Tony Albert is a contemporary artist whose practice observes the representation of Indigenous Australian’s in society using a broad range of art forms. Growing up primarily in Brisbane, Tony now works from his studio in Sydney. His work has been displayed in galleries across Australia and was most recently featured in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. Tony was the recipient of the People’s Choice Award in the 2018 KWM Contemporary First Nations Art Prize and we spoke to him about his recent work and what inspires him in his practice.
Your work always carries a strong message, often depicting Aboriginal people through a colonialist lens. Can you talk about where you draw inspiration to create a new piece?
Inspiration for me comes from day to day life, so I really try to stay informed about what is happening in our communities. More often than not I am inspired by an experience or something topical that has affected me and given me an opportunity to give that particular story a voice through art. So ultimately it is my environment - where I live and my day to day interactions.
You work with a variety of mediums – video, glass, photography – what keeps you trying new things and not just working with materials you are familiar with?
I feel that you can never learn or have too much experience and sometimes there are natural interconnections between different mediums. I also look at my art as conceptually based and don't necessarily focus on the mode of delivery, so I don't focus on photos, painting or making video…. I think about what I want to say in my work and what medium will deliver the best outcome.
Sometimes I work with practitioners or people who are experts in a different field and it’s for the sake of the artwork and what I believe will best portray what I am trying to say.
Your most recent exhibition, ‘Duty of Care’, features art made from stained glass. How did that particular opportunity come about and why the use of glass?
This opportunity came out of a residency at the Canberra Glassworks which I was invited to complete. Before starting the residency, I had a long think about why I would do a residency at a glassworks and what glass would bring to my work. I wanted to understand the fragility of glass and how that fragility could be woven into my practice.
While this was happening, I was asked to be a part of the 2020 Biennale of Sydney by the Director, Brook Andrew. I started looking at some of the different sites where the Biennale was being held and found the National Art School has an amazing stained-glass window in the centre of its precinct called the Prodigal Son. All these things just connected and intertwined for me and that's where the inspiration to work with stained glass came from.
You mentioned earlier using the right medium to best communicate your message. What was it that came first for you in becoming an artist - the love of art of your desire to tell a story?
Well for me it was always a love for art, I was a very artistic child. It wasn’t until high school when I came across artists such as Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt that art become more than just a pretty picture.
Art has the power to say something, to tell a story and challenge ideas and discovering that was when I think I understood the true power of art. I began to recognise the incredible stories attached to it and its role as a vessel for telling those stories. So while initially it did come from a love of just art it was when I understood the power behind it that I was compelled to pursue it as a career.
Do you see Art Awards, such as KWM’s and others, playing an important role in supporting Indigenous art and sharing it within the commercial and business community?
Absolutely. And that role is becoming more and more important as philanthropy within the arts changes and moves. Once upon a time, artists could just rely solely on institutions to purchase their work and sustain a career but now artists really rely on private support as well.
As artists we look for opportunities to break into or communicate with communities that may not be influenced by art day to day. It is my belief that our lives can be creative in any capacity - it stimulates growth and challenges ideas. At the end of that day I see artists as problem solvers.
Introducing art into any workplace is also really important and is something that benefits the artists as well the people who get to experience it. That may just be walking past it every day or engaging with it more deeply and starting to understand some of the issues and critiques within the work. I really applaud any business that goes out of their way to provide a creatively engaged workplace.
The arts community has been impacted significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic, what have the last few months changed for you and your plans this year?
I am usually based in Sydney, but I have spent the past few months in Brisbane and am still in Brisbane now. I came up to support family and to help take care of my sister’s daughter as my sister is an essential worker. Working without my studio I have had to adapt to using minimal materials but as an artist I think I was quite used to isolation and being able to work outside of the confines of a normal working environment.
It is true that a lot of artists have been impacted pretty significantly throughout this time. As an industry the arts doesn’t fit within the guidelines and principles of a normal workplace and doesn't usually provide a weekly pay check. That is another reason why being supported by a variety of philanthropic avenues is really important – it offers another way for artists to continue to get by and to keep producing.
Acknowledging the terrible impact of COVID-19 - is there anything positive you have taken away from the past few months?
I think this time has given people an opportunity to reflect; to look at our lifestyles and realise what can be achieved without having to travel or leave the home. A big thing for me too is seeing how fast nature can heal itself when there is no human intervention. Climate change is such a huge issue and something that is increasingly important in my work and for me holistically. It brings a lot of hope that what needs to be done to improve how we look after our environment can actually be done – so I am definitely optimistic about that.
After the recent gallery closures, your latest exhibition is now open at Canberra Glassworks? What will be next for you?
I am always working on parallel exhibitions or ideas or shows. I think it’s important as an artist not to wait for an opportunity to come to you but to create your own opportunity. So even if I am not working toward a specific show, in my mind I am working towards something. I am taking this opportunity to research a few ideas further and to possibly work towards a new show next year…but having said that I have no idea what it is yet!