room. One features Destiny’s brother John Harding standing in front of a whiteboard. He turns to the camera and asks, ‘What are you looking at?’ The second video features Destiny’s niece, Sofii Harding. She is opening a postage tube filled with golliwogs; she turns to the camera and asks, ‘What are you doing here?’ The emphasis is on ‘you’. The audience is made to feel like an intruder who has accidentally stepped through a stage door and is interrupting a private performance. By addressing the audience directly, Destiny and Fraser break the fourth wall, confirming that the audience is not only present but has unwillingly become an active participant in the work. The intense glow of Colour Blinded is hostile, a direct contrast to the welcoming atmosphere generated through another of Destiny and Fraser’s installations, created for the NGV exhibition — a lounge room. One installation makes the white cube feel tense and radioactive, while the other makes it comfortable and domestic.

Over the past thirty years Destiny and Fraser have created a number of domestic interiors inside gallery settings. Their lounge-room interiors are always somewhat based on Destiny’s own home. Koori kitsch, photographs, posters, flags and various knick-knacks turn an otherwise ordinary-looking home into an identifiably blak space. No matter who you are, or what your own home looks like, the living room reads as a comfortable domestic place. When people are at home they are relaxed. They wear ‘trackie daks’, sit on the couch and maybe drink grog. But when you are at a gallery, everything is public and formal. The two experiences are irreconcilably different.

Throughout the exhibition there are a number of videos that play a collaborative film Destiny wrote and directed along with Michael Riley in 1999. The film, called I don’t wanna be a bludger is divided into chapters. In the first chapter, the main character, Delores (played by Destiny), wakes up and decides she wants to be an artist and get off the dole, because she doesn’t want to be a bludger anymore.66Bludger is an Australian slang word for someone living on government benefits. Destiny plays Delores as the ultimate troublemaker. She is the extreme, outrageous alter ego of Destiny. Versions of the character of Delores appears again in a number of Destiny’s works, including in her 1987 video collaboration with Lisa Bellear and Tommy Petersen, Home video, as well as in her 1992 video, also created with Michael Riley, Welcome to my Koori world. The performance is manic and frankly nothing short of comic genius.

Delores lacks empathy, and will do anything to avoid making life easier for the other characters. She uses acerbic, high-energy dialogue to take the piss out of the negative stereotypes that persist about Aboriginal people. How? By becoming the most extreme version of one. In the same way Destiny uses dollies and photographs to reflect and parody the world around her, Delores (the character) exposes uncomfortable stereotypes about Aboriginal people. In Home video we see Delores with her son, played by Destiny’s then twelve-year-old brother Tommy Petersen. The sketch starts with Tommy coming home from school hungry. Eventually Delores smacks Tommy for smoking, and Tommy is taken away and put in a hostel. Delores explains to her friend (played by Lisa Bellear), while down the pub, that

the government took him away and put him in a hostel full of Abos, [what for?], ’cos they reckon I am not a good mother and that. They said I’m always in the pub and I’m not looking after him. But he loves the pub.

Eventually the story takes a somewhat Shakespearean turn, with Delores stabbing her friend to death with a knife. On the run, she breaks into the hostel, reunites with Tommy, and together mother and son break into the safe and escape the city with plans to change their names and move to either Alice Springs or the Murray River. Seeing Delores and Tommy on the run, I can’t help but picture Destiny, that small child running all over Port Melbourne chasing ephemeral chalk arrows. From the small girl to the powerful and generous matriarch and capital ‘A’ Artist, Destiny has been true to her name. Her creative blak humour has illuminated the way for the next generation of blak artists.

Myles Russell-Cook, Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria.

This essay originally appears in the NGV exhibition publication DESTINY, 2020, Edited by Myles Russell-Cook with contributors, Published by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Notes

1

In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is a hypothesised relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional
response to such an object.

2

Destiny Deacon, quoted in Virginia Fraser & Destiny Deacon, ‘Not much of a soul to bare’, in Destiny Deacon: Walk & Don’t Look Blak, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2004, p. 110.

3

Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘4517.20 – Prisoners in Australia, 2017’, 8 Dec. 2017, ABS, Australian Government, accessed 23 Sep. 2019.

4

Alicia Maule, ‘#BlackBehindBars: sparking a conversation on the black wrongful conviction experience in the US’, 4 Feb. 2019, The Innocence Project, accessed 23 Sep. 2019.

5

Lisa Bellear, Dreaming in Urban Areas, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1996, pp. 9, 71.

6

Bludger is an Australian slang word for someone living on government benefits.