Destiny Deacon, Aboriginal Artist Who Laughed in the Face of Racism, Dies at 67
Destiny Deacon, Aboriginal Artist Who Laughed in the Face of Racism, Dies at 67

Aboriginal readers are warned that this article includes the name of a dead person.

Destiny Deacon, an Aboriginal artist who drew out forms of racism that are endemic to Australian society, often with a heavy dose of humor, has died at 67. Her death was announced on Friday by her gallery, the Paddington-based Roslyn Oxley9, which did not state a cause.

A descendant of the KuKu and Erub/Mer people, Deacon used her art to parody stereotypes used to subjugate Indigenous people like herself. Although her photographs and installations showed up frequently in international biennials, she was not fond of using art jargon to discuss them.

Among those biennials is the current Biennale of Sydney, where she is showing Blak Bay (2023–24), photographs of Black and Brown dolls that she posed for her camera. The dolls belong to her collection of paraphernalia that she called “Koori kitsch”: objects depicting Aboriginal people meant for mass consumption.

“They sort of represent us as people, because white Australia didn’t come to terms with us as people,” she told the Guardian in 2020, adding that the dolls are “objects, and that’s the way that white Australia saw us: the flora, the fauna, and the objects. And I just thought, well, they’ve just as much to say.”

Deacon’s work also figured in Okwui Enwezor’s trailblazing 2002 edition of Documenta, the art festival that takes place once every five years in Kassel, Germany, as well as in the 2023 edition of Sharjah Biennial, which was based on a concept conceived by Enwezor before he died. She also was featured in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 2008 Biennale of Sydney.

Destiny Deacon’s work at the current Biennale of Sydney.

Born in 1957 in Mayborough, Queensland, Deacon was based in Melbourne for much of her career. She started out as a radio host and a TV screenwriter, and taught herself art later on.

During the ’90s, Deacon began shooting Polaroids of her dolls and her friends, including Aboriginal artist Richard Bell and Goenpul poet Lisa Bellear. She went on to produce conceptual artworks such as Colour Blinded (2005), an installation in which a room is lit a shade of yellow that causes most viewers’ skin tones to look similar. Works such as those were featured in her 2020 retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria.

“Destiny’s work, known for its witty and incisive exploration of Indigenous identity, political activism, and cultural resilience, has left an indelible mark on the Australian art landscape and beyond,” Roslyn Oxley9 wrote in a statement posted to Instagram.

In discussing many of her works, Deacon often used the made-up word “Blak,” a term that alluded to the one enlisted by colonialists to describe Aboriginal people, minus a letter. Doing so, she said, was meant to refute the racism implied within that word.

“I’m a political person,” Deacon told the Guardian. “Most artists are. We have to be political, especially Indigenous artists.”

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