One of Rea’s earliest memories is of looking through family photographs that her mother kept in a biscuit tin. The connections between memory and photography, and between personal experience and political history are central to Rea’s work as a digital media and installation artist. She layers text, image and colour to explore the representation of the black body and, in particular, the black female body. Words and sentences are often an important component of her practice, through which she traces how attitudes to race are embedded in language itself. Rea’s use of pop culture references and her acute awareness of how images circulate in the mass media enhance the impact of her work.
The colours and text that Rea has chosen to use in the series Highly coloured – my life is coloured by my colour I–VI, 1994, are coded references to the artist’s childhood memories. Rea has written about these works:
‘In each [image] I am revealed in different ways … The red is the gun at my head because that is how you feel when you are frustrated, angry and isolated. Purple and yellow are my mother’s favourite colours … [Every] house we went into, [Mum] always painted the kitchen purple and yellow. I gave the yellow colour to my Uncle, who died in custody… I [put] yellow roses on his grave. He used to go and get [vouchers] from St Vinny’s to feed and clothe us. The blue and green is about growing up … the struggles and insecurity, which is the text and not separate from the image … “Green, I wish I could be seen”.’
The central image is a life-size photograph of the artist herself, with her face obscured by a camera as she looks back at the audience through a lens. Rea’s self-representation turns the tables on the viewer, causing us to question both the subject and object of this work. The history of ethnographic and anthropological observation of Aboriginal people as ‘other’, photographed as the passive subject of the Western gaze, is disrupted by denying the desire to see the face in this portrait and by including the process – the image of the camera – in the final work. The camera implicates the viewer as the subject of the work as much as the artist herself, making clear our role in constructing meaning around this image.
Wayne Tunnicliffe in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014