Highly Coloured: My Life Is Coloured By My Colour
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 Tunnicliff in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004
© Art Gallery of New South Wales
computer-generated photograph on Perspex
185.0 x 58.5 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Purchased with funds provided by the Young Friends of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 1994
© r e a
Where the work was made
Shown in 4 exhibitions
Gamarada, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Nov 1996–16 Feb 1997
Half light: portraits from black Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 21 Nov 2008–22 Feb 2009
Home: Aboriginal Art from NSW, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 09 Jun 2012–02 Dec 2012
From Where I Stand, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 13 Apr 2019–14 Jul 2019
Referenced in 13 publications
Liz Ashburn, World art: the magazine of contemporary visual arts, 'Rea is for resistance', pg. 12-14, Melbourne, 1996, 12 (colour illus.), 13-14.
Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art', pg. 208-241, Sydney, 1999, 237 (colour illus.).
Hetti Perkins, Look: 1953-2003 celebrating 50 years, 'When the everyday becomes extraordinary: AGS help acceptance of young urban indigenous artists', pg. 51-53, Sydney, May 2003, 52.
Hetti Perkins and Ken Watson, Aboriginal art collections: highlights from Australia's public museums and galleries, 'Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney', pg. 40-45, Sydney, 2001, 44-45 (colour illus.). plate no. 26
Laura Pia, Look, 'Contempo: Beats...fast', pg 23-24, Sydney, Jun 2008, 23 (colour illus.). Note: colour illustration is of "Red there's a gun at my head"
Jane Somerville, Look, 'Where to now, Contempo?', pg.28-31, Sydney, Jul 2007, 29.
Wayne Tunnicliff, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Rea', pg. 124, Sydney, 2004, 124 (colour illus.), 125 (colour illus., detail).
Judith White, Look, 'The country within', pg. 8-9, Melbourne, Oct 1999, 9 (colour illus.).
Sydney Star Observer, 'Body of work', pg. 15, Sydney, 28 Aug 1997, 15.
Gamarada, Sydney, 1996, 66, 67 (colour illus.).
Half light: Portraits from black Australia, 'r e a', pg. 104-109, Sydney, 2008, 108-109 (colour illus.).
Yiribana: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, Sydney, 1994, 130, 131 (colour illus.), 138-39. plate no. 64
Yiribana, Sydney, 1994, 17 (colour illus.), 18.