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Artist profile: Tony Albert

Artist Profile 

Tony Albert - interviewed by Oli Watts 

With Artbank, the focus on emerging artists and the stages of artists’ growth within the curatorial rationale gives Artbank a chance to buy things from a particular series or at a point where an artist makes a development in their practice. For example, I haven’t really continued on with the Optimism series, but I look back and they’re little rare gems for me. When you look back at the collection there are one-offs and examples of when an artist was experimenting with something, particularly early in their career, which is what I think makes the collection so important in its entirety.

What is your relationship to Artbank?

I was purchased in the Artbank collection while I was an emerging artist, which was a really wonderful opportunity for me at that time and is how I became aware that Artbank existed.

Do you remember when your work was purchased and where Artbank purchased the work?

It was the Optimism series so that would have been while I was still living in Brisbane. It was really great for me because it coincided with the Queensland Art Gallery exhibition called Optimism, which was held in 2008. I had made the work for the exhibition, but the gallery was really interested in including one of the more ephemera based works I was making at the time. The work didn’t end up where I intended it to, but I’m really glad it was able to get a voice through a different avenue. It was a really important and special work for me because I was working with my family on it. The work became really quite successful in getting people to understand the importance of using cultural objects in everyday life.

Did your relationship with Artbank continue after that acquisition?

Optimism is the only work in the Artbank Collection, but through that initial connection I was able to establish a relationship with Artbank curators that have come since, which has been really nice. They identify with me through that work or through my association with the collection, which is really wonderful – how a collection continues to bring people together long after people come and go.

The Artbank Collection is a broad and even eccentric collection, how would you characterise your own work and what is the importance of your work to the collection?

With Artbank, the focus on emerging artists and the stages of artists’ growth within the curatorial rationale gives Artbank a chance to buy things from a particular series or at a point where an artist makes a development in their practice. For example, I haven’t really continued on with the Optimism series, but I look back and they’re little rare gems for me. When you look back at the collection there are one-offs and examples of when an artist was experimenting with something, particularly early in their career, which is what I think makes the collection so important in its entirety.

Did it mean anything to you to be part of a national collection at that time?

Absolutely! It was everything for me. 2008 was also the first year I sold a piece to the Art Gallery of NSW (Head Hunter, 2007) and for any artist, being part of a national collection gives immense validation. It is like the pinnacle of what you’re looking for. At that point in my career, the kind of work that I was doing and my contemporaries were doing was challenging and we had to form groups like proppaNOW just to get our voices heard. So when that is reciprocated through institutional recognition you feel like, they are listening to what we’re saying and they are willing to take this work that questions in some cases that authority or way of thinking that questions the validity of us as people. I think this is incredibly important and for me; at that time it was life changing.

How does your work relate to Australian stories, how does it mediate between the local, the personal and the national?

The figure in Optimism is my cousin, Ethan and at that point he had spent his whole life in a small country town near where I was born, where I call home. It’s imperative for me in the messaging of Optimism to show that art has made such a huge impact on my life and what I’ve got to do because of it. Each one of those photos was taken in a 3km radius of where I was living in Brisbane, so we literally walked to every location. It was really important to me to not only show members of my family what I do and how I do it, but also to show that art is not hard and art doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Those are really holistic principles for me as an artist, I always go back to that point and think of what I had at my disposal to make art – and it was not a lot at all – and that never impacted on my ability to make art. That is really important to me.

Where did the baskets in the work come from?

That’s actually my Aunty’s basket in the photo that she made for me. Jarwun baskets are so rare and hard to make, they take so much time and effort and probably still don’t have the market value they deserve, like a lot of fibre works or weaving works. We don’t actually understand the time and effort that goes into making them, even just collecting and gathering and then making them, unfortunately it’s a real dying art form. But there are still these amazing people within our communities that are making them to pass on cultural knowledge, it’s not about them selling as artworks, it’s about gifting to family, about teaching young ones the methodology behind it, how to continue to weave that way. It is a basket that is unique to the rainforest of north Queensland, nowhere else in the world are baskets made with that design, so it is something that is really special. I have a small collection of them, which I treasure greatly because they are made by my family. The ingenuity of traditional weaving is exceptional; it challenges all thoughts and stereotypes about what Aboriginal culture was. It was so sophisticated and advanced and you only have to look at those baskets to understand the incredible intuitive nature of the way in which people lived in Australia.  

Artbank works travel widely domestically and internationally, does your work respond to this concept of accessibility? 

I hope so! I really look at not only my work, but me as an artist, as that vessel or conduit between two different kinds of people and the knowledge that is spread between is just closing in that divide between who we are as people. It’s about understanding different methodologies, ways of living, differences in life. For me equality exists through the acceptance of difference, it’s about understanding different people. The more breadth and opportunity the work has to be shown, the smaller that divide gets and that’s imperative to us as people, that we have the opportunity to understand each other rather than use those differences as a divide.

Artbank prides itself on a diverse and inclusive collection. Do you feel your work responds to this issue and if so, how?

Within the language of art, in particular Aboriginal art, there was this terminology of Indigenous and urban and for me, the differences, even for us as Aboriginal people, that our work brings on a wall whether it be through medium or theme or the stories we’re telling, they actually don’t divide us, they actually bring us all closer together. It’s really important for all art, in the curation of contemporary art, that international art sits with Australian art, which sits with Aboriginal art and when all those different voices are added to the same conversation it becomes much more important and inclusive. It becomes a place where problems can be resolved. That is how I see art and artists, as problem solvers, they really pull apart ideas and then put them back together and it’s through that process we find all these other little nuances, that’s what I really love about art.

What is your favourite artwork in the collection?

I’m definitely going to choose a Gordon Bennett – the profound effect someone’s work like Gordon had on me as a teenager, that feeling of isolation that I felt, it was like he reached inside, it was like he was making work that came from me. That is the power of someone like Gordon and that’s why for me his work is so important and in some, possibly even the international realm, it’s still not where it should be, he was a truly profound artist. I don’t think I would be the person or the artist I am today without the influence he had on me, particularly as a teenager, so anything I can do that helps to sincerely portray how grateful I am for him to be part of my life, it’s an honour to do so. It was actually the first exhibition I ever went to, where I literally went and caught the bus and was wondering ‘what do you wear to an opening?’ There is something so intrinsic to the human condition in Gordon’s work, non-Indigenous people actually understand and are drawn to his work and the idea of identity and to me that is really powerful, when you can connect through those issues to everyone.

Gordon Bennett Explorer II, 1991 Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas

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Gordon Bennett
Explorer II, 1991
Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas

Image: Tony Albert, photo Steed Photography.