Destiny Deacon’s photography is a world of absurdity, humour, and edgy counterculture and this exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is a compact but comprehensive retrospective of her fifteen-year career. The black dolls reappear throughout, uncannily animated and expressive, appearing innocent in some pictures and strangely knowing and accusatory in others. The antithesis of Barbie, who is devoid of any pathos, these frumpy dolls force us to confront the reality of black minority culture in urban Australia.
Deacon became involved in art so as to reclaim the portrayal of aborigines that has until recently been monopolized by white people. This intent is highlighted at the end of the show by a glass case full of “white Australia’s aboriginal artefacts”. Among some harmless, bland pieces of souvenir tat is one truly grotesque depiction: a dinner tray painted with a cartoon of a kangaroo gleefully bashing an aborigine over the back of the head with a boomerang. The aborigine is reeling forward, his stunned face drawn like a monkey – stupid, the object of ridicule. It’s surely the most callous, vindictive consumer item anyone could imagine. The other objects in the case are an assortment of condescending portrayals of black people: when not the subject of outright mockery, the men are noble warriors and the women are exoticized, sexualized creatures.
However, the contrast of these objects accumulated from everyday life and Decon’s fantastical work on the walls made me question more strongly what it is she is trying to achieve. In a limited sense, she appears to have fulfilled her original aim: she has certainly taken an uncompromising command of the portrayal of black people oppressed by whites. The question is, where does she go from here? Being a white person from Britain and not having been to Australia, I am extremely wary of criticizing an aborigine’s understanding of the racial tensions that exist in Australian society (after all, it was the British who started the problem). However, while looking at this show I felt there is there is the strong risk that she could run out of ideas, become repetitive and lose the momentum required to make a lasting difference for aboriginal rights.
Her video works, made in collaboration with Fraser and Fiona Hall, lack the subtlety of her photographs. One work entitled “How low can you go?” shows a white foot treading a miserable, sodden gollywog into a shower-room floor, only later to be hung up to dry on a clothesline, chillingly reminiscent of the lynchings that took place in segregated America in the not-so-distant past. The video plays to the soundtrack of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, the rugby anthem which bandies between England and Australia from one World Cup to the next. It remains a successful work in that it is incredibly painful to watch, and the juxtaposition of the title with the song lyrics is a clever and dark twist, and yet the symbolism of the white foot treading on a black figure is irritatingly obvious.
There is a fine line between exploring one’s ancestry and its place as an oppressed minority in an urban environment, and becoming a repetitious martyr for one’s only cause. Fifteen years is still relatively early in an artist’s career, so it remains to be seen how Deacon will go on to develop her work. The final section of the show features photographs and an installation which relate to the War on Terror: baby dolls dressed in camouflage are a frightening premonition of a draft era which may be closer than we imagine, when children are earmarked for a death on the battlefield before they have even been born. Broadening her scope to include white man’s imperialistic ventures in other lands would be a sad but natural next step for Deacon to take.